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Wind didn't really begin this way. It might have. It could have. But it didn't. Instead, this is more about how one particularly strong gust blew through town unexpectedly, and how it involved some common seeds and a 20 year-old guy.
His name was Pepper Jack. Or, that what’s we called him. OK, no one really did, but we should have. It would have been a cool name for a guy, and a pretty accurate one to boot.
His real name was Jack Canelo and he hailed from northern Italy. He and his sister Marica came when they were children and all but lost their accent. Sounded like locals by the time I met them. Their dad was involved in food imports, and was brought here to spice up the Chicago region, to lead sales in the Midwest. He specialized in vegetables. By the time I caught up with Jack, he was a college sophomore, studying agricultural biochemistry, hoping to intern with his dad’s company.
Jack was into -- and this is why you see we should have called him this -- pepper everything. In everything. On everything. Peppers of all kinds. Ate peppers with pepper sprinkled on, and washed it all down with pepper juice. Pepper Jack.
He had magic taste buds. You see, when an ordinary guy tastes, say, a red pepper, he would taste a red pepper. One flavor: Red pepper flavor. That's all. Maybe he would like it, and maybe not, but, more or less he would taste the same flavor as the next guy. Jack tasted a dozen things. He would tell you if it was sweet, or sour, or too red, or not red enough. He would explain how the top part tasted different from the bottom, and the right from the left. The rest of us didn’t even know there was a right side of the pepper.
"The right side is one the which faces the sun. The left side is whatever is left," he would say. That wouldn’t help. Only he understood.
Besides being magic, his taste buds could withstand the hottest of hots. If you know peppers, you know that hot gets plenty hot. Well, that is, for us, not Jack. He would take the seeds -- you know, those little ones inside the pepper everyone else throws away -- and sort of swish them around his mouth.
"Hmm, looks like a weak crop," he'd smirk. By 'weak' he meant bland.
It was not just the green, red or yellow peppers he ate. It was the black ones as well -- the peppercorns that look like tiny black shriveled peas. Naturally, he sneezed a lot. You know the kind. A quick achoo hit whenever grinding the black pepper (though sometimes he liked to chew on them whole). Just part of being Jack.
As it happened, Jack once went too far. He thought it was time to celebrate something, and of course, he invited his entire family. A good meal for all required lots of peppers. He thought pepper steak would be the best. As he was a vegetarian, this really only meant peppers, without the steak.
With 52 people all going to join him in Piper's Park, lots of pepper steak was in order. He sliced up green peppers. He diced red bell peppers. Bean sprouts and onions found their way into the mix. Instead of salt, he decided, as he often did, that black pepper should be freshly ground in copious amounts and included whenever possible.
You know Jack. 'Copious' meant several pounds. To grind that much, no ordinary mortar and pestle would do. Instead, he washed off the sledge hammer, and used it as his pestle against the sidewalk, which he also cleaned. He put red bricks around all sides to make a stone bowl.
If you have never seen several pounds of black pepper, visualizing this next part might be difficult. It is a lot. Those little cans of tellicherry pepper you probably have in your kitchen are only two ounces worth. Imagine 24 of those, all poured out on the sidewalk. That's what Jack did. He poured a full three-pound bag (he always kept a few on-the-ready) and got down to business.
He ground right, twisting the heavy sledge clockwise, crushing hundreds of the spice. This he did slowly, knowing how pepper has a great desire to bounce out during the process. A few cracks were heard with his hesitant grind. Then, back counterclockwise, heading left. Then again. Followed by the usual achoo.
He sniffed and shook it off.
Again, to the right, and to the left, work-horsing the sledge into slow action. Another achoo. Another sniff. Just another day with Jack.
By this time, in the sidewalk-brick pit filled with pepper had presented a bit of a dust bowl. Guests were coming, and it was no time to be concerned with trifles. He ground faster. But the dust would not be denied.
"Ah," Jack sucked in air in a deep breath.
"Ahh." His lungs filled to capacity.
"Ahhh." He breathed in more than he could manage.
"Schewww." Jack blew and howled and sneezed, shaking the trees, and the bushes and scaring every bird this side of Bluster County.
It only lasted a moment, and, if you were inside, you probably only thought a jet was passing overhead. But it was a sneeze, and it was the first sneeze in history that forced the weather vane on William Mueller's roof to spin three times. Or, it probably was. No one keeps records of those kinds of things anymore.
"People don't realize the beauty of good pepper," said Jack, smiling, as he walked inside with the pepper.
From all reports, the celebration went well, whatever it was they were celebrating, with lots of sneezing.
- The author loves black pepper, and buys the good stuff at Penzey's Spices in downtown Naperville.
These are the days in Bluster County which cause me to smile, and I would live nowhere else. The sun rises an inch higher here than anywhere else in the world, making every day brighter. Click here to read my other tales, and here to contact me. I can tell these strange tales to your group.