Posted by Jenn Thorson at 4:00 AM Labels: fiery death, hot sauce, new orleans, office humor, tradeshow
Years ago, when I did corporate tradeshows, we had a show to do in steamy, spicy New Orleans. And as luck would have it, the technical expert we'd sent-- an outdoorsy ruddy-faced, blond we'll call Lars-- loved nothing more in the world than a flamingly hot hot-sauce. And when I say hot, I mean backdraft, four-alarm, do-it-yourself cremation kind of hot.
Tabasco? HA! None of that simpy-wimpy Tabasco for him-- no sir!
Lars sought the kind of hot sauce that would send your taste buds packing for Hell as a reprieve...
The kind that would blister the skin off the roof of your mouth by just looking at the bottle...
The kind that could make steely-eyed, lantern-jawed men who ate razor blades and rusty nails for breakfast get weepy and wail fer their mommies and pee flaming rivets...
Lars loved hot sauce-- and New Orleans, my friends, is hot sauce country. So on our one freebie day in the city, my buddy Lars and I went to find the sauce of his dreams.
And far past the the beignet booths and the po' boy sandwich shops...
The pseudo-voodoo tourist traps and the Mardi Gras beads sellers ...
Past the steel drum band playing "Girl From Ipanema," because that was the only song they knew...
Beyond all this... At the very, very end of the French Quarter market, there it was...
Crazy Francois' Maison de Fier.
The shop window alone was enough to make Lars' heart skip a beat. In it, in the golden glow of a spotlight shone 200 bottles of hot sauce.
Bottles with names like: Jabenero Pete Brand Flame Thrower or Dante's Eleventh Ring. Or Rectum Retaliation. Or Nawlins' Death Juice. Or Uncle Looney's Lip Bleeder.
We strode into the store, and were surrounded by walls and walls of the stuff. Hot sauces. Hot sauce salsa. Hot sauce pickles. Hot sauce chips. Hot sauce oils. Hot sauce ties and hats and shirts and umbrellas. Even hot sauce coffee and chocolates... Y'know, for multi-taskers.
Lars looked like a kid at Christmas, his eyes in wide-eyed wonder at the glowing red display of fiery fantasy before him.
A tan, curly-haired man-- possibly The Francois himself!-- sidled up to him solicitously. "May I help you?"
"I'm looking for a good hot sauce," said Lars. "The hotter the better."
Francois raised an eyebrow and sized Lars up, from his six-foot-four frame and pink face, to his bright blond hair.
"Hm," he said thoughtfully, "I might have something for you." And he went over to the register counter and from an open bottle there, put a little hot sauce on a small red spoon. "Try this."
Lars took the spoon, tasted... and laughed, deep and mirthful like Bacchus at a particularly rip-roaring bacchanalia. "Nice. Probably fine for the kiddies to put on fries. But I was looking for something in a... hot sauce."
"Ahhh!" Francois' eyes glowed at the response. He had not suspected. Surely, in this world of wimpy tourists, it could not possibly be that he had a true officianado in his midst? He took another small red spoon and poured a dash from another bottle on the counter. This liquid was a deep red-brown. "Well, then maybe you might find this one more to your taste."
He handed the spoon to Lars. Lars tasted. There was a momentary pause...
And Lars, expression unchanged said, "Flavorful. Pleasant. But I don't really consider it very hot, do you?"
Ah, authority was being questioned! Francois was now wondering if this was the Real Deal. But, no... this could not truly be a connoisseur of the hot pepper? They were so rare these days. "No," said Francois simply. "In fact, I don't consider it very hot. So this makes me think that... this sauce.... might appeal to you."
From a third bottle there on the countertop he poured. This time, the liquid was a bright green color. Francois watched Lars closely.
Lars took the spoon, sipped, and I noticed a bead of sweat pop out on his forehead. He smiled, but his smile was just ever so slightly forced. There was a longer pause than the last time before Lars responded, "Energetic... a very fresh taste... a little low on the spice, though. A waste of my time, really."
Francois grew flushed under his tan, and an exhilarated sigh escaped his lips. "Interesting, very interesting..." he said meditatively. His hand trembled a bit. His heart had begun to race. It was clear it had been a long time since Francois had had a customer such as this!
He pondered a moment, and then went under the counter.
Sauce after sauce, he poured from some secret stash under the counter. And one by one, Lars took them, tasted, and gave each a summary as if it were some simple bottle of wine.
Some he deemed smoky. Some he called tomatoey. Some he said had an aftertaste of wood or leaves or brine.
But by now Lars' pink face had gone a deep magenta, and bubbles of perspiration had cropped up suddenly at his temples like mushrooms from the earth. With every spoonful, he remained deadpan. With every spoonful Francois watched attentively, looking for the slightest movement to betray pain.
By this round of death in a bottle, I swear I saw a tumbleweed roll by and music from Ennino Morricone wa-wa in the background.
There seemed to be no end.
And then Francois put up a finger, and ducked behind a curtain into the back room. He came out with a simple, streamlined bottle black as night. One so elegant, it could have been art. And so black, it could have been poured from the heart of a voodoo priestess.
He handled it gingerly, opening the cap with light fingers. I thought I saw a whiff of gray steam escape!
And from the bottle slid a liquid of a thick, gray-green. It was the color of festering flesh, army drab and tombstones all rolled into one.
It looked unnaturally chunky, I thought, as it glopped into the spoon. Probably loaded with the singed hair and cremated bones of those who last tasted it.
It might just have sizzled.
And did I see fear flash behind Lars' bright blue eyes?
I didn't dare think about it. It was going to be awfully hard to explain to my supervisors back at the office that they needed to send another one of our tech guys to help at the booth immediately. As the last one had died in a rare incident of spontaneous combustion.
Lars took the spoon with a slow, slightly unsteady hand. He knew that he was officially in Hot Sauce No Man's Land now. But he had stepped across the border, and there was simply no going back.
He took a sip. I looked at him. I looked at Francois.
Francois looked at him. Lars looked at Francois. Francois looked at me. We both looked at Lars.
Lars' face went crimson, then ashen. His blue eyes suddenly were wet and rimmed red. His eyebrow quivered as slightly as a ladybug being blown away by a child.
"Well?" said Francois.
"Well?" said I, fully getting ready to dial 911.
A pause. A mighty exhale.
"This one," Lars said, smiling and pulling out a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. "This is the one I want. Fantastic, just fantastic. So flavorful and just the right amount of heat. This bottler is a genius. A genius, I tell you."
Francois rang up the purchase with admiration and perhaps tears shining in his deep brown eyes. He had finally found someone worthy of his store.
And to this day, if you step into the French Market and get the locals talking, they still recount tales of the showdown between Crazy Francois and the mysterious Viking...
The one who came from the north, with the hair fair as snow, and who strode from the blistering Inferno unharmed.