Back in October 2005, I went on an unofficial gastronomical tour of the Pacific Northwest. My gourmand friends dragged me by the belly around Seattle and Portland. It wasn’t hard to convince me to come along—hell, I probably gained ten pounds in a week. I consumed olive-and-honey-speckled cheeses in Pike Place Market, terrific Cajun food and mint juleps in a Portland dive, a Thai peanut sauce that almost made me weep with joy, and Lae-Lae’s homemade spinach crepes.
But I did not meet the Man. We tried.
Dixie’s BBQ is reported to be the finest barbecue west of the Mississippi. This, by the way, is an underwhelming boast. It’s much like claiming you’ve got the best Tex-Mex food north of the Mason-Dixon line—any southern transplant to Chicago could whip up in minutes dishes better than half of what appears on Manhattan plates. Anyway, I felt better about trying the place when I learned that its owners, Gene and Dixie Porter, immigrated to Seattle from Liberty, Mississippi.
The Man is the restaurant’s state secret—a special sauce that’s supposed to be so hot that the Devil himself fears it. Ernesto and I had heard about it from mutual friend Jorge. Gene Porter described it this way in an interview:
What’s in “The Man?” Heat.
How many people actually like it? Nobody like it. The record is 9 spoonfuls.
Do you like it? Nope. I don’t touch it. I ain’t stupid.
Using the logic peculiar to post-adolescent nerds trying to prove their masculinity, we figured that we had to try a sauce that even its creator won’t touch.
We had the desire to set our tongues aflame. We had an address: 11522 Northup Way. We even had a phone number. What we didn’t have was a restaurant. Sure, our car, crammed with folks, found Bellevue and Northup Way readily enough. The address numbers increased from the 100 block to the 200 block to the 300 block to the 15000 block to— Wait; what?! We doubled back. Not only did the street numbers skip about eighty blocks, but the street name changed as well. At some point on the road, we noticed that one side of the road said “Northup Way” while the other side—the side we were on—said another street.
Ostensibly situated in Bellevue, a suburb of Seattle, Dixie’s appeared to exist only in an alternate dimension. We stopped twice in office parks, walked around an empty parking lot, wandered around a business courtyard, and asked for directions from a clueless gas station attendant. After thirty minutes of searching, we found the place—a squat building tucked in-between two six-story, nondescript business buildings, with a faded sign that said “Dixie’s BBQ and Porter Automotive.” Indeed, it looked like a mechanic’s garage. Stomachs grumbling, we pulled in.
You probably know the punchline.
The restaurant was closed.
So, we went out for Thai food, and I never met the Man.
Four months later, I open my mailbox and find a Priority Mail envelope from Seattle. I wasn’t expecting anything, but I recognized Ernesto’s handwriting. There was only one thing inside—a little clear plastic jar, with a handwritten label that said “The Man Sauce.” I unscrewed the lid and peered inside. The jar was half-full, with a chunky sauce with pepper seeds, gummy and mashed pepper carcasses, and a smell so strong that I could smell it at arm’s length. The oil—I guess it’s oil—from the peppers was as thick syrup. The concoction was deep red, really almost black.
I dipped a silver spoon into it, got a sizable chunk, and spread it on a slice of baguette. The red residue that coated the spoon made it appear to be made of copper. It took a good ten-second scrub to get it all off. This should have been a warning but I took a large bit of bread and Man, anyway.
One of my favorite Simpsons episodes involves Homer eating chili laced with pepper so hot that he hallucinates and goes on a vision quest. My experience with the Man was something like that, minus the sitar music. I downed a full carton of lowfat milk and gargled my mouth out with glass after glass of ice water. I kept my mouth open. I said more variations of the word “fuck” than I thought I knew. The cat hid under the futon.
The Man wasn’t done with me, as I found out that evening. My dad once told me this about super-spicy food: “Painful going in, painful going out.” He’s right. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.
I screwed the lid back on the Man, put it in the fridge, and that was the end of it. Sometimes, I open it up looking for orange juice, and I swear the jar stares at me.
For three months now, I’ve been wondering what on Earth I could use the Man for, how I could use it in a recipe that wouldn’t make the neighbors call the cops.
This past weekend, I was hankering for homemade chili—something simple, but interesting. Of all the cookbooks, only one had a variety of chili recipes. I never thought I’d have a use for The New Great American Writers Cookbook—honestly, I have it mostly as a joke—or that the best-looking recipe would come from Jim Lehrer. Lehrer’s “North Texas Chili” called for:
2 lbs. Lean ground meat
2 good-sized cans of stewed tomatoes
1 green pepper, diced
chili powder to taste
salt to taste
2 good-sized can of dark red kidney beans
grated Colby longhorn cheese
The ingredients and directions were blunt, maybe too blunt. (By “green pepper,” does he mean a bell pepper, or a jalapeno or a poblano?) I made a few minor adjustments—one can of kidney beans, one can of black beans; half a bottle of good beer—and one major one. I added a spoonful of the Man to the pot, and left out the chili powder.
A bit of the Man got on my fingers. It was hot as I cooked, partly from the stove, partly because I’m cheap with the air conditioner and it’s June in Mississippi. So, I wiped sweat from my brow. Once. For the next hour, I looked like I had pink-eye, and my right eye stung and throbbed. The Man is not for kids.
Next time, I’ll add a chopped red onion. Otherwise, it was a perfect chili—flavorful, slightly smoky, chunky, rich. The Man gave it enough spice to knock me for a loop, but not so much that it overwhelmed the rest of the elements.
The pot of chili was enough for the next three days. The jar of the Man I’ve got will last for the next three years. Finally, though, I’m glad I’ve got it.