I’ve lived in Allegheny County for a mere four years — the ‘Burgh exurb of Weirton, West Virginia is my hometown, if you must know — but I’ve unquestionably fallen into a classic Pittsburgh pattern of behavior.
North Hills people don’t travel to the South Hills. And South Hills people don’t travel to the North Hills.
True story: When Do-Goodery IT soldier Chris Whissen suggested I travel to Beechview to procure chili peppers for this little experiment in masochism, I had to Google the neighborhood to confirm that it was, in fact, south of the city center.
(Don’t judge! Actually, judge away. For this self-proclaimed map nerd, that was an embarrassing moment)
Anyway, once I discovered that, despite being across two rivers(!) and through a tunnel(!!), the IGA on Broadway in Beechview was probably my best bet for securing fresh-ish chilis in the dead of winter, I was off like a flash.
Of course, with the biggest snowstorm of the year on the way, I wasn’t alone in making a beeline to the market. The only difference between me and Joe/Jane Yinzer on this blustery Thursday was my intended target.
Instead of toilet paper, milk and bread, I was hunting pepper-based terror.
And my hunt was quite happy, once I found my way up what felt like a sheer cliff to the heart of Beechview. There, on the west side of Broadway and its quaint cable-car tracks, sat a little slice of Latin America, complete with a Las Palmas taco tent in front.
If you’ve spent any time in Pittsburgh, I don’t have to tell you that our cultural melting pot is missing one major ingredient. With the exception of an outpost here and a neighborhood there, our region is conspicuously devoid of Spanish-speaking influence.
In fact, according to the 2010 U.S. Census, Pittsburgh’s percentage of Spanish-speakers over five years old ranks ahead of only one metropolitan area with a population of 500,000 or more. If you must know, only Portland, Maine’s measly 0.9 percent is lower than our 1.2 percent.
Even more to the point: Among the 51 U.S. population centers with more than 1 million people in 2010, Pittsburgh’s share of those who hablan español ranked D.F.L. Dead Freaking Last.
So, you can imagine my joy in discovering that, on the back wall of the supermercado, sat a vertible chili bounty. Chris’ tip was a good one.
There were poblanos, for starters. There were serranos, on the middle ground, hotter than jalapeños and a little more exotic. There were also habaneros, to play the role of final boss (No, I’m not going near the aforementioned ‘ghost peppers.’ Besides my lack of a death wish, finding them in Pennsylvania in January proved basically impossible anyway).
There were also dried peppers on a nearby shelf, with more varieties than an iPhone browser could translate in a reasonable amount of time. I passed on those as well, because I want the fresh pepper experience. Unadulterated. Unaltered. Something like that.
It was around that time I realized that my stomach was audibly growling. I was coming off a long training run, and the carneceria was 50 feet to my left. Hello, chicken wings. Six barbecue and six buffalo, please.
***At this point, I should mention that, even though I know enough Spanish to at least offer up greetings and pleasantries — thanks, Rosetta Stone! — I get gun-shy when using my words around native speakers, like the good folks who were on duty at the Beechview IGA. Fear of messing up? Maybe. Not wanting to get anywhere near a patronizing tone? Probably more like it.
So, after mumbling a ‘gracías’ or two and smiling awkwardly on my way back into the cold, I was in proud possession of exactly two poblanos (plump, green, roughly the size of bell peppers), six serranos (slender, classic 🌶 look) and seven habaneros (teardrops tinted orange-red, almost as a warning).
Realistically, I won’t need more than one habanero to generate sufficient capsaicin-powered heat, but considering I paid less than six bucks for the entire lot of peppers, I went ahead and threw a few more beauties in those ubiquitous plastic produce bags. If nothing else, I can use the extras to scare wildlife away when all this is over.
After offering a friendly head nod to the guys frying up corn tortillas, meat and vegetables in the tarp-roofed tent, I briskly pried open my Honda Pilot, plopped down in the driver’s seat, with the bag of peppers resting on the passenger’s side.
I guess this is really happening.
Up next: Preparing fire-fighting antidotes, manning up, eating the peppers (😟😩😭🤬🤯).