The rite of passage

Apr 19, 2019 516

BY: Charles Sacchetti

Sorry but I just can’t do it!  For the last 50 years or so, I can’t enjoy my favorite pizza or pasta unless I top it off with crushed red hot pepper.  As I was growing up I soon learned that my Italian-American family was like most of the others I knew.  There was always a place for the long hot peppers in the vegetable garden.  And aside from the tasty pleasure they provided (although painful at times) a good hot pepper could be the key ingredient of a story that could be shared with family and friends for years.  

I remember one Saturday morning when I was about 13 years old.  As I was asleep in the middle bedroom on the second floor of our row house, I was awakened, about 8 a.m. by a gagging, burning feeling in my throat.  With eyes watering up, I thought the house was on fire.  Upon further investigation, my frantic search led me to the basement and the narrow door that led to the attached garage. 

Upon opening it, I saw my father standing at the rear of his Plymouth, with the garage door open, tending to a large frying pan full of boiling olive oil.  The frying pan was on a wooden board on the trunk of the car.  The pan contained a bunch of his favorite long hot peppers that were crackling loudly.  Hot pepper fumes were everywhere and had made their way to my bedroom, providing me with my “wake up call”.  Dad had a hanky around his nose and mouth that made him look like one of the desperados I saw on the Long Ranger.  I told him I was going to call the sheriff.  His tearing eyes and coughing told me he was not amused.  Of course, this well conceived plan was to give Mom a break and cook the peppers outside, while she was at the store, so as not to subject her to the fumes. His heart was in the right place.

Then there were the pranks.  Dad would routinely seek out the hottest peppers he could find from friends and family.  After testing them, he would take a worthy specimen to work at Westinghouse, where he would insert a piece into the sandwiches of fellow pranksters who had made Dad the brunt on earlier occasions.  When the lunch whistle blew he and his friends would break into incontrollable laughter as the victims learned the meaning of “payback”.

At John Bartram High, in Philadelphia, I had a friend who one day bragged that he could eat any hot pepper without flinching.  He did have a degree of talent as I witnessed on several occasions.  He was good.  Then one day, Dad brought home a few peppers that a guy from work had brought in.  They were supposed to be from Mexico and Dad said they were even too hot for him.  Taking his word for it, I took one to school the next day to confront my bragging buddy, who by now had gained quite a reputation and was starting to get a bit obnoxious.  In front of all of the guys at the lunch table, I bet him a dollar that he couldn’t eat ½ of the pepper without getting a drink or eating some bread for the entire lunch period. With peer pressure being one of the strongest forces in the nature of dopey high school boys, he accepted the challenge.  I handed the pepper to him and he obviously hadn’t seen one like it before.  Thinking he would outsmart the pepper, he inserted it into his mouth and chewed only once, then swallowed it.  With 10 of us screaming, laughing and cheering, his face turned as red as a stop light.  His eyes watered profusely and he let out a variety of screams not heard in the lunchroom before or since.  However, he made it through the whole period and won the bet.  He became a legend that day.  I was happy to give him the buck. 

Finally, there was Aunt Tillie.  Tillie, a beautiful lady, had no peer when it came to eating crushed red pepper.  Being my wife’s aunt, I first saw Tillie in action, about 45 years ago, when we visited her and had dinner at her home in Longport, N.J.  As Tillie sat at the table, she grabbed her dish and began to coat the bottom of it with pepper.  The entire bottom was covered with about ¼” of pepper.  Sitting next to her, I just stared as she added the spaghetti to the dish.  Still watching, I surmised she would now mix everything up, along with the gravy she had added. 

Nope….she wasn’t done yet.

She then coated the top of the entire dish with the same amount of pepper that was on the bottom.  I was nearly awestruck as she began eating her meal and not flinching one bit.  I was in the presence of greatness.

I guess I was about 18 when I started to enjoy eating hot peppers. I didn’t realize then what I learned later.  Like all of the other male members of the family, I now could relate to the stories told by my father and uncles on a different level.

I was proud to have joined the club.


Charles Sacchetti is the author of two books, It’s All Good: Times and Events I’d Never Want to Change and his new book, Knowing He’s There: True Stories of God’s Subtle Yet Unmistakable Touch. Both are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and other online outlets. Contact him at

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