Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Red Hot Chili Peppers of Jurassic Park

A part of the former Corregidor Aviary lies a few hundred yards behind our house – the former aviary caretaker’s residence – and down a steep hill. The very large flying-cage frames and some of the netting remain. We’re not sure how long it was in use or why it was closed – probably due to damage from a typhoon – but it looks like a scene from one of the Jurassic Park sequels in which they go back and see the remains, so we call it Jurassic Park. The aviary was still open in 2002 when Steve and his sister Paula, and then the two of us in 2003, visited the island, but had been shut down before we returned in 2006.

When we walked down the pathway soon after arriving here in 2008, we discovered some small red pepper plants. The peppers are no more than an inch long when ripe and really pack a punch. Because of our fondness for spicy-hot foods, we transplanted a couple of plants behind our house.

Most Filipino food is not served spicy hot, although there is one area south of here called Bicol where the people enjoy that type of food. These particular peppers, sili labuyo (wild chili peppers), are killers if you try to eat them alone and raw. However, they add a very nice heat to many foods. Another way to use the peppers is preserving them in a jar of vinegar. You can then sprinkle the spiced vinegar on your foods, or remove a few and add them to your vittles.

We want to caution any of you who might happen upon sili labuyo that the juice is very potent. The first thing you absolutely must do after handling is to scrub your hands with soap at least twice. Anyone who has forgotten to immediately wash his hands, and has subsequently touched his eyes or nose, knows exactly what we are talking about. Picking peppers has even caused Steve to walk with a temporary limp on occasion.

Whenever Steve thinks of hot foods he recalls his first encounter, which was in his mother’s home town of Virginia, Minnesota, at his grandparents’ house. Steve’s family moved into this house in 1968 after his grandmother died. There was a bar/restaurant one block up the hill on 13th St North called Chuck-Els. They sold something called “South Americans.” As best Steve can remember, it was a jar of spicy tomato sauce with onions, garlic, and hot peppers. He thinks it was even served on Fridays, meaning it was meatless. It seemed incredibly hot, and it’s possible it was, but it’s also possible that it only seemed so at the time because he was not used to spicy food. The only way he recalls it being served was as a sauce over bread, essentially a semi-wet sandwich.

What seems so odd about this is that Steve never met anyone in Virginia who liked hot food. Virginia, in the heart of the Mesabi Iron Range, is less than 45 miles as the crow flies from Canada, and is in the coldest area in the 48 States, located between International (aka Frostbite) Falls and Embarrass, one or the other of which makes the national weather news for being the coldest spot in the Lower 48 at least 30 times a year. Virginia was once a sawmill and mining town. The largest white pine forest in the country is lone since gone, but Minntac, one of the largest iron ore mines in the world, is in Mt. Iron, just few miles west of Virginia. The people who settled the area to work the logging camps and iron ore mines were ethnically Scandinavians, Italians, and Slavs, especially Slovenians and Croatians, none of whom are known for their love of spicy foods.

Steve’s mother Mary Anne used to be in a couple of bowling leagues, and he would sometimes go down to watch. Often the gals would bring finger foods for everyone to munch on. Someone once brought nacho chips and mild salsa to the bowling alley. The salsa was so mild, in fact, that Steve, still not a spicy food lover, thought it no hotter than ketchup. He can remember one of his mom’s teammates taking a bite, and then begin to jump up and down while waving both hands at her tongue, her mouth apparently emitting invisible flames, and gasping, “Water, water, WATERRRRRRRRR!” Suffice it to say that if the average Iron Ranger so much as licked one of these hot peppers he would die, or maybe only wish he had.

Steve’s father, originally from Duluth which is 60 miles south of Virginia, disliked ketchup and mustard, and used margarine for his condiment of choice. He ate salad with plain oil-and-vinegar dressing, seasoned with salt and a little black pepper.

Steve’s mother, Mary Anne, still lives in that same house in which she was born and has lived for most of her life. Any weather over 75 degrees Fahrenheit and she is miserable. It is not unheard of for overnight temperatures in Virginia to drop to 40 below zero in the winter, Fahrenheit or Celsius, take your pick. Spit can freeze before it hits the ground. We sometimes hear island folk complain how cold it is here at a breezy 82 degrees. There is no way to explain to Filipinos or others who have never in their lives felt temperatures below 70 degrees what cold weather really feels like.

This particular winter is especially cold and snowy, and we can’t say we miss it in the least.

Mary Anne sent the following poem to us:


It's winter in Minnesota
And the gentle breezes blow
Seventy miles an hour
At thirty-five below.

Oh, how I love Minnesota
When the snow's up to your butt
You take a breath of winter
And your nose gets frozen shut.

Yes, the weather here is wonderful
So I guess I'll hang around
I could never leave Minnesota
I'm frozen to the ground!

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