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Heat of the moment

We sat down and tried a package of Cactus Jo’s Triple Threat Cactus Jerky, locally made and available at Whole Foods or

Scott: I’m told that, beneath the napalm spicing, there was “cactus jerky.” That could be true. In the seconds before it was fully engulfed, my questing tongue encountered a wisp of rubbery, stretchy texture

that could have been cactus jerky … then  whoosh — immolation. Like a  Backdraft highlight reel in my mouth — but with less Kurt Russell and more raging flame — the jerky’s habanero coating flipped the flavor script: The cactus, presumably the selling point of this product, became irrelevant. Had the jerky been made of unwashed motel blankets, Jimmy Hoffa or back issues of  Desert Companion, the experience would have been mouth-taseringly identical. Maybe such a brutalist approach to snack food makes sense in the sort of situations one imagines jerky best suited to — backwoods survivalist trips, end-times zombie-fleeing, special sessions of the Nevada Legislature, etc. You may want your pain receptors fully alert at moments like that. But otherwise, be warned: The cactus was gone when I swallowed it, but a phantom sensation of that heat is still with me, and will be for who knows how long. 

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Heidi: Watching non-New Mexico natives eat stupidly spicy things is as heartwarming to me as, say, a New Englander seeing someone from Henderson experience snow for the first time. We enchanters derive a deep, perverse pleasure from not only daring each other to consume

unreasonably spicy peppers, but also from sharing the masochistic love via cultivation of said produce. At the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles, there used to be a specialty shop just for hot sauce. When I lived in L.A., I would always swing by there before trips home, so I could take their latest, hottest specimens to my brother, a born and bred Roswellite. Once, my entire family watched as he chugged some, straight from the bottle. He wept and sneezed for hours! Good times… Anyway: Cactus jerky is OK. As a vegetarian, I enjoyed having something leathery and salty to rip into that wasn’t animal flesh. But the true delight in sampling Joe Joe’s Cactus Joe product was observing the confused, melting faces of my colleagues, as they realized our editor had inadvertently bought the Triple Threat variety flavored with habanero peppers. Oh, the anguish! the sweaty eyelids! the swearing! Takes me back.  

Andrew: I consider myself a discriminating connoisseur of beef jerky. Or perhaps I’m just in unreasonable thrall to a childhood memory. My dad used to make beef jerky for friends and family, an almost ceremonially laborious process that culminated in three days of drying the beef strips, which he’d painstakingly hung by hooks from the oven racks like Christmas ornaments. Since he grew up poor, his preparation style privileged value. His jerky was made to last. After marinating them in teriyaki, soy sauce and black pepper, he oven-dried the strips (the block of wood propping open the door open just a crack always struck me as some advanced, arcane culinary technique) until they became salty fibroid gnarls of black shoeleather that demanded heroics of our salivary glands. A single piece could last you an hour of devout chawing and slavering. Maybe it’s the glow of Proustian reminiscence, but dad’s jerky is still my yardstick.

Long story short, I’m always on the lookout for jerky that can replicate his. Makes me a flawed judge, but whatever. When I saw this Cactus Jo’s Triple Threat Cactus Jerky at Whole Foods, I bought it in the spirit of impulse-buying a gag gift. Really, how jerky-like can cactus be? How chewy, how sinewy, how tough? Answer: Very jerky-like, actually. The thin pieces come in random Matisse polygons — nothing like the branchlike protein twists of my childhood — but I was pleasantly surprised by the cactus’ satisfying chew and resinous burl. But, yes, I’ll buy a different flavor next time. At the store, I unconsciously wrote off the “Triple Threat” label as the same hyperventilated marketing behind things like “Xxtra Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.” Wrong move: The spice mix of black pepper, habanero and red chili makes for a punishing Scoville napalm run on your tongue, with the pleasing hints of smoke and savor turned into mere blast shadows at the far edges of ground zero. Verdict: Come for the mouthfeel, but steel your heart (and your tongue) for some near-nuclear heat.

Brent: It’s as if the cactus spines had been internalized! Had I been forewarned that my person was to be brutally assaulted by some Scoville-scale eradicating behemoth in the form of cactus jerky, I may have passed on this entire experience! To my membership drive-numbed senses, the bag of small, dark strips vacuum-sealed with the words “Triple Threat” and “Cactus Jerky” written upon them seemed innocuous enough. My hopes were those of a man who may have found a delightful new vegetarian jerky option for the occasions that beef, turkey, or even salmon seemed a bit too ... animalesque. As I pressed the rigid yet tender, smoky strip of dried cactus to my mouth, a wonderful sensation seems to be upon me … but in fact I had been betrayed, for mere seconds after the initial thrust of mastication, a burning sensation so overwhelming and unprepared for surged through my head that I felt some kind of mistake must have been made. The ever-resourceful Heidi went to examine the package, noting the inclusion of habanero in the primary ingredients list as the guilty party. I mean, it’s not like this stuff is inedible, but bring a can of soda or a bottle of honey, and come prepared, people, that’s all I'm saying.