Deb Susan and the Serrano of Doom

In my family’s language , “funny stories” translates to “let’s embarrass the children.”

And so, with no further ado:

When my son was small, I often took him to visit my father on weekends. Dad lived 20 minutes from us, with a big backyard where my son could run and play. Dad also loved Jack-in-the-Box cheeseburgers, so I usually picked up lunch on the way.

One midsummer afternoon when my son was two, Dad and I sat at the patio table and talked over lunch while the kiddo orbited the yard like a hyperactive moon, returning for a bite or two of his burger or a rapidly-cooling fry between circuits.

That summer Dad supplemented his backyard tomato garden with three serrano chile plants. The plants had matured, their skinny arms

Image courtesy antpkr/

sporting a tantalizing assortment of brilliant red chile fruit.

Fruit that looked an awful lot like candy.

My son saw the peppers and raced to the table. He pointed. “Want.”

“No, you don’t,” Dad said. “Those are serrano chiles.  Very hot.”

My son’s lip quivered.  “I want one.”

“Too hot,” Dad said, “burn your mouth like fire.”

But my son had made up his mind. He must have a chile, and have it now, and since we refused he escalated negotiations.  His face screwed up, his little hands bunched at his sides.

Dad offered real candy and even an ice cream from the fridge.  No dice.  My kid wanted a pepper, and if he couldn’t have a pepper he’d have a tantrum.

“Okay,” I said, “but only one.”

My father looked as though I’d lost my mind.

The storm clouds vanished, replaced by a brilliant smile.  “Okay, just one.”

“You won’t like it,” I warned him.  “It will burn your mouth.  It’s yucky.”

Dad couldn’t believe I was serious.

“It’s a life lesson,” I said as my son debated which pepper to pick.  “It won’t kill him, or make him sick.”

My son selected a one-inch pepper, popped it into his mouth, and chewed.

I looked at Dad and counted. “One, two, three.”

My son opened his mouth and removed the pepper – still almost whole, with a deep set of teeth marks imprinted in the surface.

“I don’t like it.”

And then he began to cry.

I handed over his milkshake and watched him take a very large swallow.  The crying stopped. The tears and the lesson were over.

Never again did my son insist on eating something I told him he wouldn’t like.  In fact, for almost a year he reacted to every new food by looking at me and asking, “Do I like this?  Is it … hot?

Every food.

No pepper in candy’s clothing has ever fooled him again.

Have you ever had an unpleasant spicy surprise? Would you let your children learn this lesson “the hard way” – or would you have put up with a storm of tears? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

12 Replies to “Deb Susan and the Serrano of Doom”

  1. Ooh dear, poor little tyke. But yes – when a perfect opportunity for natural consequences presents itself – the lesson is much more likely to stay learned. As for myself, some friends invited me to lunch one day. It was an unusual invitation, we didn’t usually have that sort of friendship. While looking at menus, both of them kept suggesting that I really needed to try the same dish. My spidey senses were tweaked like crazy so I adamantly refused. Turned out the whole event centered around the idea of watching me eat one of the hottest peppers known to man! I feel most fortunate that I escaped that particular experience.

    1. Glad to hear you escaped your own personal chili of doom! An important lesson for all of us: the closer the friend, the more one should question suspicious recommendations…

  2. That is our youngest!! She fearlessly seized some spicy food not too long ago and now almost every spoonful of food is prefaced by: “Is it spicy? Is it hot?”

    When you’re married to a New Orleanian, you grow an extra layer of skin where you need it, eventually;)

    1. It’s so funny how they learn, isn’t it?

      You’re lucky to have a family that likes the spicy though! Except for my son (and my dad, who died a few years ago), I’m on my own in my love of all things chili pepper!

  3. I imagine your son would have bit into one of those peppers at some point. Better that he was with you when he did! Do you think he’ll be hot-food adverse forevermore?

    My parents used that method on me when it came to alcohol. They’d let me sip if I cared to, and I’d always pucker up with disgust. Too bad the disgust didn’t last through high school. Hah!

    1. Ironically, my son now LOVES spicy foods. He’s my Thai-food-eating companion, and though he doesn’t eat it Thai hot like I do, his taste still runs substantially hotter than most people’s.

      You’re so right that he would have eaten the pepper anyway. He’d have found some way to slip into the yard and snag one when I wasn’t looking.

      My parents did the same thing with alcohol – my dad used to let me have a sip of his wine or the foam off his beer (for some reason, I thought beer foam was tasty…). In my case, the disgust kind of lasted – but then, I was kind of a geek in high school so I didn’t go to very many parties – if I had, I might have decided to drink more than the foam off the beer!

  4. My mom always tells the story of how an unwitting Irish-American friend of hers once popped an entire habenero pepper in his mouth at a party (as an ADULT) and proceeded to turn the color of a firetruck. With a kid, I might let the serrano slide (learning through experience!), but I don’t think I could let anyone eat a whole habenero!!

  5. We’d better not go to dinner together then! I love habaneros – also love Thai bird chiles – the little bright red wonders you find in Thai hot food. Mmmmm – chiles.

    I totally believe the fire-truck red flush, though. Chiles definitely get the system going – and boy, a habanero would really set you free if you weren’t expecting it!

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