Food for the Soul

Story Jeff Clark | Photographs Birney Imes


Photographed by Birney Imes.

will never forget the first time I saw my grandfather place a running water hose down his overalls. It was a hot Mississippi summer day. I was at my grandparents’ house “in the country,” hanging out with various members of my family. I was outside and saw Papaw running toward the water hose. Next thing I knew, the hose was down his overalls and the cold water was running out the bottom, flooding his feet in a pool of water.

“Damn, Papaw must be hot,” I thought. I just assumed he, at the age of 70-something, was having a hard time with another oppressive Mississippi summer. And yes, he was hot, but it wasn’t due to the weather.

Papaw always planted a garden in the spring, as did my other grandfather, Papa. The ’70s and ’80s were different times, and planting and harvesting food for one’s family and friends was commonplace. They didn’t use terms like organic or farm fresh, or the especially loathsome phrase farm-to-table. Older generations were into sustainability … way before it was hip.

Although my grandfathers were different as men, their gardens were pretty similar: tomatoes, okra, squash, pole beans, peas, watermelons and peppers ranging from the sweet banana variety to hot jalapeños to “These-peppers-are-too-hot-for-human-consumption-, so-why-in-the-hell-did-you-plant-them?” types such as cayennes and habaneros.

I’ve grown to love hot peppers and spicy foods as I’ve gotten older. I love that cheap hot sauce from Louisiana with the sun on the bottle, and I love the white-vinegar pepper sauce you drizzle over collard greens or black-eyed peas. But my history with hot peppers and hot food is somewhat sordid.

As a young man, I had a pretty sensitive stomach. One of my first memories of hot peppers involves my grandmother pickling hot peppers in boiling vinegar. The smell was too much for me. I threw up for what seemed liked an eternity. My poor grandmother made me a bologna and ketchup sandwich and set me on the back porch from where I could watch the “Mickey Mouse Club” through the screen door.

Another pepper memory that haunts me is giving my neighbor John a jalapeño and telling him it was candy. I am still ashamed of myself.

But my most vivid pepper memory is seeing Papaw with that garden hose down his pants. Turned out, after an afternoon of gardening, he had to relieve himself. It was a hard-learned lesson that habanero peppers and privates don’t mix.

Today, I love hot peppers and I love spicy food. I loathe — with a passion — anything described with the words insanity, nuclear or ghost chilies. Hot is good, but too hot is pointless. I’m also not a fan of hot wings contests and the people who enter them. Heat is a flavor enhancer; it’s not a flavor. I don’t want to eat anything that makes steam come out of my ears as if I’m Yosemite Sam. Just a slight burn or tingle — no blisters.

There’s a science to peppers and why they are hot. It has something to do with capsaicin, which is what brings the heat. To learn more about this sensation, I talked to Scott Enlow of Black Creek Farms in Columbus, Miss. Scott grows a variety of peppers from green chilies to burn-your-bottom cayenne. I have walked more than a mile round trip to purchase some of Scott’s peppers at the farmers’ market … and to get some homemade pork skins — don’t judge me.

“When the summers are extremely hot and dry, my peppers are hotter,” Scott says. ”One year, they were too hot to eat.” Bless Scott Enlow for not releasing his apocalyptic fire peppers upon the public.

What is just the right amount of hot? Papaw had a friend named Big Jim who made barbecue sauce and, among other things, moonshine. Big Jim would slaughter a hog or two every winter and smoke the shoulder. His sauce, although it would make me tear up occasionally, was the perfect mix of black and red pepper. It is the sauce I’ve spent most of my adult life trying to recreate.

So, ¡Salud! to hot sauce and hot peppers and pepper sauce and everything in between. As the title of the Marilyn Monroe movie tells us — some like it hot. And some like it really hot and some people just like to act a fool.


I don’t want anything to do with Buffalo. Not the Bills (or any of the city’s sports teams), not the weather — I’ve been to Buffalo in the winter and it ain’t fun — and certainly not the sauce. So, I created my own chicken wing sauce. It contains ketchup, which adds body and gives the sauce more depth and flavor. Honestly, I like it best over chicken thighs. Take that, Buffalo. I’ve named it for one of my favorite places, Tibbee Creek. Lord knows it has been long enough without its own sauce.

3 cups ketchup
1 cup Louisiana brand hot sauce
2 sticks butter

• Melt butter over medium heat in saucepan.
• Whisk in hot sauce and fold in ketchup. Whisk briskly to keep sauce from separating.
• Bring sauce to a boil then let simmer over very low heat. Whisk occasionally.

I recommend frying some chicken thighs, pouring this sauce over them and baking them for about 20 minutes at 350 degrees.


There are several things a Southern gentleman should know about the South. “Smokey and the Bandit” is one of the best movies ever made; Bear Bryant was a hell of a coach and most importantly, a real man knows the difference between hot sauce and pepper sauce and what they go on. If you like to put pepper sauce on anything other than collard greens or peas, then the term “carpetbagger” applies.

1/2 gallon white vinegar (Only Yankees use apple cider vinegar)
1/4 gallon hot water
2 pounds jalapeño peppers, sliced
1 cup sugar
Sterilized pint jars and lids

• Bring vinegar and water to a boil and stir in sugar.
• Slice peppers. Place a cup or so of sliced peppers into each jar (jars should be sterilized and hot).
• Pour liquid over sliced peppers.
• Seal jars and let them rest.
• Go to sleep, wake up, make some collard greens and cornbread and pour some pepper sauce over it. Eat it up and think about how amazing your Mamaw was.