Yesterday at a Fourth of July party at The Barn, we held a chili cook-off. The chili entries were judged in four categories: Hottest, Weirdest, Best Overall, and Best Story. I won best story, even though I didn’t enter a chili in the competition.
By popular demand, I am pasting in the story here, complete with stage directions.
This all started decades ago in 1984 when I was a foreign correspondent in Asia, living in Hong Kong. I lived in a damp, dark neighborhood right next to the freeway called Wanchai. Think Blade Runner.
Wanchai was known for two things: criminal gangs and its market, where housewives and servants went daily to get the widest variety of fresh food in Hong Kong. To file my stories I had to walk four blocks to the Telex office through streets jammed with people carrying live chickens in cages, boxes of leaping crickets and maids with bags of live shrimp in sea water bouncing at their hips.
One day, about three months after I moved there, I saw a guy leaning up against the tile wall of the best Dim Sum shop in Wanchai, but looking like he was at the race track: turquoise silk suit and black silk shirt with a high collar, gold chains at this wrist and his neck. The alligator shoes were what caught my eye. They were so shiny, that I winced in the gleam of their reflection. Plus, he was talking on the first cell phone I’d ever seen.
Needless to say, both of us stood out in this crowd. He motioned me over and cupped his hand around my ear.
“You want some chili?” he asked.
In my family, answer to that question is always yes. But here in a strange land, I feared we might have a language barrier. What did chili mean in Wanchai?
“What kind you got?” I asked.
“What kind you need?”
“Who are you?”
“I’m a chili hustler.”
Turned out that chili was chili all over the world and Hector Dragon, or so he called himself, knew how to get his hands on the best kinds. You see, the Latins stole chili from the Chinese, just like the Italians took pasta and we took fireworks. The art of chili is so ancient and revered in China, in fact, that there are rare and delicate chilies that produce the most exquisite chili flavor but only bloom once every five years, and some only once in twenty. If this was what you were looking for, Hector was the guy who could hook you up.
Hector told me that the chili plant that bloomed only once in 20 years was just about to do so and that, if I was game, he could take me to the secret cave in Hunan province where the sacred Hoo Ha chili was just about to bear its harvest. Did I want to go with him?
Did I? Of course I did. This was a story my editors in DC would love.
A week later Hector pulled up in front of my apartment in a spiffed out Range Rover. We set out on the bumpy road to Hunan. Hector told me that before we could taste the sacred Hoo Ha, we had to meet the chili master, the man who granted access to the secret place where the chili grew.
In the hills outside Hunan, the Land Rover got stuck in a ditch and we had to make the final five miles jostled in the back of an ox cart. It was only then that Hector told me that he had his own reasons for bringing me.
As is well known in Chinese culture, men seeking the sacred Hoo Ha must bring a woman to please the chili master.
To please the chili master? I’m not going to have to sleep with this old dude, am I?
No! Hector insists. No sex. No sex. Just the sight of you pleases the chili master.
The sight of me? This overweight, out of shape white girl? This pleases the master? Couldn’t you get some beautiful young Chinese woman?
No, Hector says. All the Chinese girls turned me down.
We stayed two days the village of the chili master waiting for our audience with him, and every day I got more nervous. There was nothing on the menu in any restaurants in this place except chilies. Chilies for breakfast in big heaps of rice. Deep fried chili snacks. All the residents were really red in the face and got into arguments over the tiniest nonsense. And there appeared to be a lot of sex going. I mean a lot of sex. Like in phone booths and by the side of the road and in the middle of the street. People were just going at it everywhere. Plus the temperature was more than 100 degrees every day. I was roasting. I’m like, Hector, let’s get this over with and get out of here.
The next day we were at last granted an audience with the chili master. We climbed up a long flight of worn stairs to a plateau that held a temple shaped like the flames coming up from a campfire. The flames parted and inside the temple all was a cool aqua green with the chili master seated on a white cushion suspended from the ceiling. He was a withered old man with ruddy skin and fingers that were crooked like ripe chili peppers. He looked me over slowly. I felt like I was burning. Then he said something in Hunan dialect. Hector translated.
“He says that I have pleased the master.”
Hector explained that the reason for our visit that was that I wanted to see the legendary Hoo Ha in bloom.
“If the young lady wants access to the sacred Hoo Ha, she first must complete two tasks. The first one gets her the chili powder and the second one gets her the recipe. These tasks will not be easy. Is she willing to do these two things?”
“First she must go to the cave in the mountain where the sacred Hoo Ha grows and bring one of the bushes back to me without losing any of the chili peppers. If she can complete this task, I will tell her the next one.”
So we set off up the hillside, leaping over waterfalls on slimy cliffs, dodging snakes of all sizes and fighting off mosquitoes the size of humming birds until we came to the cave of the Hoo Ha. The cave was lit from within with the white heat glowing from the chili pods. They were so luminously hot, they seemed irradiated. Carefully Hector and I dug it out. First, I dug at the roots with my hands gently disentangling each one from the soil while he held the bush steady. Then when we both got tired of the task, we switched places. Once we had extracted it from the ground, we shrouded it with netting and I held it over my head like a torch. Back down the mountain we picked our way. Hector saved us from disaster once when he slapped back a snake that was making a lunge for my arm. And when I tripped into a waterfall, and slid down the side of the mountain for more than 50 meters, I still managed to keep the Hoo Ha up high, like a beacon.
Finally we returned to the chili master’s temple. Carefully we lifted the netting and saw that all of the chili pods were still attached to their branches; there weren’t any at the bottom of the net. We’d done it!
The chili master reached into his robes and produced a vial filled with Hoo Ha chili powder and handed it to me. It was as if I held in my hand the secret to life, to love and to happiness, something far more precious than gold and it was mine.
“Now for you second task,” said the chili master. “In order to get the sacred recipe, handed down across the centuries, you must rub the powder of the sacred Hoo Ha on your lady parts.”
I must what? On my where?
You heard me, the chili master said in perfect English.
No wonder Hector couldn’t get any Chinese women to do this.
The chili master pointed to a small tent next to the temple where, he explained, I was to complete my second task. The sentry by the entrance to the tent picked up the edge of the tent flap and graciously gestured for me to enter.
“You’re not sending anyone in there with me to make sure that I do as instructed?”
“Believe me,” said the chili master. “If you do it, I’ll know.”
I walked into the tent and regarded the vial with wariness. I knew how painful it was to get regular old jalapeno in the corner of your eye. This stuff was frickikng radioactive. What fury would I release on myself if I placed this in an even more sensitive part of my anatomy? But if I did it, chili nirvana awaited. The kind of chili thousands of generations of Chinese had died defending.
I put a tiny smidgeon of it on the tip of my finger and then . . .
(rocking rolling stumbling around gasping, grabbing the nearest audience member, swooning, flailing, stop.)
For the first time in my repressed white girl life, I felt really hot.
When I returned to the temple, everyone was smiling. The chili master handed me a copy of Mao’s Little Red Book which had pasted into its last pages, the sacred recipe. Hector and I split the powder up 50/50 but he wasn’t interested in the recipe. I carried those two things around the world with me, to Australia, Bali, Panama, everywhere I went, but I never found a moment that was quite right to make this sacred chili. Then I was a single mom for nearly 20 years and I never would feed something like that to my children. Who knows what kind of damage that could do to a developing body? Or libidio?
Finally I decided to make it for today’s cook off. I got Mao’s Little Red book out of the place where I had it hidden and consulted the recipe. I had to go to Chinatown several times to acquire all the ingredients, one of which maxed out my credit card. But at last, the decades in the making, last night Hoo Ha chili was finished. I was so proud, and eager to have that in me again.
Yet when I woke up this morning, it was gone.
I asked Michael, “Where did my chili go?’
He said, “I don’t know.” With a sheepish grin that made me think he ate it.
Then I asked Shirley, “Where did my chili go?”
“That friend of yours, he came and took it.”
“There was a Chinese guy who came up the stairs about 20 minutes ago,” Shirley said. “He said he was a friend of yours and you told him to bring the chili down. He grabbed it and went downstairs.”
I ran down the stairs to the tables where the chili stood and looked all over the place, under the tables, in the bushes, but couldn’t find the Hoo Ha chili. That guy stole it!
So who was that guy? From the Chinese secret service? The CIA? The Bank of America Loan modification department? I’ll never know, but I do regret that it is gone and gone forever, leaving nothing but this story.