Jalapeno Joe

Jalapeno Joe

Joseph (Joe) Elmore, my grandfather on my father’s side, is the 86-year-old son of a Cumberland homesteader. Like his father before him, Grandpa Joe is a true original.

For instance, he is—as far as I know—one of the only octogenarians in the world who drives a red minivan and keeps a Styrofoam cup in it for tobacco-spitting. Soccer moms, eat your heart out!

With this revelation, no doubt his hipster-cool quotient is off-the-charts, but, trust me, the view from the passenger seat borders on nauseating. Then there’s his actual driving, of course, which can turn a simple trip for an ice cream cone at the Homestead Market into the stuff of amusement park thrill-ride.

A man of multiple heart-attack scares, our beloved Grandpa Joe—“you ain’t no kind of man if you ain’t got land”—still cultivates a small vegetable garden on his five-acre lot on Backwoods Way. Several years ago, the street was officially renamed Backwoods Way by the residents themselves to suit the basic sensibility of Crossville and, I suppose, to assert that primal urge for filing paperwork that locals everywhere feel.

In matters of religion and faith, Grandpa Joe is an absolute straight-shooter—an old-time fundamentalist Christian whose cassette-tape collection of hellfire gospel preachers is as impressive as his ability to steer almost any conversation into an apocalyptic scenario for Anglo culture in America.

However, in less significant matters, he is anything but a straight-shooter. When Wal-Mart arrived in Crossville several years ago, he became rather fond of saying that he was on his way to meet up with so-and-so at the Wal-Marts. Like R.E.M.’s song about comedian Andy Kaufman, with Grandpa Joe you are always left to wonder if this guy has something up his sleeve—even if it involves (unwittingly?) adding an “s” to the name of a very familiar big-box retailer.

One day, as the story goes, Grandpa Joe’s word-play games ventured into another stratosphere altogether. In attempting to describe a food he had apparently tried recently, he casually dropped the word jalapeno. Only, he called the famed chili pepper: jap-a-leno.

Was this an un-careful slip of his rural tongue, or an extremely sly joke? Who could know? Certainly not us. But my siblings and I could not stop laughing for days. There was so much to jap-a-leno, and, in a weirdly impressive feat, he had managed to offend various denominations of the Latino community and the Japanese community simultaneously.

To this day, the remarkable verbal achievement of my grandfather gets re-told as a legendary folktale at endless holiday family gatherings. Even now, around a campfire at Cumberland Mountain State Park, in Crossville, with the Fourth of July roaring in the background, I'm telling my kids about Jalapeno Joe all the while trying to keep a very straight face.


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