Yesterday I got an email from Ryan, who is depressed about the coronavirus quarantine. Ryan has lost his job, he’s got mounting bills, and he’s been stuck at home with his Mountain-Dew-guzzling children who are driving him nuts.
This is a direct quote from Ryan: “Am I being punished or something?”
And now my conscience is starting to bother me. Because if these hard times are Ryan’s punishment, then what about me? Which is exactly why I need to tell you about the fateful night I surrendered my soul to depravity.
It all started with a chili cookoff. I was a kid. The Baptist chili contest was a big deal in our little church. I don’t know how chili became so popular because it was not typical church food. But it was a celebrated event.
The problem was that the contest was rigged. Everyone knew it. Year after year, the same woman won. But more on this later.
The church ladies were VERY into this chili business. They would take sabbaticals from preparing their usual fare, which openly flaunted the mandates of the American Heart Association, and cooked competition-style chili.
The way the cookoff worked was this: Competitors set up card tables with chili crockpots. Then, the whole community ate lots of spicy, acidic chili. Deacons judged. And the next morning, everyone in three counties called in sick for work because they were afraid to be six feet away from a bathroom.
We had many different chili varieties. Sister Carolyn, for instance, made pork chili. There was black bean chili. Mister Reginald’s venison backstrap chili was divine. Brother Hooty made a concoction nobody touched because it was either possum, squirrel, or an old Pampers diaper.
But nothing—and I mean nothing—was better than Marilyn King’s turkey chili. Her husband, Carl, was a big turkey hunter, and her chili was a labor of love. One taste was euphoria, like hugging Julia Child and Gloria Gaither both at the same time. I’ve never had anything like it.
The tragedy was that Marilyn King never won. Not even once. She’d never even been awarded honorable mention. And this was all because of:
It was the same old story. Sister Irma was well connected, well bred, well dressed, and all the other “wells” you can think of. She practically owned the church because her husband was richer than stink.
So she always won the contest, even though each year she made pink chili that tasted like Pepto-Bismol-colored iniquity, served over corn chips. It was an affront to food.
Everyone knew Miss Marilyn should have been champion. So we boys decided to do something about it.
The night of the cookoff, four boys conducted a business meeting behind the fellowship hall. Our two-prong plan was simple, but elegant. And more importantly, we’d worked out hand signals, code names, and everything.
Here’s what happened:
Before the judges made their rounds, Johnny Randall and I loitered near Sister Irma’s pink chili. In Johnny’s pocket was a plastic baggie filled with minced Diablo Grande peppers, freshly picked from the junior college agricultural department.
Diablo Grande peppers are so strong the military often uses them to degrease the pistons of Iowa-class battleships. My cousin tried a bite once. He was never able to see the colors blue or yellow after that.
Johnny emptied the peppers into the crockpot, I stirred, and two others kept watch. The stage was set. All we had to do now was wait for the deacons to taste it.
But the next person to approach the table was not a deacon. It was old man Simon, who looked like Methusala’s grandfather, only more feeble and sickly.
And the events that followed would be talked about for many years to come at various parties, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and in beer joints across the region.
The old man announced, “Sister Irma! I can’t WAIT to try your chili!”
We tried to talk him out of it. Johnny even tried dragging the old man away. But we were too late. He stabbed a spoon into his bowl and ate it all. I will never forget when the old man’s face went from moderately amused to pure agony.
At first, everyone thought he was kidding, but the man was gasping, tugging at his collar, wheezing. Some lady brought him milk, claiming that milk helped with the pain. Right there, in front of God and country, the old man drank an entire quart of milk until it was running down his chin and all over his jacket.
Then someone said sugar would help. So church ladies took turns shoving spoonfuls of Domino sugar into the poor man’s mouth. He looked like he was going to die. I’ve never felt so bad.
Soon, everyone had gathered around the man, fanning him with bulletins, praying out loud, shouting at the Devil, some were even speaking in tongues. Deacons were yelling scripture verses.
Women were weeping. I heard the faint sound of gnashing teeth.
Johnny Randall disappeared and nobody ever saw him again.
As it turns out, the old man had severe asthma, the peppers had triggered respiratory distress. Someone even had to carry him to the emergency room for breathing treatments that night. We sent him get-well cards, but until today I have never admitted my heinous crime.
In fact, for an entire lifetime, we boys never spoke of this. Until now. Why am I telling it to you? Because, Ryan, I know that no matter how bad things get, you’re definitely not being punished.
Not until I get mine.