“We’ve got some fresh peppers in here. They’re not hot,” Rep. Randy Weber, R-Texas, mischievously goads his congressional aides after pouring out the baggie full of mixed chilies he religiously totes around in his coat pocket.
Sam Lombardo, a much-too-trusting summer intern, takes the bait, hurling a pea-sized ornamental pepper down the hatch.
The impetuous youth makes it through the first few bites unscathed, but is soon fanning his wide-open mouth for relief while Weber — who is always looking to welcome new chili-heads into the fold — chuckles with delight.
The freshman lawmaker said he began cultivating capsaicin-laced comestibles while toiling away in the Texas Legislature. Weber's wife, Brenda, came home several years ago with an ornamental pepper shrub and deposited it right next to the house, he said.
Once the plant began to flourish, the Texas Republican became intrigued. Shortly thereafter, he began plucking off handfuls of the vibrantly colored pods to snack on here and there.
In no time, Weber found that he’d developed a taste for the exhilarating fruit.
“I’m told that these are full of vitamin C … and they speed up your metabolism,” he said of his alimentary obsession.
These days, Weber oversees pepper crops in at least two different time zones. He fosters jalapenos, banana peppers, cayenne and ornamental varieties at his apartment here in D.C. Back home, he tends to the heavy artillery: staggeringly intense “ghost” peppers (Bhut Jolokia) and nasal-clearing serranos.
“I bring some from Texas every time I fly,” Weber said of his always handy collection.
Still, satisfying his apparently insatiable appetite for culinary fire starters hasn’t been easy since landing his gig here in the District.
Weber was disappointed to learn recently that, unlike back home in the Lone Star State, hot pepper seedlings are not a year-round commodity. The sad realization took hold after he popped by a local Home Depot earlier this winter and staff informed him that they wouldn’t even begin stocking hot pepper plants until around April.
Once the calendar finally flipped, Weber returned to the home improvement giant to retrieve the greenery deemed most likely to spice up his day-to-day existence: cayenne and banana pepper plants.
“I haven’t been able to find the sweet banana pepper strain,” he lamented of the limited resources available to him here in D.C.
Of course, he’s learned how to make his own fun with what he’s got.
His typical approach when seeking out a new tasting buddy, is to sidle up to a fellow pol and inquire, “Do you like fresh peppers?” Most, he said, tend to immediately wave him off.
But if Weber senses any interest — or perhaps even just a flash of uncertainty — he'll move in for the kill.
Any queries about the intensity of the eagerly offered samples elicits a knowing wink and Weber’s pat assurance, "They’re hot. But, you know, you can handle it.”
“And then they go to dancing,” he says, alluding to the nervous shuffling often spurred by encountering a particularly searing specimen.
So far, Weber has only encountered a handful of willing takers here on the Hill, a roster that includes:
- Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Ill. (“He’ll eat them pretty consistently,” according to Weber.)
- Rep. Richard Hudson, R-N.C. (“He’s eaten them a time or two. He’s not quite as gung-ho as Rodney is.”)
- Rep. Alan Grayson, D-Fla. (“Alan was willing to do it. One time.”)
- Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas (“He ate a couple and that was it; he was done. He said, ‘I’m not doing that again.’ ”)
- Rep. Doug LaMalfa, R-Calif. (The pair split a banana pepper one night while at dinner.)
Weber says he gave Rep. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kan., a go not too long ago, but couldn’t get the wary lawmaker to bite.
Same deal with many of the fellow GOP lawmakers who attend the Texan luncheon meeting every Thursday.
“I don’t know if the rest of ’em have got too much sense or not enough guts,” Weber jokes.
Some, we imagine, may find his particular consumption pattern — chowing down on raw peppers at just about every chance he gets — a bit intimidating. “In all honesty, I eat them too fast,” Weber said when asked whether he ever incorporates his favorite crop into palate-punishing hot sauces or brow-beading salsas.
Per Weber, a friend has pickled some of his peppers in the past. And he seems to recall Brenda folding a few of the spicy fruits into scorching dipping sauces once or twice before. Most of the time, Weber remains content to weave whatever cultivar he’s got into his breakfast (omelets), lunch (hamburgers) or dinner (beans and rice).
“The ornamental plant has become my favorite,” he maintained, hailing the hardiness and travel-friendly size of the potent accent.
He may not yet see it, but Weber’s one-man campaign to light a fire in his colleagues’ bellies appears to be working.
Davis is psyched about the mounting tasting experiences he’s shared with his pepper-packing pal. According to a spokesman, the Illinois Republican has enjoyed just about every strain of pepper Weber has put in front of him (ghost, Thai), but remains partial to the tried-and-true jalapeno.
“He’s tried to grow them at home, but it’s never quite worked out,” Team Davis volunteered of the boss’ apparent inability to match Weber’s green thumb. Instead, staff says Davis makes do by routinely sprinkling Frank’s Red Hot and La Victoria Salsa Brava Hot Sauce on meals, or by feasting on his wife’s pepper-laced fresh salsa.
Hudson, a self-described “amateur chili head," is even more forthcoming about his passion for hot stuff. “I put Tabasco on everything — eggs, fries, etc. I like something thicker like Texas Pete on hush puppies,” he said.
Per Hudson, slow-cooked collards and smoked meats are best treated with pepper vinegar, while tucking jalapenos into well, anything, makes most meals infinitely more pleasing. “My favorite meal in the cloakroom is an egg salad sandwich with jalapenos and Tabasco,” the proud Southerner proclaimed.
Meanwhile, the work Weber’s put in here to recreate his thriving pepper patch in Friendswood, Texas, stirred up memories of the thriving garden his family oversaw during the 1980s.
That plot, which took root behind their very first home, provided Weber, his wife and his then school-aged children with an abundance of potatoes, green beans, cantaloupe, broccoli and tomatoes for around five produce-filled years.
And it sounds like Weber would love to recapture those salad days in the near future.
“I really ought to be doing that again with my grandkids,” the suddenly wistful sexagenarian mused — seconds before slipping another ornamental pepper into his mouth.
Hot Pepper Cheat Sheet “Ghost” peppers: 850,000-1 million-plus Scoville heat units Habanero peppers: 100,000-350,000 Scoville heat unites Thai peppers (green): 50,000-100,000 Scoville heat units Cayenne peppers: 30,000-50,000 Scoville heat units Ornamental peppers: 5,000-30,000 Scoville heat units Serrano peppers: 10,000-25,000 Scoville heat units Jalapeno peppers: 3,500-10,000 Scoville heat units Banana peppers: 100-900 Scoville heat units