by Jeff Oaks

In the midst of giving many things up–salt, sugar, milk, everything white and inflammatory–there is pepper.

When I was a boy, my Texas cousin Virgil, a man who’d worked on the Alaska Pipeline and returned a kind of hero, ate everything with unbelievable amounts of pepper. Maybe it was his time in Alaska, but everything he ate had to be made hot. No one else could even taste what he ate. His eggs were smothered in hot sauces and pepper. His coffee was hot and black. His steaks were charred. I was frightened by his raw male energy. He was loud about his loves and hates. Of course like everyone else back then, he drank with abandon. Lived inside a terrifying cloud of cigarette smoke.

When my family visited, we kids would sit in the living room at night watching tv or playing games, listening very carefully to the adults playing cards and getting louder. When the language started getting peppered with curse words and then outright yells, we all became the same kind of nervous. I began having nightmares about Bigfoot staring in the bedroom windows. My cousins had told me that the pine woods were crawling with monsters.

Every spice is connected to a gender, a decade, a difficulty. Pepper is the early seventies, when we drive around a lot visiting relatives in North Carolina and Texas, where my father’s sisters live with their families. The South is a confusing place, full of older cousins I like but who can band against me in an instant, because they are used to playing with each other and side with each other against anyone new. I’m basically an only child, so I have to learn to fit everywhere and how to listen carefully for places where I might break up my cousins’ alliances and win one over to my side.

I buy into every story I hear. I believe in Bigfoot. I believe in devils and angels, in magic and astral projection. One night in North Carolina, while I lay in my bed at my Aunt Berta’s house, I stare at the lamp until everything but the lamp’s light turns black, until only the light matters. Why I want to slip out of my body is clear: I understand that the world is full of lies, and that most people don’t even realize that they are lying. My father is always lying to himself about himself. My mother pretends everything is fine. My aunt and uncle do the same. I have some sense that there may be a purer, more objective world from which to view everything. If only I can get there.

Black peppercorns were found stuffed in the nostrils of Ramesses II, placed there as part of the mummification rituals shortly after his death in 1213 BCE, says Wikipedia. I want to believe that. I know Wikipedia can lie though.

It also tells me:

Pliny the Elder’s Natural History tells us the prices of pepper in Rome around 77 CE: “Long pepper … is fifteen denarii per pound, while that of white pepper is seven, and of black, four.” Pliny also complains “there is no year in which India does not drain the Roman Empire of fifty million sesterces,” and further moralises on pepper:

“It is quite surprising that the use of pepper has come so much into fashion, seeing that in other substances which we use, it is sometimes their sweetness, and sometimes their appearance that has attracted our notice; whereas, pepper has nothing in it that can plead as a recommendation to either fruit or berry, its only desirable quality being a certain pungency; and yet it is for this that we import it all the way from India! Who was the first to make trial of it as an article of food? and who, I wonder, was the man that was not content to prepare himself by hunger only for the satisfying of a greedy appetite?”

I started thinking of pepper as indispensable only recently. After I turned, say, 45 and found myself thinking about what future I had left and how I might spend my time best. I was getting fat. There was diabetes in my family. It was clear I’d have to limit if not give up my terrible addictions to sugar and salt, and I knew it wouldn’t be easy. Those substances were too tied to early happiness, to the loving women who raised me, to being a child. When my mother was first diagnosed with lung cancer, I learned that black pepper was among, or so said at least one friend who’d survived cancer, a cancer fighting substance. She may have posted on Facebook a study that proved it. I chose to believe it.

I may have thought to myself: it’s time to grow up. I have to live in this Empire as an agent rather than a subject. I bought a black dog and trained him to be a companion. I learned how to cook, how to curb hunger, how to speak to strangers without fear. To embrace fire. To eat sweet cinders. To not ask for more.