My father loved his salsa. In fact, he always carried a jar of salsa in his coat pocket just in case of an emergency. By an emergency, I mean that rare event when we actually ate a non-Mexican house or restaurant that had never even heard of salsa, peppers, or even Tabasco sauce. My father was always at the ready with his jar of salsa. He was prepared for just about any disaster of this type. At Burger King, when they asked him if he wanted everything on his Whopper, he said, “Yes, everything. And salsa!” When they would tell him that they didn’t have salsa, he would say, “That’s okay! I brought my own!” And he would pull out his jar of salsa from his pocket. He loved watching their facial expression when they saw that he actually had a jar of salsa. Some days, he felt that one jar of salsa alone would not suffice, so he would also bring a jar of jalapeño peppers. He ate jalapeño peppers like some people eat olives.
At home, my father tried to instill in us the values of our Mexican heritage. Number one on the list was teaching us how to eat salsa or peppers at every meal with every food that we were served. We always put up an argument every time. He even wanted me to put salsa on my corn flakes once! He loved to make his own salsa, but no one else liked it, not even my mother. Once he made some salsa and I saw him put a spoonful in his mouth. He had made it extremely hot. It was too hot even for him. He drank a tall glass of water, but it took a while before he actually cooled off. Then, he offers me some. I said no, of course. But then he gave me the “What kind of Mexican are you?” speech and I felt compelled to try some of his salsa. My father had tricked me into tasting it by telling me that it wouldn’t be that spicy. I did taste it, but grudgingly. He told me to try a piece of diced potato that had been floating in the liquid of his homemade salsa jar. I think, how hot can it be? It’s just a potato. Wow! I bit into this potato and it was hotter than any jalapeño pepper I had ever tasted.
When I was growing up there were people starving all over the world, but our parish and school decided to collect alms for the starving children in Biafra. They showed us pictures of these Biafran children who were basically nothing but skin and bones with bloated stomachs. On the one hand, these children so evoked our sympathy for them that we donated our candy money to feed these starving children in Biafra. On the other hand, some boys soon forgot about the starving Biafran children and invoked the name of Biafra for other purposes. In fact, they started calling the skinniest boy in the school Biafra. Biafra, I mean the skinniest boy in the school, happened to be in my class. And whenever someone wanted to poke fun at this skinny boy, he would go up to the Biafra collection can on the nun’s desk, drop a coin in the can, and say, “This is for Biafra.” Of course, he would then take a long look at the skinniest boy in the school. I’ll never understand why the skinniest boy in the school just took it, instead of exploding and just start pounding someone. Anyway, back to my father and his salsa. Nice segue, no? Sometimes my father would cook our food and put the salsa in it while he cooked, as if we wouldn’t notice the flavor of salsa in the food. And as a diversion, he would put a big jalapeño pepper on the plate, too. One day, my brothers and I were just sitting there staring at our food on our plates. We were starving, but we couldn’t eat it. Then my father got angry at us and said, “You should be grateful you have food to eat. There are starving children in Biafra!” I said, “Well, why don’t you send the food to them?” But then I realized that no matter how hungry someone was, he or she wouldn’t eat my father’s food anyway. I tried to imagine a skinny boy in Biafra receiving my father’s care package and seeing my plate of food with a big jalapeño pepper on top of the food. How hungry would he have to be in order to eat my father’s spicy cooking? No, I never could imagine a Biafran boy eating my father’s food.
And what did I learn from all this? Well, I learned a valuable lesson that I sometimes share with my own sons. It’s part of our family tradition. So when my sons are sitting around the table complaining about the meal, sans salsa, that I cooked for them, I tell them, “You don’t know how lucky your are! There are starving children in Africa who would like to have an X-Box 360 Elite!”