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People get reputations. Sometimes they work to create a certain reputation. Sometimes it just happens. When I was growing up, I was exposed to spicy food often. One of my daddy’s favorite phrases was, “It’s not hot until it makes your hair sweat.” And he meant hair, not just your scalp. Hair doesn’t have sweat pores? Then up the heat until they grow some. Looking back, this was certainly an example of his trying to create a reputation for himself of being tough and manly. He had been in the U. S. Army. Later, he was a railroad detective and then a municipal policeman. He was surrounded through most of his adult life in an atmosphere of what some now call “toxic masculinity.” Were I to try to analyze him, I would guess that having had polio as a boy might have been a driving factor for him to be tough and do manly things, to overcome physical limitations. But whatever his motivations, it meant that I grew up learning that real men do not use the mild salsa, but go for the hot sauce. I became inured to the heat. I expected the heat. Mild Mexican food? Who would bother to eat that?
As I got out on my own and was cooking for myself, I was always interested in new peppers. Back in the early 1990s, the hottest pepper known in the US was the Habanero. It had some Cod-awful level of heat that was up to 350,000 Scovilles. The Scoville scale is a measure of how hot something is as measured through dilution. They start out by diluting a bit of pureed pepper with water, such as at a million to one ratio, to see if someone can still detect the spiciness. If not, they cut back on the dilution until the spiciness is detected. In the case of the Habanero, it can be detected at a dilution of between 350,000:1 and at the mild end at about 100,000:1. To give some scale for a normal human, a Jalapeño runs between a mild 3,500:1 to a hot Jalapeño at 8,000:1. Thus a Habanero is between about twelve and a hundred times as spicy as your average Jalapeño. Cayenne pepper runs between 30,000 and 50,000 Scovilles for another comparison. Since the 1990s, more peppers have become known or developed that are over a million Scovilles, such as the Carolina Reaper at 1,569,300 Scovilles, but even up to 1999, Guinness was recording Habaneros as the hottest pepper cultivar in the world.
One thing about being inured to spice is that one can actually taste the peppers. I found that I did not like the Habanero much. It was too sour, like the Jalapeño. I much preferred the Serrano pepper, which only runs between 10,000 and 23,000 Scovilles. Only a tenth as hot as the Habanero, but still about three times as hot as the Jalapeño, it actually tastes fresh, more like Bell peppers.
I took to making my own salsas and hot sauces, since what was available in restaurants and stores was either too mild or too sour and vinegary. I usually used the Serrano, since I liked the taste. After reading about and experiencing the Habanero, I decided to make some sauce for my father. If a good hot sauce made from the hottest pepper in the world couldn’t satisfy him and make his hair sweat, what would?
Making a good hot sauce takes time. The makers of Tabasco Sauce® age their pepper mash in oak barrels for at least three years, going on up to fifteen years for special sauces. (They also do things like straining out the seeds, which are often the hottest part of the pepper, which is part of why their sauces are so wimpy. Even their Habanero variety is only a bit north of 7,000 Scovilles.) As the lady said, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Or at least I didn’t have time for that. Still, it’s good to age the pepper mash for a bit. Unlike Colonel Brown, I didn’t even know one could buy barrels to age various types of mash in, so I had to make do with other techniques. I aged it for about two weeks, added some other ingredients to improve the overall flavor, pureed the result, and it was good to go. I made about a half gallon of it, by the way, because who wouldn’t go through that hot sauce fairly quickly, right? Even with the other ingredients, I doubt it had been diluted to below 100,000 Scovilles.
I sent half of it off to my father. His report came on our next phone call, “Well, I tried some yesterday. My hair is still sweating.” That was the seal of approval.
But I had a lot of sauce left, sauce that I didn’t really like the taste of because of the sourness of the peppers. I decided to take some into work with me with some corn chips. At the time, I was working for an information technology (IT) company at a client site. The client happened to be a school, and our IT center had at one time been faculty housing. The kitchen fixtures had been removed, leaving one large room that was tiled and where we kept the network admins. Since they had gutted the kitchen, we had a break room in the basement where we had a small fridge and a microwave. Because the campus was somewhat isolated from fast food, many of our team would bring lunches. Several of us were down in the basement break room the day I brought a container of the hot sauce.
“I’ve got some hot sauce and chips. Anyone want to try it?” I asked.
“Is it hot?” our resident ditsy blonde asked.
I loaded up a chip with a big glob of sauce and crunched into it, “Well, it is made with peppers. They’re a little on the sour side for my taste. But, it’s a little spicy.”
Despite being a ditsy blonde, she was smart enough or clued in enough by my nonchalance and understatement to be cautious. She took a chip, and I swear that she only waved it over the sauce, not actually making contact, and then she put that chip in her mouth, “Oh my God! That is sooo hot!” And off she went to get water or yogurt or some such. Like the various occupations my father had been part of, IT tends to be a very male-dominated field. Unlike being in the army, being a code toad does not lend itself to masculine he-man feats-of-strength credibility. So, when an opportunity comes along for IT guys to prove their masculine credentials, they tend to jump on it hard.
“Yeah, I think I’d like to try that,” Bill said. Bill came from a culture where mamas eat enough peppers that their breast milk probably runs 10,000 Scovilles. (His birth name was also not “Bill,” of course, but he used that since he figured nobody could pronounce his real name.) He loaded up a chip, stuffed it in his mouth, and began to chew. He turned a bit red and broke out in a sweat. After a bit, he swallowed and said. “Not bad. Maybe a bit bland. Has a slight bite, though.”
While women may not appreciate the subtleties of male culture and one-upmanship, every male would recognize in that a challenge, “If you can’t handle this sauce with aplomb, you should just put on a dress right now.”
My boss who had been a jock who had gone through college on a double athletic scholarship had to try it. He was half-Irish and half-Polish, neither culture being known for spicy foods. He was also in that peak time of proving one still has machismo as he approached his thirtieth birthday. He managed not to cough or choke as he got the chip down. He turned bright red, but said in a voice that was unusually high and squeaky for him, “I was expecting something hotter.”
I loaded up another chip and casually downed it, looking at the other guys at the table. They were all young, under thirty, and still stupid enough with testosterone that they couldn’t resist the challenge. All of them dug into that concoction. Each had to crank up the understatement on the next, and then they had to all go another round and then another.
None of them went into respiratory distress, although I suspect most of them regretted their adventure in manly hot sauce consumption within a few days as the pepper processed out of the far end of the alimentary canal.
And that is how I got rid of the rest of a sauce that I didn’t particularly like. It’s also part of how I got a reputation for being able to handle spicy foods.