Keith Irwin

Habanero Chips

When I was in elementary school my parents took me to swim lessons at the YMCA. Something about swimming made me ravenous (being a growing kid probably had something to do with it too). I remember after swimming feeling like I was literally starving.

There was a tic-tac vending dispenser in the YMCA lobby and I wished I had a quarter to buy a little box of them. My hungry animal brain knew that the whole box would only provide about .001 calories but it still seemed worth it. If only I could find a quarter, I could relieve .001 of my starvation. I remember scrambling on the ground looking for quarters, so hungry I was. I never found any and I think the Tic-tacs cost fifty cents anyway, so it was hopeless.

It was usually my dad that picked me up in a blue Mazda 626. The backseat was blue fabric. NPR playing from the speakers talking about politics I couldn't understand ("Welcome back to All Things Considered") And as soon as I got in and buckled up, I would ask him for food.

I tried to explain to him as well as I could, using my best logical reasoning as an eight-year-old, that I, his son, needed food to live, and it had to happen soon or I would shrivel up here in the blue backseat. I never actually asserted that it was his responsibility as my parent to keep me alive, but I probably implied it.

Without fail he would tell me that he had no food in the vehicle. And then he would say, "Oh wait... well I have these potato chips, but you don't want any..." Yes, I want them! Where are they? "... because they're habanero-flavored and they are very very spicy." OK, but they have calories, just give me the bag.

I'd eat half a chip and then roll around in the back seat with my mouth on fire. Of course he has no water for me. The chips were so painful that I'd forget about my hunger, until the pain died down and I'd realize I was still starving to death, and would have to eat another chip, choking one down over my hiccups. So the process repeated: burning, starvation, burning, starvation.

The process repeated all the way home and then it would repeat the next day. The tic-tacs. The blue Mazda. NPR. "No, Keith, I'm afraid I have nothing for you to eat. Oh wait. I do have these habanero chips. But you don't want them, because they are very very spicy." Just give them to me. Sometimes he'd even toy with me, like a cat playing with a mouse it'd caught. "Are you sure you want them? They're really hot." Yes, give them to me. "Are you sure? Don't say I didn't warn you."

Some readers may be suspecting that my dad is some twisted psychopath who set up this scenario every day for his own amusement. You are correct. And I will relieve any doubt by saying this: my dad never ate spicy food. He thinks black pepper is too hot. His only motive in buying those habanero chips was to torture me. Not only that, but he must have opened the bag, dumped a few out, and clipped the bag shut so it'd look like he'd eaten some and just had them lying around by chance.

I didn't realize the extent of his treachery until later when I found out that he had abstained from all spicy food since a traumatic Mexican food incident in Albuquerque.

The Albuquerque trauma

My dad went on a few honeymoons after marrying my mom, including two trips to Hawaii and one to the southwest. He and my mom went to a Mexican food restaurant in Albuquerque and he ordered some enchiladas or similar. The waitress asked him, "Do you want the green or red sauce?"

"What's the difference?" my uncultured father questioned.
"Well, the red sauce is hot," she answered. "The green sauce is... eh... kinda mild."
"I'll take the green sauce then," my dad said.

When the plates came out, the food was so spicy that he couldn't eat a single bite. According to his telling of the story, the waitress said everyone in the kitchen had a good laugh about the gringo that thought the green sauce was spicy.

The wheel keeps turning

Some have suggested that my dad was using the habanero chips as a form of training, so that I would never be embarrassed like he was. I know my dad well enough to assure you that he was doing this entirely for his own sick amusement. But I believe it did train me, because I love spicy food to this day. And the "training" certainly came in handy when I travelled in Mexico. But that is a story for another day.

^ 1999