Joe De Matteo

Writings and thoughts (with many digressions)

Short-fictionEssaysNon-FictionFaith/ReligionNovels - soonmore to come

by Joseph De Matteo

            There are very few inedible souvenirs that I want to get. I don’t have a lot of interests that you could base a souvenir on, nor do I collect things like salt and pepper shakers; and let me tell you, I certainly don’t like plates and such that say “Niagara Falls.”

            My son brings me something from every trip, he knows me well, and he knows what I’ll be happy with.  While local booze or wine always brings a smile, I do have a favorite.  I’ll give you an example of his uncanny ability at picking winners for me.  Two years ago he went to New Orleans for Mardi Gras.  From that trip he brought me an outstanding shot glass from the D-Day museum...and hot sauce.  You see, hot sauce, for me, is a great gift for any occasion, but an obscure brand of hot sauce, from an exotic place is a thing to be treasured.

            Cuyahoga River Skim, Vintage 1969 (Caution: Toxic & Flamable); Reggie’s Blue Bonnet Flame Out; Eduardo’s Famous Green Pepper Condiment and Truth Serum; Wong’s Atomic Hot Sauce; Lester’s Fully Insured Hot Sauce; Benny’s Burger Napalm; Chuck’s Chunky Hell Drippings; Rodney’s Universal Solvent and Chili Picker-upper; The Puebla Punisher; West Texas Torture.  Tabasco is great, I eat it every day,  But I love trying, and sometimes dying, behind a few liberal shakes of an obscure hot sauce.

           His New Orleans trip was most profitable.  Along with the shot glass with the cool D-Day museum logo, I got a 4-pack called: Dave’s Hot Sauce Variety.

Heaven!  Pure, Hot Pepper Heaven.

This summer he told me he was going to Puerto Rico.  I must admit, I was jealous.  You see I love Puerto Rico; I’ve some wonderful memories from that particular Caribbean island.  I believe I’d move there if those folks would quit talking like they do and started speaking English.

My mouth waters just to think about sipping a steaming cup of sweet Puerto Rican coffee and milk, on a warm morning in San Juan.  Now look, isn’t that just like me, thinking in terms of myself?  So a change of attitude has me thinking about what a great time my son would have in that beautiful place, looking for souvenirs for me.

Well, he must have had a great time, because he brought me two bottles of 8-year old Bacardi Reserve Rum-he'd visited the Bacardi Rum factory.  What a good kid!  I must admit, I put a lot of effort into him.  And as you can see, it's paid off.

He also got me a bottle of hot pepper sauce.  He’d picked it up at this tiny shop, that was down a crooked, narrow street in Old San Juan.  The tiny shop was full of shelves packed with brightly labeled bottles and jars.  In the back wall was a small, tightly closed door with a sign that said, “Kitchen and Office.  Do Not Enter.”  The man, my son told me, could have been 60 or 90.  He was bent over and he shuffled around the small shop.  However, when an angry man came in complaining about something, the old man seemed to rise up and his whole countenance seemed to change: he morphed into something quite menacing.

All of this I heard in the background, I was concentrating on the flask shaped bottle that I held in my hand, “Don Hugo, Special Puerto Rican Blend,” it proclaimed. 

I can’t tell you how excited I was.

Holding a bottle of the Rum in his hand, my son said, “Put the hot sauce down, Dad, let’s give this a test drive.”  He was right, of course, we could sip the rum and talk about the hot sauce.  I got some ice and poured out two-fingers of the Rum…four-fingers of Rum for each of us.  It was wonderful; as smooth as any fine spirit.  And flavorful. 

“This is great!” I said. 

“Dad, I hate to say this, or rather, admit it, but they had a better one than the 8 Year Old Reserve.”  As we sipped the golden liquid we thought, how could any rum be better than this?

I pushed the thought of a quick trip to Puerto Rico out of my head.

We drank and I examined the bottle of hot sauce.  It was a clear glass pint-flask bottle, with a colorful label.  The white label brightly depicted red and green peppers, garlic, onions, and fruits, over a background of a woman walking down a sand beach.

Through the transparent glass bottle I could see the cloudy, translucent liquid that made me think of sweet white vinegar and brine.  There were three slim, red peppers floating among slices of other vegetables and specs of spices.  There were also pieces of an exotic looking something that we couldn’t put a name to, and tiny particulates.  You almost had the feeling that if you were to shake the bottle these tiny pieces would work their way down like the snow flakes in one of those Christmas snow scenes.

While the rum was delicious, Don Hugo’s blend was interesting, even compelling to behold.  We talked about cutting the red plastic band that loosely hung off the black cap on one side of the bottle (we called it “the seal that wasn’t”), once off, we would be able to smell what we felt would have to be an exotic scent from the Caribbean.  This was certainly not a Tabasco knock-off.

I stowed Don Hugo in the refrigerator to await an idea as to how to use it.

I forgot about the bottle for two busy weeks.  One afternoon I had time to make a hot lunch for myself.  I started collecting ingredients: left-over rice, beans, an onion, garlic, celery and parsley. 

I dropped the chopped up vegetables into the hot oil I had in my favorite pan.  As that sautéed I grabbed a bottle of soy sauce and went to the fridge for ginger and a stewed tomato.  That’s when I saw the bottle of Don Hugo Special Puerto Rican Blend.

I took the tomato and the hot sauce only.  This was the chance I’d been waiting for.  I chopped up the stewed plumb tomato and added that to the sauté, and when the moment was right I added 1 oz. of the souvenir hot sauce.

It smelled great.

Sitting at the table, a heaping bowl of my fragrant lunch before me, and the colorful bottle of hot pepper heaven standing tall just off my place mat, I began to eat.

As I ate the delicious mixture I thought of different dishes to use my new treasure in.  Cubed Fried Pork, rice and beans, beef and beans, Portuguese fried rice, the possibilities for new twists on old recipes were endless.  The thought of using it in fish marinade came to me.

With my mouth full and my teeth enjoying the chomping, I turned the bottle and started  to read the ingredient list.  I read it twice.  I tried to single out the tastes of the items listed.  I tried to identify the secret ingredients purposely left out.

The ingredient list read: Garlic, Onions, Vegetable Oil, Puerto Rican, Distilled Water, Red Pepper.  Once I noticed “Puerto Rican” all by itself, I read it two more times before I realized that it wasn’t me, that there was some kind of misprint or typo here.

The first nagging question was, Puerto Rican what?  Had they left something out?

Puerto Rican was the last item on the first line of ingredients and the second line started with Distilled Water, but there was a bullet point between them.  An obvious answer was the bullet between them was a mistake and it should read “Puerto Rican Distilled Water.”  But that was a totally unnecessary description. 

There was of course, the most obvious and disgusting: there was no typo.  One of the ingredients was a…Puerto Rican.

Maybe that woman walking down the beach depicted on the label.

Where those small un-definable morsels bits of human flesh?  Prepared by an ageless, shape-changing cannibal who lived and worked in a hard-to-find building, with a locked up kitchen, which undoubtedly had human bodies, and body parts hanging from meat hooks like so much beef and pork.

I spit out my food, ran out the back door into the yard and threw up in the hedges. 

I vomited my guts out, and every time the unrelenting taste of Don Hugo’s Blend rose from the pores of my tongue, I heaved.  I heaved the deep heaves of someone with nothing left in his stomach.  I used a tube of toothpaste to scrub the taste out of my tongue and pallet, and to get every tiny piece of human flesh from between my teeth.

I couldn’t keep anything in my stomach for days.  It was three days before I stopped dry puking.  Every muscle in my upper body ached.  I actually felt like I had broken ribs, because all the muscles in my chest cavity hurt so badly.  I kept my mind full so I wouldn’t think about what I’d eaten.  I studied an old, thick college dictionary, the cover of which advertised seven-hundred and fifty billion words.  I looked for one of the tiny pictures of something I couldn’t identify.

Dolabriform leaf: shaped like an ax or a cleaver; Echidna: any of several insectivorous…; snaffle: a bit, usually joined in the middle; stomacher: a richly ornamented garment covering the chest and stomach worn by both sexes in the 15th century.

But it was no use.  Once you’ve inadvertantly eaten another person, or some small part of them, you’re doomed for life.  And once your will has been co-opted by that demon, Don Hugo, even your very soul is lost, for you have no control of your will. 

No, I was not looking at my neighbors in a new way!

I was, however, drawn to the refrigerator and that damned bottle of hot sauce.

I don’t know why I did it, after the intimacy that we’d shared, but I put on a pair of disposable gloves.  Armed with the latex barrier, I removed the flask from the refrigerator shelf and went into the back porch to read it again. 

I’d put the bottle down on the table and left it there.  Looking into my lap, I heard the outside door open, “Joe.  Is this stuff that hot, you have to ware gloves around it?”  It was my neighbor, John. 

“No. I…”

“This must be good, if a cheap home-made label is any barometer.  Look at the ingredient list.”

“Oh my God,” I screamed.  John dropped the bottle on the floor and jumbed back a step, “what is it?” 

“I.  I…”

John picked up the unbroken bottle.  Pointing to the ingredient list he said, “Look they have printed three lines on two.”

Sure enough, the last ingredient was itself printed on two lines to the right of the two lines of ingredients: Puerto Rican Red Peppers.

Garlic · Onions · Vegetable Oil


Puerto Rican
Red Peppers

· Distilled Water

 Copyright 2004 Joseph De Matteo all rights reserved.

Items of Interest mentioned in this essay



 Joe De Matteo

Joseph De Matteo

Joseph De Matteo


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