By Blake Baxter
Today, I learned that there is a scale that measures the spiciness of peppers. It’s called the Scoville Scale, a friend told me and a Google search confirmed.
A recipe website said it that was named after a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville who invented the scale in 1912 to measure chemical compounds — capsaicinoids — that trigger the familiar burning sensation. Normally, I’d cite my source here, but I’m off the clock and ready for bed. I don’t have a lot of time for research; I only have just enough to get this story on the page.
These days, my grasp on time feels tenuous at best, so for simplicity’s sake, let’s say it began on Christmas Eve, when I received a recipe book from the love of my life.
Cooking has never been my strong suit, but over the past few months of living together, I’d made real strides. Our cooking adventures together had made for fine bonding experiences and my solo pursuits were the mini-confidence boosters I’d been lacking all this time. It was the perfect gift.
The first few weeks I dabbled with the new recipes, playing around with different variations of fried rice and even trying out cauliflower mac and cheese. Both turned out pretty well, but I wanted to try something more ambitious.
My girlfriend, Marissa, and I decided that the answer was spicy butternut squash soup with gremolata.
The picture in the book looked positively divine — a thick, creamy orange broth with a mix of nuts, breadcrumbs, lemon zest and cilantro on top. There were a lot of ingredients and a decent number of steps, but I wouldn’t let it deter me.
We picked up the butternut squash a week ago at Walmart. Round and elongated, it cut an intimidating figure. This is going to be a lot of work, isn’t it? I asked. Yes, but it’ll be worth it, she answered.
We didn’t have time to attack the culinary project that weekend, but the following one, Marissa made me a grocery list and I dutifully retrieved the necessary ingredients at our local Hy-Vee.
When I returned, however, I was disappointed to learn that there were items missing from the list. Did you double-check the recipe before you left? she asked. No, why would I do that? I said in response. To make sure we didn’t miss anything, she said. I thought that was the point of having a list! I said, a little exasperated.
It was okay, though. It was only Sunday. Monday was Martin Luther King Jr. Day, so we both had the day off. We still had a chance to pull this off.
Early that evening, I went back to the store to get the remaining items that we needed, namely a new butternut squash because the old one was looking a little past its prime, along with a 28 oz. can of peeled tomatoes.
The recipe only calls for 15 oz., but they only had 14.5 cans, so I picked up these to make sure we had enough, I told her proudly. Good call, she said, probably humoring me a bit. She was already hard at work, slicing up and unseeding the first squash so we could have something to snack on while we worked. Our kitchen table was already filled with jars and bowls and cutting tables from other home projects in progress, and it was clear to me it was only going to get messier from there.
In addition to zesting a lemon for our soup garnish, Marissa had taken a vegetable peeler to pull off the top layer of the peel so she could make a strong lemon tea. But it wasn’t intended for ingesting; rather, it was part of a recipe to a cleaning solution for wood surfaces.
What the am I talking about now? Well, this one goes back to Christmas, too, actually. Back when we were opening presents and celebrating the holiday season, a festive fir wreath hung over our curved stairway. And as the calendar creeped closer to February than December, Marissa decided that it needed it go. Not in the garbage, though. That would be wasteful. Where others saw trash, she saw opportunity, and I love that about her.
So, while I was probably mindlessly scrolling Twitter earlier that day, getting outraged over bad opinions, bad faith and bad things I had no control over, she was painstakingly stripping the wreath of its needles on a piece of cardboard, taking those needles, soaking them in water and turning them into a tea that she can later mix with a lemon tea and vinegar.
Her, 30 years old: I’m taking an old decoration, thinking outside the box and finding a creative, environmentally-sustainable solution that reduces waste and makes something useful.
Me, almost 30 years old: Baby, ICE is tweeting “Happy Martin Luther King Day.” Can you believe this shit?
That wasn’t the only thing going down the lemons, though. She also put the fruit through the juicer to give us a jar of lemon juice and took the remaining pulp to combine with coconut oil, lemon juice and sugar to create a shower scrub.
Can you believe I used every part of the lemon today? she asked, not rhetorically. That’s amazing, I said truthfully but probably not enthusiastically enough for her taste.
But back to the soup: First, I located our can opener — Marissa and I don’t always put it back in the same place — and worked my way around the can of peeled tomatoes with the tool with no issue. While sometimes the turn of the crank fails to move the blade, that wasn’t the case this time; a good sign, in my estimation.
After emptying the can into a mixing bowl, I turned my attention to the onion.
What does coarsely mean? I asked Marissa. Like this, she said as she demonstrated a rough, controlled chop of less than an inch. She handed me the knife and I mimicked the movement. Piece of cake.
Next on the recipe was two cloves of garlic. Psh, I’m going to add at least four, she said. Okay, I said, not about to argue.
We took turns using the knife to loosen the clove before peeling off the papery skin. She watched me closely without bringing up the embarrassing time that I didn’t get all the skin off before putting it into the food processor. For that, I was grateful.
We dumped the four cups of chicken broth into the slow cooker, added in the tomatoes, onion, garlic, and seasoned to what we presumed would be perfection.
Wait, I said, we forgot to do the habanero. The recipe called for one habanero, but I picked up two at the store because they were so small. I asked how many we should include and she said she thought it was okay if we went with two.
Be careful not to touch your eye, though, she said. I know, I quickly replied. She gave me a curious look, so I decided to spill the beans. Something like 10 years ago, I got mango habanero sauce in my eye at Buffalo Wild Wings, I said.
Oh my god, that sounds awful. I’ve always heard, but I’ve never done it before.
Don’t. I said. It’s not fun.
How long does it burn?
Well, I said, there’s an initial burn that’s very intense for a matter of minutes, but it probably hurts, to a degree, for a few hours.
Wow, I didn’t know that.
Yeah, I said and shuddered a little.
Carefully, I chopped up each chile while she removed the seeds and tossed the peppers into the slow cooker. She then set a timer on the oven for three hours and I started cleaning up the kitchen.
An article I once read on National Geographic told me that the average animal has a short-term memory span of 27 seconds. Apparently, I am not much better.
Time was about to become indiscernible for me, but some time less than 10 minutes later, it happened.
Standing near the sink next to a Mount Everest of dishes, I felt an itch that needed to be scratched and thoughtlessly followed my instinct. The moment I felt the burn on my right eye, I tried to shout an explanation, but all that came out was a panicked MARISSA!
Cursing silently and unable to externalize my situation, I bolted to the bathroom and pressed a towel against it. My first impulse was to put it under the faucet, but the second one was of caution. Instead, I pulled out my phone on the sink and, with one eye closed and the other on the screen, Googled “What to do when habanero gets in your eye.”
The clear answer was milk — not water. Capsaicin, it turns out, is fat soluble and can get broken down by dairy. Water just spreads the burn around.
Blake, what is going on? After a minute or two, Marissa had followed me into the bathroom. I didn’t respond at first. It happened, I said. It happened again.
Oh no! What do you need?
She left and quickly came back with a pile of napkins and a tea cup of milk.
Those who know me well know that I’m no stranger to eye problems. Through a combination of occasional carelessness and persistent, bizarre bad luck, I’ve had several alarming episodes.
The time that I had got a corneal abrasion the weekend of my sister’s wedding, temporarily clouding my vision and decimating 75 percent of my cornea? That was worse, but that pain was like getting violently stabbed in the eye, a pain I wouldn’t wish on anyone. This was all heat, a burning sensation unlike any I recall experiencing.
The milk helped, but not quickly. I pressed and pressed the milk-soaked napkin against my mostly closed eye until I felt comfortable enough to open it and squeeze.
A little annoyed that Marissa went back to the kitchen as if all I needed were a band aid, I tended to my wound in solitude, my face dripping all over the bathroom with every squeeze. She came back and checked on me from time to time, but she didn’t give me as much attention as I wanted.
Eventually, the pain began to reside and I rejoined her in the kitchen. That sucked, I said. Aw, she said, I’m sorry. At that point, it was time to work on the garnish, and I felt like I deserved a purple heart for rallying back. I would not be denied; we were going to finish this fucking soup.
For the peanut gremolata, I chopped up some lightly salted peanuts, mixed it with bread crumbs and threw them into a pan with olive oil while Marissa prepared the cilantro. Sometime during this process, my longtime friend Travis gave me a call. I put him on speaker phone while the work continued. We told him all about the soup — the habanero incident included.
Those are really hot, he said with a laugh.
Seriously, he said, Habanero’s are like a 100,000 on the Scoville Scale. We weren’t familiar with the term, so he explained it us. They’re, like, 70 times hotter than jalapenos.
Wow, Marissa said, I didn’t realize that. That’s really hot. I didn’t know it was that bad. I probably should’ve been more concerned about you, Blake.
Yeah! I tried to tell you.
I’m sorry! she said. I didn’t know.
After toasting the peanuts and breadcrumbs, we added the lemon zest and let it cool before mixing in the cilantro.
When the timer went off, it was time to puree the contents of the slow cooker. We used the Magic Bullet that we typically use for smoothies, a tricky proposition considering the temperature of the soup, but one we pulled off nonetheless.
Finally, the moment of truth arrived. We each took a spoonful of our finished product, swallowed and coughed. To our disappointment, it was way, way too spicy.
Those damn habaneros, I said. What do you think we should do?
You know how we fix this? She asked. We add plain Greek yogurt.
But we didn’t have any, so we had to improvise. I came up with the idea of using honey goat cheese to temper it. That’s a great idea, she said. And so, I slowly incorporated a chunk of honey goat cheese, melting it as I stirred around a spoonful. And then another and another.
By the time Marissa assessed it, she thought there was now both too much honey goat cheese flavor and too much heat. Around this time, she mentioned that her fingers were burning. Too much exposure to lemon juice, probably, she said. Guess I should have worn gloves. I didn’t have an answer for that, but I did have an idea for the soup.
What if we took our snack squash and blended it up and added it in?
That’s another great idea! she said. Despite the painful results of my previous idiocy, I was proud of my 11th hour contributions.
But there was still too much heat, and by this point, we were out of ingredients to combat it. It was late then, too late for dinner and way too late to go the store. I decided to pour myself a bowl, but I wasn’t able to take very many bites. It just wasn’t quite fit to eat. By then, Marissa’s fingers were visibly red and a little puffy.
Here, I said. Try some milk. She dipped them in the tea cup from earlier. Thankfully, it gave her some relief.
Marissa and I concluded that we would have to get another squash to roast, chop up and blend it into the soup. We weren’t ready to admit defeat, but it was clear that our triumph would have to wait.
Between our cooking adventure and when I sat down to write, there was another phone call, this one with Marissa’s dad. She told him all about our night. When it got to the part about the habanero, he was horrified.
Man, he said, that’s like getting bear mace in your eye! Bear mace is considerably higher on the Scoville Scale, but the point was well taken. I can’t handle habaneros. I use serranos instead. Can’t do it, man. We joked around about my misfortune for a few minutes before the conversation shifted to other topics, but eventually we circled back and Marissa had an epiphany about the habaneros.
That’s probably what burnt my fingers! she said to her dad and me.
Yeah, he said, that would make sense.
Before bed, I talked myself into trying to write about all this, searching for catharsis and perhaps some kind of lesson.
The first place my mind went was the last scene of the classic and aptly named Coen Brothers’ movie Burn After Reading, when two CIA suits sit in a room trying to find the meaning of the film’s farcical plot.
“What did we learn, Palmer?” one asks.
“I don’t know, sir,” he said.
“I don’t fuckin’ know, either,” the first replies. “I guess we learned not to do it again.”
That resonates, but there’s probably a more accurate way to sum this all up: This was a lesson in humility.
There’s a time to be creative and go off-script, and a time to follow the directions to a T. Knowing the difference between these times can be the difference between a perfect meal and an inedible work in progress, between being unscathed and burnt.
Because when it comes to habaneros, fortune does not favor the bold.