The Chilli Alchemist: Nov ’15

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No matter who we meet in life, there’s a good chance we will have something in common. It may be something little such as a favourite pizza topping or type of music, but it’s a shared interest nonetheless. Sometimes, when you have a lot in common with a person, you may strike up a lasting friendship, hang out & take part in a variety of social activities together. We all need friends and relationships and many of us thrive in the right company.

I’ve worked in a number of places during my time on this planet and I’m pleased to have made some friends along the way. Every now & then, I meet up with former colleagues who I considered friends. We drink, chat, catch up and then part ways until the next time (which could be months or even years). My friends in the chilli world are different…

There is something special about the chilli community & I can’t quite put my finger on it. There are people who I consider my friends and I only ever see them at chilli themed events & festivals. What makes them special is that some of these people I would not normally be friends with in other circumstances. That’s not to say I dislike them when not at a chilli event, I just find that some personalities don’t always meld. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, I just feel that true friendship can’t be forced. A shared passion for chilli seems to create a strong glue that creates some great relationships which would otherwise not exist due to my personality filters that are subconsciously applied to the people I meet.

I can’t work out whether (in the UK at least) chilli is still a niche topic and, if it is, are we simply a band of brothers? When I meet new people, the subject of making hot sauce and my activity in the chilli world often comes up. I don’t always bring it into conversation without being asked the right questions, but it almost seems like an inevitable topic these days. Most of the time, people seem really fascinated by a growing community that are centered on a fruit! There are a few predictable questions that come up such as “Do you like your meals to be really hot?” and “If you are going out for an Indian meal, will you order the hottest dish on the menu?”. In turn, my responses can often be met with a look of surprise when I explain that I love chillies for their flavours and that heat has to be manageable and enjoyable. I occasionally test myself but I know my limits and, as any chillihead will know, hours of capsaicin cramps isn’t an enjoyable occurrence. My tolerance for heat may be higher than some but that doesn’t mean I can put myself through hell for the sake of eating a chilli-inclusive dish. A person’s surprise at a world of chilli is somewhat understandable. After all, in the UK we don’t seem to have a range of potato, carrot or pear festivals across the county throughout the year! So what makes chilli so special & why have chilliheads formed a close (yet inclusive) community?

Aristotle once said “What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”. Is chilli the soul of our friendships? As mentioned, some of my chilli friends are people I wouldn’t necessarily be friends with if we didn’t have a shared passion. Yet, when I meet with these people regularly throughout the year we eat, drink & laugh together. The conversation isn’t always about the fiery fruit, it can be about all kinds of things although chilli remains at the core. To offer perspective and to also show contrast, I can’t help but think about my years of watching football (‘soccer’ to my US friends). I would walk to the stadium with friends and invariably meet other supporters in the bar before the game. I’d happily talk to the other supporters but the topic was almost 100% centered on the sport. At this point, I have to question whether it’s my personality that prevents further development of a relationship (friendship) outside of the stadium grounds but then I think about my other chilli friends who have made the same observations in their life. It’s all quite philosophical really.

Personally, I find that the chilli community can be very constructive on a personal level. My friends help me develop ideas for new products, they teach me about new things (such as cross-bred varieties) and share information about their own lives that makes me want to do or try new things. I look forward to seeing them, I love discussing with them and enjoy the laughter. Chilli festivals aren’t just about the trading, they are about the socialization and hanging out with people who are much like an extended family. Here in the UK, we traders tend to share information as though we weren’t all competitors. The confidential stuff remains confidential but many offer tips or contacts that may help others. I somewhat doubt that Burger King & McDonalds regularly meet up to share information on how to make each other’s businesses better yet, in this world of chilli, many traders do exactly that. I’d call it a ‘professional friendship’ but, talking from personal experience, it feels like more than that as I spend plenty of time socializing with other traders outside of festival hours. I even bought a birthday cake for my nearest competitor the other week!

If I was going to be completely objective about this matter, I’d research other industries, festivals, forums & clubs to see if chilli really is unique. Maybe there are cycling clubs in the UK who feel the same way many of us do about chilli & its ability to provide a social glue? However, for the purpose of this article, I will remain mildly subjective as I like to think that chilli really is special. I may be wrong, but it’s a nice thought and I’m happy with the benefits.

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