Everyone has a preference for spicy food. Some love it spicy, some just want it mild. I wouldn’t say I preferred spicy food ever since I was a wee child, because really, I think I mostly ate spicy food because Dad enjoyed it, and like most young boys I wanted to be like my dad. Oddly enough the first spicy food I remember enjoying was the hot cinnamon salt water taffy. Like a mad scientist, I’d try the regular cinnamon and the hot cinnamon to test my own reactions to the delicious taffy. Sure enough, the hot cinnamon was spicy and I couldn’t eat another right away.
I also discovered Tabasco Sauce from my dad who used it generously on his breakfast eggs. Again, I’d try the same thing and again I discovered I could only eat a few bites at a time at first. Of course, as others have noted, one develops a tolerance for these things and soon Tabasco was a regular part of my breakfast meals with nary a second thought. From there I’d enjoy the hot salsas like my dad. I suppose I may have stopped there and been perfectly happy if it weren’t for the late nineties.
About that time is when I met a man who briefly moved to Oregon from New Mexico. He was a large and charismatic fellow who, being from Albuquerque, enjoyed his hot sauce. And he didn’t mean what Oregonians at the time thought was “hot.” That stuff was child’s play for him and he often would tell us this. Well, much as I liked to pretend I was not affected by such things, the truth was that I could be, and being told that my hot-sauce-fu was weak only made me wish to become stronger. Thus, began a five-year journey where I tried hotter and hotter sauces.
This was not always easy. Hot sauce was gaining in popularity at this time, however, in 1998 I moved to Minnesota. Suddenly hot sauce was rather difficult to find. For example, on my first visit to the grocery store, late-twenties me went to get chips and salsa because those were staple foods for that bachelor. Chips were easy enough to find. Salsa … well, I found not hot salsa. Just medium, mild, and … extra mild? What sorcery is this? Yes, in Minnesota, I found the strange concoction known as “extra mild salsa” and my confusion at such a things existence was only topped by the befuddlement of my acquaintance from New Mexico. “What do they do?” he queried, “take the flavor out?”
I did indeed find a hot sauce shop at the Mall of America. My friends thought I was overly fond of the mall. Me, I was just happy to find a location where I could get sauce hotter than “medium.” It was later that I discovered a buffalo wing chain and eagerly tried all the sauces there. I kept raising the envelope until I hit the hottest sauce they had on the menu. I recall enjoying wings, then suddenly having an odd sensation on my lips. I quickly realized my lips were going numb. It took a full fifteen minutes before I could properly feel them again.
I suspect there I realized two things: one, no matter how much hot sauce I ingest, there’s always something hotter and two, maybe I shouldn’t constantly be pushing the envelope, especially as I’d lost contact from my New Mexico acquaintance and there was no one to taunt my selection of spicy sauces. There was no longer anyone to impress. Being in Minnesota at the time, there were only people who boggled at my desire to remove all sensation from my lips.
I had found I’d reached my limit. Habaneros remained on the menu. Anything worse than that I generally avoided. It’s been a good plan and mostly avoids the day or two long Journey of Regret that comes after I’ve eaten a lot of spicy food. It helps that, after getting married, I’m less likely to have a dinner of chips and habanero salsa. I’ve still a taste for the spicy, I suspect aided and abetted by allergies which leave me with little sense of smell. I suspect because of this I tend towards very strong flavors as well as certain food textures.
Halting the progress has done wonders for me. Suddenly I’m not just seeking the next big spice. Instead, I’ve discovered the various tastes of the peppers and how they are complimented. Habaneros’ distinct flavor pairs well with sweet foods. A habanero mocha was one of our favorites back in Oregon. And if you get a chance to try Burnside Brewing’s Sweet Heat ale, I recommend it. It pairs apricot with habanero. The heat sneaks up on you and tantalizes then is gone again making for a multilayered brew that my wife and I still like. I’ve found an enjoyment in the small independent makers of hot sauce. Farmers Markets seem, oddly, a great place to pick up some and their varied flavors make things interesting.
I still have quite the high tolerance for heat, at least higher than average. As a result, it’s very difficult to gauge how hot something is by a given vendor’s warnings. Sometimes I’ve heard, “Careful, it’s very hot” to only get a slight tingle. On the other hand, in general I’ve found when a Korean BBQ restaurant or when an Indian restaurant warns you that something is very hot, it is indeed very hot. On the other hand, I find I’ll even try the mild salsas as even if they don’t give that tingle, a good sauce maker will have plenty of flavor there. I’ve no word on whether that’s true for extra mild salsas. I’ve only found that in Minneapolis.