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Kudzu & Clay: Executive Roulette

A while back I used to work with a group of fellows that liked to go out to eat lunch at least a few times a week. While it wasn’t the best decision financially or for my waistline, there is something to be said for sharing a meal with your coworkers. You learn about the latest work gossip. You get tidbits of personal information that help you flesh out the way you envision their home life. You can even find out things that would be potentially helpful if you ever needed to blackmail them to make yourself look better. I’m joking about that one, sort of, but it is nice to break bread with people who you probably wouldn’t otherwise be grouped with unless you were all not getting paid or going through the same trauma.

The particular group of fellows I am talking about here happened to be all like-minded individuals so there was not any awkwardness. The only thing that set us apart was income and seniority. I happened to be at the bottom of the totem pole. The others were my boss, my boss’s boss, and my boss’s boss’s boss. A lot of bosses at a table to say the least.

We had our usual places to go, and one of these restaurants happened to be a Mexican place off of Buford Highway in Atlanta. If you have never had the luxury of taking a sampling of the culinary offerings of Buford Highway you are missing out. There is no reason to travel anywhere because anything you could ever want, from any place in the world, maybe the universe, is on this stretch of land. The Mexican cuisine in particular is amazing.

When we would go to this restaurant one of the bosses would order a side dish called chiles toreados. Chiles toreados are just jalapeno peppers that have been thrown onto a red hot skillet with a little oil so the skin boils up, then dusted with some salt and lime. Nothing fancy.

When the chiles would come out a sort of challenge would start. One boss would eat one and everyone would watch and see what would happen. Either they were so hot the person would start crying or they were hot and the person was able to bluff. Then the next person would eat one and so on and so on. Everyone always ended up crying and breathing slowly staring into space to try and meditate the pain away.

When it was my time to eat this pepper I always declined because I didn’t want to make a fool out of myself in front of my superiors. In this world of everything hot, jalapenos are at the bottom of the list. They are an entry-level pepper—at best—for a professional hot pepper eater, but they still made these guys cry. And they were the kind of guys that grow ghost peppers for fun.

Each time we went to this restaurant and this game of roulette went on I knew that at some point I was going to have to at least try or else be thought less of. Maybe they wouldn’t think less of me, but when you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy trying to climb up you want to do everything you can to be impressive. Part of me thought the fact that I’d never been promoted had something to do with my hesitation to play this silly game. I was scared. I did not want to cry. I did not want to sweat. I didn’t want to come out of the restaurant with pit stains and a puddle in the back of my pants and have to get in one of these guys’ executive vehicles with cooling leather seats. “Great. Chris short-circuited the leather cooling system.”

I decided my best course of action was to start training. That’s what professional eaters do. I went down to the grocery store and bought a few peppers. I grilled them up with salt and lime, closed my eyes, and swallowed. Nothing happened. They were sweet. Tender. Delicious.

The next day I went back to the grocery store. I wanted a real challenge so I bought a bag of jalapenos. I grilled them up with salt and lime. Opened wide and swallowed. The first one was excellent. Candy-like. I took the other. Chewed it up, savored it for a second, and swallowed.

Immediately I started to sweat. My tongue started producing a liter of saliva a second. I could barely breathe. This was the hottest thing I have ever put in my mouth. I ran in for some cold milk. Nothing. Fire. I got some yogurt. Fire. I had to sit down and stare into space, breathe slowly. Still fire. I believe I went into actual shock. Finally, the pain started dissipating but I was so weak I had to lie down. The rest of the peppers turned to ash on the grill.

I was not aware of this but jalapenos can differ from hotness, not just from plant to plant, but on the actual plant itself. You can have a single plant where one pepper is mild, one is sweet, and one is radioactive. Apparently, I picked the one from Chernobyl, and that evening I got to feel it moving through my small intestine, inch by inch, then through my large intestine. Then a dramatic crescendo of pain, different but no less painful than any other moment of the journey.

There are experiences we have in life that rewire something in our brain. If you grab the handle of a hot cast-iron skillet, chances are you will never do that again. If you weed eat and hit a rock into your eye, you’re probably not going to do it again without safety glasses. For me, I will never chew and swallow a whole jalapeno pepper again in my life. Ever.

I am fairly certain that I will end up being put in this scenario sometime in the future. I will be at lunch with the executives and some junior-level kid will take the chile challenge. He will then end up being my boss and push me from the bottom all the way into the dirt. That’s fine, because now I know why they have those cooling leather seats, and I’ll never need them.

Chris Walter is a writer, artist who published his first book, “Southern Glitter”. Find more at kudzuandclay.com.

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