Close your eyes. Imagine a Derby Day tailgate-fest. It’s late morning at Churchill Downs. This story may be true or near enough to true to make you believe it did or could happen. We’re sittin’ around a Winnebago as big as a semi-truck; the fragrance of burgoo, a classic Kentucky stew, wafts around the scene; the burgoo’s been cooking for a couple of days before the Derby.
There sit Burt and his Uncle Bubba having fun as only can be had in the finest traditions of the South. Family and kids are crawling all around. Burt has invited two friends from college to the Derby; Randy and the Bum, both of whom are from the West Coast. They are trying to figure out “What was southern?” Everybody is sippin’ mint juleps. The following vignette is from an unpublished manuscript by S. Tremaine Nelson entitled Derby Day. Randy picks up the thread talking about the burgoo …
The Bum sniffed. “What other types of meat are in there?”
“Pork,” he said, “beef, some chicken but not much, course there’s some critter meat, too, but mostly ribs and that Sevier County sausage I was telling you about.” Bubba looked at Burt. “I put a few of them scorpion peppers in there, just for flavor. Friends ain’t ever had burgoo like this, I bet.”
“I hardly doubt it. That one–” Burt pointed at me, “got some family over in Harlan County, but he’s mostly from Out West. That one,” he pointed at the Bum, “they found him living in a cave rubbing his own poop on the walls.”
The Bum nodded. “It’s true.”
Bubba’s whole body shook his laughter. “You boys.”
“Hey Randy, what’s the hottest thing you ever ate?”
“Probably a habanero pepper. Why?”
Burt nudged his uncle. “Go on. Let’s let them try one.”
“Nah,” he said, shaking his head.
“Try what?” the Bum asked. “One of the scorpion peppers? How hot is it, really? Would it kill me?”
“Men have died,” Burt said. “Strong men.”
“How many you put in the burgoo?”
“Oh, two or three hundred.”
“What!” Burt slapped his uncle’s arm. “Get out of here.”
Bubba started laughing, hands on his belly. “No, no. Just a few diced up. Otherwise, you cain’t taste the meat.”
“I’m ready to try one,” said the Bum.
I looked at him. “You sure you want to do this? We should at least have a safety word. Something safe and happy like snowflake or firetruck.”
“Firetruck,” he said. “Firetruck. Got it. If I say Firetruck, call for help.” He looked at Burt and Bubba. “I mean, real help. Like a doctor or, you know, a horse doctor.”
Bubba handed the Bum one of the bright red peppers. It looked like a Hershey’s Kiss, except bright blood red with a little green stem. The Bum popped it into his mouth and started chewing. The kids all came out of the RV and sat down to watch.
“Great flavor,” he said, mincing it into his tongue. “Disappointing heat, though. Mild, refreshing. Fresh garden taste to it. I have to say,” he noisily chewed. “When you said scorp—”
Burt and Bubba both started laughing.
“Wait a minute,” the Bum said slowly.
“See, right now,” Bubba said, “skin of the pepper’s probably still covering up the membrane. Forget about the seeds. The real stuff’s inside. He chews through the membrane a bit, this particular devil has little pockets of flavor get opened up like spores after a few seconds. I grow ‘em to be a little more painful, a little more violent to the tongue, to really hurt a man who don’t respect what comes outta the earth.”
“Oh God,” the Bum gasped.
Burt and I were laughing. The Bum’s face turned red. His white pink tongue flicked against his mustache, grasping for air.
“Now,” Bubba continued, “I been growing this particular type of pepper to really inflict mouthal suffering. This one’s nearly eight hundred thousand points on the Scoville Scale.” He explained about the Scoville scale and the different methods of measuring heat. “Capsaicin,” he said, “in great enough quantities is a painkiller. So in small quanities, it hurts ya, but eventually your mouth just goes numb.”
“Not like this,” the Bum cried. Tears were streaming from his eyes. Snot dripped down his nose and clumped into his mustache. Little flecks of peppery seeds kept dropping onto his tongue every time he licked his lips, rekindling the painful mouth-fire. “Friar Tuck.”
Burt and Bubba were laughing. I laughed a little bit, too. I could tell he was totally suffering. Still, it was only a pepper, I thought, nothing to worry about, so I started messing with him.
“Friar Tuck is a fictional character from a children’s story.”
“File Tuck,” he said. “Trier Fock!”
“You boys,” Jolene said, laughing. “Don’t tease him!”
The cousins were laughing, too.
“Right about now,” said Bubba. “He’d jump out of a window if he could. We could give him some water, course that’d only make it worse. It’s just about the damnedest thing how slow it comes on, like a poison. Course he’ll shit fire for weeks.”
“Fiya Tock.” He shook his head and whispered: “Randy.” His eyes were watery and red. “Kill me.”
“What?” I laughed. “It can’t be that bad, can it?”
I handed him his julep. He drank and winced.
“Fetch him some of Lorna’s milk,” said Bubba, laughing. “I’ll take one, too, just so he knows we meant him no harm.” Bubba and Burt both popped peppers into their mouths and grinded them into a mashy pulp. I politely declined. One of the cousin’s handed the Bum some milk in a filthy looking glass bottle. He drank with both hands and his emotional state visibly improved. After the Bum finished drinking, Burt explained that Lorna was his uncle’s goat. The Bum made no comment in response to this. He stepped outside the circle of chairs and calmly lit a cigarette. Burt and Bubba held an extended conversation, apparently without pain, about the different phases of the pepper. It didn’t seem to faze them at all. Jolene freshened everyone’s julip, and Bubba started handing out plastic bowls of steaming brown burgoo.
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