Jalapeno

As (perhaps) the concluding house-warming gift for my new digs, my pal Nathan Elmore wrapped these words up for me.

 

Apparently the notion that we use 10% of our possible brain function is a widely perpetuated myth—the certifiable stuff of urban legend, according to the neurologists and neuroscientists. Nevertheless, I have no doubt that my mind contains merely 10% of its available aptitude for conscious associations when it comes to this one very diminutive thing: the chili pepper that goes by the name jalapeno.

As a general rule, I really don’t care for warm, burning sensations that bounce around in the mouth using/abusing their totalitarian reign to persecute me, a plebian to be sure. Yes, true, I’m also a weakling about handling such sensations. So I don’t typically invite the jalapeno over for breakfast, lunch or dinner. It is, in fact, very un-welcome and un-affirmed in the places where I eat.

By virtue of this unyielding intolerance, I can only pull, or download, two associations for the pepper which originally hails from the Mexican city of Xalapa. Sadly, that is all I’ve got in this ostensibly vast cerebrum: two prominent associations. And Winn Collier is the second.

The first involves an 83-year-old son of a Cumberland homesteader in Crossville, Tennessee.

Joseph (Joe) Elmore, my grandfather on my father’s side, is—as far as I know—one of the only men the world over who drives a red minivan and keeps a Styrofoam cup in it for the express purpose of tobacco-spitting. It sounds relatively hipster cool, but trust me the view from the passenger seat borders on nauseating. Then, of course, there’s his driving.

A man of multiple heart-attack scares, our beloved Grandpa Joe—“you ain’t no kind of man if you ain’t got land” (O Brother, Where Art Thou?)—still cultivates an extensive vegetable garden on his five-acre lot on Backwoods Way in Crossville. The street was officially renamed Backwoods Way (it wasn’t born with that name) by the residents themselves to suit perfectly the basic sensibility of the place. Socrates himself would be quite proud: the renaming was a quintessential example of Know thyself.

In matters of religion and faith, Grandpa Joe is undeniably a straight-shooter—a fundamentalist Christian whose cassette-tape collection of hellfire preachers is as impressive as his ability to steer any conversation into an apocalyptic scenario for Anglo culture in America. In other less significant matters, he is anything but a straight-shooter. For instance, when Wal-Mart arrived in Crossville, he suddenly became rather fond of saying that he was on his way to meet up with so-and-so at the Wal-Marts. Like R.E.M.’s song about comedian Andy Kaufman, you are always left to wonder if this guy has something up his sleeve—even if it involves seemingly unwittingly adding an “s” to the name of an exceptionally familiar big-box retailer.

One day, several years back, Grandpa Joe’s word-play games ventured into another stratosphere. In attempting to describe a food he had tried recently, he casually dropped the word jalapeno. No one could have predicted his un-careful pronunciation: jap-a-leno. An incredible slip of his rural tongue or an extremely sly joke, he had all of us in absolute stitches for days. He also had managed to offend both the Hispanic community and the Japanese community in one motion—a weirdly impressive feat. To this day, this singular verbal moment by Grandpa Joe is re-told as a legendary folktale in holiday family gatherings.

My other jalapeno association involves a much younger fellow, a guy who would become a close friend and genuine colleague at a university church in dear old Clemson, S.C.

He is a preacher, to be sure, but with no proclivity for giving or receiving hellfire sermons. He also is a very fine writer who, in his own words, suspects that truth—not just a good joke—“is best told slant.” Here it must be said: No one likes a jalapeno quite like Winn. And no one asks for jalapenos to be added (at no additional charge!) to their grilled chicken salad quite like Winn.

It didn’t matter in the least if you were a national chain named for a Beatles song (Ruby Tuesdays along S.C. Route 123), a university “dive” phoning it in with passable pub grub (Tiger Town Tavern on College Avenue), or an international mom-and-pop joint serving adequate Mediterranean fare (Riviera Restaurant on Old Greenville Highway). Winn was, and is, and is to come, no respecter of asking the burning question: Do you happen to have any jalapenos?

All serious kidding aside, the jalapeno inquiry, metaphorically speaking, could stand in for any number of spicy, flavorful questions that Winn is in the habit of asking. He has made it his life’s existential manner—not to mention the impetus of his spiritual writing, and now, his doctoral studies—to ask. And those of us who know him and read him are very much drawn into the orbit of this unique manner. Furthermore, and further-more, we are drawn in the direction toward which this manner is spinning.

After giving us a glimpse into his geographically wandered youth, Winn writes in his mini-bio: “Years later, I would discover how hungry I am to experience people and place and story.” This indeed seems the insatiable hunger lurking within, around and through my friend’s often-compelling words and ever-thoughtful questions—his manner, yes. I, for one, continue to be thoroughly engaged.

Upon the occasion of Winn’s newly designed website, then, perhaps it is no surprise that I could not help but remember one small but evocative intersection of people, place and story—an experienced moment, or series of culinary moments, when I, too, was made hungrier for precisely such things. To tell the tale, one word should suffice: jalapenos.

 

Nathan F. Elmore writes at: nathanfelmore.com.

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