The El Paso Kid was published in Life in 10 Minutes on February 3, 2020.
The El Paso Kid
For this dinner party Suzie and I decided to cook Chinese and invited three other couples. We composed a menu of dishes with contrasting textures, flavors, and appearances then wrote it up, describing each dish using our best scintillating language. We sent the annotated menu to our guests to heighten their anticipation.
On the appointed evening they arrived full of good cheer, glad to see each other and to experience the menu. Among them were my long-time friend Steve and his wife. Steve was particularly interested in the dish labeled Fireworks Cabbage (“Thinly sliced green cabbage sautéed in ginger- and garlic-scented peanut oil, kaboomed with red chili peppers, guaranteed to dazzle the eyes and sparkle the taste buds.”). Steve grew up in El Paso, Texas. Chili peppers were the soul of his taste buds. In keeping with his quiet demeanor, he never commented about their hotness or talked about how much hotness he could handle. He was like a gunslinger who knew he was so fast that he no longer needed to test himself.
After drinks and appetizers we all sat at our table laden with the dishes that, until then, could be only imagined. As it turned out, smack dab in front of Steve was the bowl of Fireworks Cabbage. His eyes got large.
To better appreciate this dish, you should know how I composed it. I quartered the cabbage length-wise, cored it, and then sliced it across the leaves, resulting in long green strips. I rinsed it and shook out the excess water. In the wok, I added a few tablespoons of peanut oil, slices of fresh ginger, and a couple of cloves of crushed garlic. I warmed them over medium heat until they had transferred their flavors to the oil, leaving only the husks of their former selves, now toasty brown. I discarded the ginger and garlic and added a handful of dried red peppers. It is important to heat the peppers slowly so they can impart their essence to the oil without turning black. Just as they began to darken I removed them and reserved them for garnish. Then I fired up the wok burner to volcanic. Even with the stove exhaust vent set at extreme, when the oil was smoking, the fumes from the pepper essence burned my eyes and scorched my nose and throat. I stood at arm’s length when I dumped in the dampened cabbage, creating a roaring sizzle. I tossed it quickly to coat it evenly with the oil and sprinkled with salt and sugar to allow the natural flavors to bloom. And then I added a little extra sugar because a little extra sweetness glorifies chili peppers. When the color changed from cabbage dull to lime bright it was done. I placed it in a serving bowl and dressed it with the peppers. The glistening green of the cabbage and the radiant red of the peppers danced together.
At the table I explained each dish to our guests, taking particular care to reassure them that the fireworks cabbage looked hotter than it actually tasted. I told them that I was careful to use only intact peppers, so the hotness of the seeds should still be inside the peppers. Just be careful to not eat a stray seed. There was cheerful banter as they commented on the dishes and passed them around. Then everyone grew quiet as they began eating.
Everyone had a wine glass, but we had forgotten to put water glasses on the table. I was reminded of that when Steve quietly asked for some water. I stepped to the kitchen, filled a glass with water and ice, and turned to take it to Steve. But he was right behind me wearing a pained expression on his face. He grabbed the glass from my hand. I asked if he had eaten a seed. He mumbled something I couldn’t understand as he bathed the inside of his mouth with ice water. After that he let out a deep breath and seemed more relaxed. I passed out water glasses to everyone else, and we all enjoyed the dinner party.
Steve and I got together often after that, and he frequently commented on what a great party that was. He never said anything about the chili peppers, and neither did I. But we both knew that that night The El Paso Kid had met his match.