Justin Schrage eating bbq

Memories of Making Hot Sauce with My Dad

by Ava Schrage

My most treasured middle school memories begin with the intense aroma of habanero peppers and pineapple. For most, comfort food equates to mac and cheese or hamburgers, but for my father and me, a touch of homemade hot sauce was a taste of home.

I had memorized all the basics to impress him with my knowledge of spicy foods: where everything landed on the Scoville scale when the best time to harvest peppers was, and what lingers in the membranes of the seeds that create that sweet burn on your tongue.

By the time September rolled around and school began, I knew it was time to begin once again

The bus rides back home, though barely fifteen minutes, were painstakingly long.

As I shove the front door open, I would instantly be slapped by a burning sensation in my sinuses from the blending and boiling of some of the world’s hottest peppers, a greeting I’d kill to get again. All of the windows would be open to air out the house before my mother got home from work, the warm autumn air flowing in and out of the kitchen like welcomed guests going through a revolving door.

I think back fondly on the day when my father and I sat down at his computer to design labels for the bottles. My father was a man of many passions, photography being one of them. We felt like geniuses when we planned to take photos of my younger brother making a range of aggressive faces, oversaturating them to emphasize the desired red-hot tones.

We used these as our own heat scale, like the images of uncomfortable smiley faces on the pain assessment tool one may have found in a pediatrician’s office. Friends and family- our customers- raved about the idea.

pain assessment tool

When I first started helping him, I was appointed my Dad’s ‘label lady’

Although at the time I would have rather been hovering over the stove, all that I really cared about was being a part of something he loved so dearly. I was happy to help in any way. So, for a while, my after-school routine included pulling up a stool on the opposite side of the counter he worked on, and labeling and bottling everything up.

I was, and quite honestly still am, beyond amused to learn that the most efficient way to shrink a plastic seal onto a cap is with a hairdryer. My mother, on the other hand, did not relate to my amusement but was more puzzled to find it in the kitchen on multiple occasions where she had just left the shower.

It didn’t take long for me to graduate from fumbling over the hairdryer to helping him with the ingredients. Our kitchen quickly overflowed with fresh fruits and vegetables I wanted to explore using. Mixing different flavor profiles and playing around with combinations was an experiment in my head. Peanuts, garlic, mango, carrots, onions, and lime couldn’t account for a fourth of what I had at my disposal.

The spicier the pepper I toyed with, the more fun I had with it

Since we were constantly splurging on groceries, we weren’t able to afford top-quality appliances. Our old blender soon began to sputter out over time, warning us that ghost pepper splatter was a risky possibility. My father and I took to wearing safety goggles, but that was all part of the fun. I truly felt like we were mad scientists together in the kitchen.

My father was always my hero as a little girl, but he grew to be my best friend. Our bond strengthened beside the stove, where we’d spend hours after school sharing jokes and stories while concocting his “melt-your-face-off” hot sauce. By being alongside him and sharing his passion, I felt like we had a special connection. People would always comment on our striking resemblance in both our appearances and our personalities, and I would beam with pride.

I don’t recall a time in my life when I wasn’t aware that my father was a little different

Being the eldest daughter, I was let in on a lot of ‘family secrets’ that I shouldn’t have been told at such a young age. My father was in recovery from addiction, and I never thought he would be capable of relapsing after being in recovery for so many years of my childhood.

When he did relapse, I was ashamed and even more ashamed that I was ashamed. I thought that he was invincible to reality. I didn’t try to save him from his problems because I refused to acknowledge that he needed to be saved in the first place. I turned a blind eye to his struggles growing more severe when no amount of therapy, rehab, or medication helped.

My father died when I was 15 years old, October 31st, 2018

He was only 38 years old. There was no earthly way I could have known that I only had a few years left with him back then, but a large part of me wishes I did. For a long time, it was hard for me to comprehend how this could happen to someone with so many amazing qualities.

Many people disregard those who are addicted as being nasty humans, rather than humans dealing with nasty problems.

It took my father’s death to teach me that a cry for help isn’t always someone sickly thin, filthy, or threatening, but it also looks like someone who may have been a star football player in high school, proudly served in the military, works hard to raise a family, and spends time in a kitchen with their daughter rather than the side of a highway.

Those who struggle with this disease aren’t always strangers, they’re oftentimes loved ones who appear stable on the surface.

My father has inspired me to pursue my passion for rehabilitation and substance misuse awareness

I want to participate in creating a world where nobody feels alone in their journey to find themselves again. I look forward to the day when I’m able to help someone overcome their illness and find joy in their passions.

My father lived with and struggled with addiction, but that doesn’t define who he was as a person. He was my cooking buddy and best friend, and I still beam when I’m told we share the same laugh.

Justin Schrage – March 6, 1980 – October 31, 2018

5 thoughts on “Memories of Making Hot Sauce with My Dad”

  1. I love your courage to share your personal memories and thoughts with us. I believe it is this ‘sharing’ we are able to learn to live with our grief and heal in the ways most needed personally. My son, Gage, loved the hottest of peppers just like you and your Dad. I found myself smiling as I read your words and then remembering so many times with Gage. Losing him to suicide has been difficult beyond words, but ‘remembering him’ keeps him close and soothes my heart. Keep making hot sauce! I believe your Dad is cheering you on!

  2. My son was an awesome cook as well and to be honest, it’s taken me over 2 years to get back into the kitchen. Addiction has taken my family out. I wish you the best. It’s so sad that’s it hard to discuss addiction along with suicide. Thank you for sharing.

  3. My son Jake who died at the age of 26 from an accidental overdose in 2020 loved to cook. He was living with us while he was studying to become a physician. Almost every night around two or three in the morning we would want the awful smells of his cooking some concoction that had hot peppers, garlic and who knows what. I would bury my head under the covers to try to escape the smell and go back to sleep. What I wouldn’t give to smell those smells again

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