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        by C. Jeanette Tyson

     They can be used to expedite childbirth, cure colds and hangovers and relieve the pain of arthritis. They can be used to punish disobedient children and wayward lovers and torture war-time enemies. They inflame the passions. They protect unborn babies from rain dwarves and gardens from armadillos. They look good on a Christmas tree.    
     Give me, you say, some of that. You mean, like, pass the salsa?      
     Yes, peppers are the most used spice and condiment in the world and the main ingredient in no small amount of folklore. A quarter of the people around the globe today will be eating peppers at one meal or another. And if I know that now, it’s because I just had lunch with The Pepper Lady®.

     The Pepper Lady® is Dr. Jean Andrews. With formal backgrounds in home economics, education and art, it wasn’t exactly inevitable that she would become a venerated expert on the domesticated capsicum. Back in the 1970’s, she was just growing them for her next batch of relish.

     "But I can’t stand to take something up without knowing all there is to know about it. I started trying to find information about peppers and there wasn’t much," she says.
     She planned to read a few books but quickly discovered there weren’t any. Furthermore, the world’s favorite fruit had never been illustrated. She stepped gamely into the void.

     Over the next eight years, she grew peppers so she could paint from the living plant. She hit the spice trail, traveling through much of Turkey and the Middle East, Africa, India, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, China and Latin America to collect seeds, recipes, history and stories. The process resulted in two definitive books on the subject, along with other pepper-related works; The Pepper Lady became a registered trademark.
     My friend Lesley thought it’d be interesting to take Dr. Jean along to lunch at Botanitas, a small, family-run Mexican joint pretty far south of the beaten path. We’d heard about their sauces, fabulous, homemade, Austin Hot Sauce Challenge-winning wonderful. There are eight booths and a few tables, serapes and blankets for sale in the front window, flowers made from tomatillo husks, a reminder on the blackboard to book early for Christmas catering, never mind it’s January.
     Dr. Jean said one of the reasons she liked peppers was when you bite them, they bite back. Indeed, when you’re looking for pepper sauces, you usually find them with names like Predator, Sweet Fire, Kiss Your Ass Goodbye. I braced myself; my heat tolerance is low.
     A double-decker wooden tray arrived at the table, six sauces on the bottom, warm chips on top. There was a roasted serrano and yellow pepper sauce and a salsa with cilantro, fresh tomato and basil. There were pickled vegetables, a guajillo sauce, tomatillo sauce, and a black bean and chipotle sauce. (I learned from Dr. Jean that chipotle just means smoked. Any pepper can be a chipotle. Usually the ones smoked commercially are jalapenos or serranos, thick-skinned peppers that don’t air-dry.)
     Ruben, the creator of these sauces, brought a plate of peppers to our table: poblano, serrano, guajillo, jalapeno, habenero. There they were, beautiful, colorful, a little mysterious. Peppers, you should know, are not interchangeable. When the recipe calls for one, you should use that one. It’s not all about the heat, in other words. People who love peppers love the heat, but are always on the hunt for better flavor, too. Still, I was a bit nervous.
     Me: What’s the best way to cut the heat?
     Dr. Jean: You don’t.
     More seriously, in India they douse the flames with a yogurt and cucumber dish called raita. Rinsing your mouth with vodka then spitting it out also works, according to Dr. Jean. And when you’re working in the kitchen, chlorine water will get it off your hands (therefore keeping it out of your eyes).
    We dug in. I expected enlightenment from Dr. Jean.
     "Whew," she said.
     It was ha-haat, building in intensity, the kind of villain that lets you walk by, waits until you get a small way down the path, then mugs you. But with the heat was flavor, and the flavor was indeed distinctive from sauce to sauce. I kept dipping. And dipping.
     The three of us agreed the roasted serrano pepper sauce and the tomato/cilantro salsa were our favorites.
     As a main course, I had tilapia, a freshwater white fish. It was topped with roasted garlic, and sauteed in that same garlic oil. Wonderful, if not the thing to eat right before a romantic encounter. It was served with lime cilantro rice and beans and decorated with a pretty jalapeno flower.
     Lesley had Shrimp a la Diabla—five shrimp wrapped in bacon with jalapeno inside and fresh chipotle sauce. This dish was spicy and finally too hot for me, though it just meant Lesley was able to enjoy more of her own lunch. Through rapid fanning of the mouth and drinking of water, I believe she said she loved it.
     Dr. Jean enjoyed her enchiladas, though frankly preferred her own. She’s entitled.
     Dr. Jean doesn’t think it takes any special talent to cook with chilis, just a bit of getting used to; In the beginning, most people use too much. She’s currently working on a cookbook. She thinks she might call it Curious Recipes for the Curious Cook. Not everyone thinks to use peppers in their chocolate chip cookies, you see. But maybe we should.
     After the fish, I went back to the sauces. I could take the heat, after all. I felt bold, fierce, fine. I was sure if I ate that entire bowl of sauce, I could conquer the world. Or at least the afternoon.
Though not as obsessed as Dr. Jean, I, too, felt the power of the pepper.
C. Jeanette Tyson is AustinMama's beloved foodie-in-the-field. Got a tip, suggestion, idea or feedback for A Little More on Your Plate? Send it to Jeanette at: foodie@austinmama.com

Botanitas is at 6400 South 1st Street in Austin. 512.441.2424.  Dr. Jean Andrews is the award-winning author of thirteen books, including the classic Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums.


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