Monday, October 7, 2013

October is Pepper Month

For most sports fans, October is firmly associated with the baseball playoffs. I know that football dominates the US sports scene today (and many might respond "mid-season" if you asked a random person on the street to free associate "October" with "sports") but for my generation (I'll be the subject of a Beatles song later this month), it's the dramatic culmination of 162 games of major league baseball.

In turn, baseball is associated with a game called "pepper," which is a fielding drill where a batter with a bucket of balls gives practice to an array of players standing a mere 20 feet away and trying to snare line drives and sharp grounders without losing their teeth. Pepper is a game that showcases what all major league players have in common (with the exception of some pitchers): off the chart reflexes. While it's an advantage to be fast (think Lou Brock, Vince Coleman, and Ricky Henderson), you have to be quick to respond effectively to 90+ mph fastballs coming back at you with spin and attitude—all with thousands in the stands expecting you to catch the damn thing, or be a blooper highlight on the 10 pm news.

While it's true that I'm a die-hard baseball fan—and I love October because it's playoff time—today I'm penning a paean to a different association I have between October and pepper.

[As a math major, I note with amusement how the transitive property does not apply to personal associations. Thus, if

I associate A with B, and B with C, yet when you ask me about A & C, I think "condiment"; not "baseball." Life is quirky that way.]

I got home from a five-week road trip late Tuesday (Oct 1), and the very next day I was in the kitchen dicing peppers (both hot and sweet) in preparation for making one of Sandhill's signature condiments: pepper relish. We make it in two flavors: medium hot and really hot. The former is an equal mix of sweet peppers and hot; the latter is hot only.

(As experienced fair vendors, we learned early on that it's smart to have something on the table that's as hot as you can make it, because it lubricates conversation with would-be customers. Many people, upon discovering a jar of hot pepper relish, find it irresistible to tell us how much they can't stand things that are spicy hot. While they may (or may not) have an Uncle Elmer who's a regular fire-eater and can't get enough of the stuff, they want to make sure that we know that they wouldn't dare put something that hot in mouth. In these situations we calmly assure the customer that it's a good idea then that they don't buy our hot pepper relish, while firmly steering them toward the plethora of less incendiary options available among our display.

That said, there is also an important subset of the fair going population that is definitely on the lookout for taste bud titillating opportunities that are high on the Scoville scale. And for these stalwarts (who may actually have no taste buds left after a lifetime of culinary machismo), our full-strength concoction is both a challenge and delight. Just watching someone taste test our hot pepper relish can draw a crowd. And where there's a crowd, there are sales.)

There's nothing fancy to the recipe. We simply boil down diced peppers in a mixture of honey, vinegar, and salt. While it's important that the peppers be ripe (to minimize bitterness—we're looking for sweet and spicy), the challenging part of this operation is all the tedious dicing (plus you have to wear protective latex gloves when working with the jalapeños or be willing to subject your hands to pepper burn for the next 48 hours—during which you definitely want to abstain from lovemaking), and judging closely the syrupy concoction as it nears the right consistency (if you pull it too soon, the product is runny; if you wait too long, it'll burn in the pot, and may become so thick that you have dig it out of the jar with a nut pick).

Sandhill has been making signature condiments for the last couple decades, during which time they have become a nice augmentation to our product table at fairs (I'll be in Lawrence KS this coming weekend, at the Mother Earth News Fair; the following weekend I'll be in Hannibal MO for the Historic Folklife Festival). Somewhat by accident I've become the main guy cutting up in the kitchen when it comes to condiments. (It's funny what niches we fall into over time.) My specialties include the aforementioned pepper relish, tomatillo salsa, gooseberry chutney, mushroom ketchup, and barbecue sauce (where our sorghum features prominently).

This year we had a bumper crop of hot peppers and I've been slicing and dicing my way through bucket after bucket the last six days, trying to get 'em all into jars before the weekend.

In reflecting on the pace at which the peppers are coming at me, this whole conversation comes full circle. I realize that I'm fielding jalapeños in much the same manner as a ball player handling hot shots in a game of pepper—I have to be sharply focused to deftly cut up each zippy little jobber without nicking my glove or fingers, plop them in the pot, and move onto the next pepper. ("Hey, batter, batter…")

Not surprisingly, I try to time my kitchen sessions so that I can relish listening to playoff games on the radio while my knife flashes on the counter and the pot bubbles on the stove. For most baseball aficionados, the off-season winter months are referred to as the "hot stove league"; for me, however, the hot stove league of pepper season is right now.

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