A Floridian Pepper Caper

Bars—for those of us who frequent them—provide insights of the most profound sort into the human condition. This I firmly believe is because bars combine by their very nature the easy-going, ruminative atmosphere of an agora with the somewhat less philosophical and contemplative aspects of a boisterous opium den, making them the perfect stages for a meeting of minds between people who have hitherto never set eyes on one another.

So it was that in a bar in St. Augustine, Florida, the waitress, after serving my fourth beer along with a pound of boiled shrimp asked, “Would you like to try our datil pepper sauce with these?” Intrigued as a Southerner, more specifically as a Mississippian and a pepper-head to boot, I replied in the affirmative and was served a fluted ramekin containing a creamy sauce flecked with black pepper. “It’s got a bite!” she warned.

And indeed it did, but not at all what I—a seasoned if not to say jaded veteran of salsa skirmishes—would consider fierce or fiery, but I had to ask, “What the hell is a datil pepper?” Of course, bless her heart, she was a newcomer from Missouri, so she marched off to the kitchen and came back with the chef, who was a proud native of St. John County, and a descendant of those St. Augustineans who came from Minorca as indentured workers in the late 1700s.

“The datil pepper,” he explained after hoisting himself–nimbly, I must add–on a stool beside me and ordering an O’Doul’s, “is a very hot pepper, a type of Capsicum—you say you know peppers, so you’ll recognize Capsicum (I nodded)—chinense–this he emphasized by holding up an index finger–that came to Spain, then to Minorca, from Cuba. My people brought them with us. What we have done here with our sauce is to combine the fiery datil—which is similar in taste and appearance to the habanero—with mayonnaise, which as everyone knows was invented in Minorca in ancient times and is named for the capitol city, Maó-Mahón. Do you like it?”

Of course I told him I liked it, though to be quite honest putting a spicy mayonnaise on shrimp ran somewhat contrary to my tastes, which tend to a pungent, horseradish-and-lemon juice infused tomato condiment. When I asked where I could get seeds, he stated emphatically that he could get some seeds for me at the end of the season, or I could contact the St. John County extension office. I gave him my address with many thanks.

So I finished my shrimp, ordered another beer and was sitting there in what some might term the glow of culinary discovery when this seedy-looking little skinny guy in a Dolphins jersey sidles over and says, “You’re not believing that crap are you?”

“Why not?” I said, my reverie reduced to embers.

“Oh, hell, that pepper’s just something one of them crackers found growing in a pile of horseshit behind the city hall, and they decided to make a big hoo-hoo about it,” he said. “They just tell you tourists that bull turkey so you’ll buy a bottle and take it home and brag about it.”

After all that, I had to ask him where he was from. “Key West,” he said smiling. “Where we grow those yellow limes.” I just grinned and bought him a beer.

“Works every time,” he said.

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