On Spicy Foods and Acts of Bravery This work is considered exceptional by our editorial staff.

I guess my appreciation of spicy foods has always been a weird point of pride for me.

“I don’t know if I want to order that, it’s way too spicy,” the others might say. Ridiculous. For I, the brave and powerful one, could order anything on the menu. I could handle it. “I’ve got a high tolerance for pain,” I would say. And we all know just how painful those spices can be. I was like some kind of superhero that never failed to win the face-off with the villain. Chili peppers and jalapeños were no match for me, the almighty.

Maybe my pride stemmed from the Fourth of July barbeque I went to every summer. The barbeque home to the Wings of Death. Ah, the Wings of Death. With a selection of chicken wings containing varying degrees of spiciness, these infamous gems were the hottest of the pack.

The adults seemed to cower at these wings, wanting to venture no higher than the Wings of Pain. But Pain was nothing compared to Death. Nothing. My brave friend and I would march to the table, bulletproof vests on, swords at the ready. We were always ready to fight.

Perhaps this is a kind of boldness, audacity, bravery, risk-taking. You’re putting yourself out there, letting the strangest kind of sensation prickle your tongue in pain and torment and fire. It’s not a good feeling, I don’t think. But there’s something about it.

And then there are those who subject themselves to such torment for the purpose of other’s entertainment. And it’s truly quite... commendable. I have seen videos of random brave souls who decided to film themselves eating ghost peppers, one of the hottest peppers out there. There’s a lot of writhing in pain and sweating and freaking out and I think it ends with a scramble to eat as much vanilla ice cream as possible.

Vanilla ice cream. The raw opposite of the ghost pepper, of all spicy foods in general. It is the simple, basic comfort that the victim of the spice holds dear. It’s even used as a descriptive term for personalities. “She’s so vanilla.”

I don’t think many people want to be vanilla. There’s something more admirable about spiciness. “Spiciness,” as it applies to personalities, is the most endearing of terms. The strongest of flavors, spiciness is anything but forgettable. The spicy person is unique and impactful, fiery and zesty and vivacious and interesting.

Interesting. That’s for sure. When the molecule in the hottest peppers, called capsaicin, binds to a receptor, it sends a message of pain to be released in the cell as high temperatures are sensed. Spicy foods are painful. Genuinely. I guess that’s why it would be nothing short of impressive if someone shoved a tablespoon of wasabi in their mouth. No regrets. Well, maybe regrets. But you don’t look back.

It’s this kind of impression that spicy foods make that prompts articles like “World Record Pepper Eater Finds Nothing Too Hot to Handle.” I mean, there aren’t any world record vanilla ice cream eaters, I’m just saying.

In this article, brave citizen and dentist Jason McNabb is said to have “performed a feat of physical endurance and mental toughness.” He ate roughly twelve ghost peppers. You know, the pepper prompting symptoms including vomiting, stomach cramps, “extreme burning sensations from the tongue down to the gut,” 200-400 times hotter than a jalapeño. And he ate twelve.

I guess some would call that ridiculous, a waste of time, pointless pain prompting the most ambiguous question to ever be asked: “But why?” But this dentist was turned into an awe-inspiring figure, a record setter, a spicy human being featured in a USA Today article. There has to be a reason for that.

On a smaller scale, one lacking the daunting ghost paper, my friend and I developed a reputation of our own at those Wings of Death barbeques. Every summer adults would run up to us, announcing that the wings were ready, knowing our love and appreciation for the fatal taste. “Are you going to try the Wings of Death this year?” we would ask the adults clad in pastel colored cardigans, knowing full well they could never reach such a ridiculous height. “Oh no, no I could never.”

There is toleration there, and, in it, strength. To a shy, ten-year-old kid, who seemed to be nervous talking to people she has known for years but never really known, being able to eat the Wings of Death without erupting into a ball of fire seemed to make me ever so interesting, ever so brave. I was the vanilla kid with the bravery of a spicy one.

Of course, many cultures incorporate high levels of spice into traditional dishes. They would probably laugh at my excessively proud taste buds.

It makes my little moment with the Wings of Death look like the equivalent of a pillow-fluffing event at the Olympics. Just completely ridiculous, totally laughable. The strength you need to eat spicy foods is really, at its core, a fake strength. Sure, people gather around to watch the madness, see the writhing in pain and profuse sweating. Maybe they even commend the victim, but I don’t think they’re complimenting their bravery. I think they are more commenting on how crazy you must be to actually subject yourself to such a peculiar form of torture.

Still, it continues. People like to feel crazy. They like to take risks and put themselves out there for the pure sake of entertaining someone, or proving yourself to them.

I’m not sure I even like spicy foods. When I was in New York last year for a competition, we went out to dinner at an Indian restaurant. I ordered something that prompted the waiter to warn me of the high degree of spice. I, of course, was already aware of this particular detail of the dish. It had four chili peppers or something next to it on the menu, a symbol of extreme heat existing to scare off the weaklings.

But I was no weakling. I ignored the waiter’s raised eyebrow and ordered the hottest version of the chicken vindaloo. But when it came, I didn’t handle it in the most dignified way, we’ll say. I sat there with a very apparent red complexion, visible even in the dark restaurant. One of my friends took a wholly unflattering flash photo of this mess.

It’s funny, because I now find myself less visibly vanilla than I was during the era of the Wings of Death. Back then, I was far more shy, still yet to find a way of expressing my inner spiciness. But I ate even the spiciest of chicken wings with a poker face.

Bravery is an interesting thing. It’s kind of a requirement of being a human being. Because there is so much bravery required to do something as simple as stepping out of your own comfort zone. It is essential to taking risks. It is essential to handling change. It is essential.

And I think that’s why we stare in awe at the idiot binging ghost peppers. He has mustered some level of risk taking, of boldness, maybe even courage, that has allowed him to do something unfathomable to most. His tongue begins to tingle, a single flame about to erupt into a fiery mass. He must sit there and silently fight back and smother the spreading flames. He must hold his head high and be dignified and strong and maybe he is turning red and maybe he is sweating and crying but it doesn’t matter because he went through with it and others saw him and maybe he will start to gain a tolerance and maybe he will even be glad he did it.

I don’t really like spicy foods, I don’t think. But I eat them. I want to.

And spiciness is definitely the most extreme of all the flavours. It is the only one that can be so overpowering that it can cause actual physical pain. And yes, sure, there are definitely issues the other categories of taste can have. Sweetness can be too sweet, causing you to maybe stop eating the cake in front of you. Bitterness can cause your tongue to repeatedly cling to the roof of your mouth, trying to rid the unpleasant taste of unsweetened chocolate from your taste buds. Too much salt might prompt you to slow down on the popcorn or feel a sudden need for a glass of water. Eating a lemon might cause your face to scrunch up in shock.

But when the seemingly innocent dish lying on the table in front of you suddenly reveals itself to be too spicy, disaster strikes. The tastebuds face instant regret as the burning sensation climbs its way through your mouth and up your nose, creeping in every crevice of your skull and bursting into flames. Desperately, the victim reaches for a glass of water.

Water. That filthy liar. The anecdote to all other flavours - sweetness, bitterness, saltiness, sourness - water serves as the cruel sidekick to the spicy foods’ firm grasp. It spreads it around the mouth, spreading the flames. Which is funny, because water is supposed to put out fires.

It is then that we reach for the vanilla ice cream.

The only thing ever to act as some kind of relief, a temporary sweetness to combat the growing heat. The vanilla is calming, even if just for a second. A split second where you can breathe, and suddenly appreciate what “normal,” feels like, when ghost peppers and jalapeños and wasabi and chicken vindaloo and Wings of Death haven’t taken over your entire being. It’s nice.

But to see spice as the villain would be an unfortunate misconception. Vanilla ice cream is not meant to be a hero, saving the victim from pain, but meant to act as the contrast by which we can appreciate the spice and the sweet. If things were vanilla all the time, life would be boring. If things were spicy all the time, we wouldn’t ever know what makes it unique.

Because, despite its apparent rage, spiciness is the essence of flavour. Chinese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian, and Thai are only some of the cultural cuisines that incorporate it into their foundation. It adds mystery and individualism to a dish. It adds a kick. It adds heat. It gives taste buds a challenge, finally.

I haven’t had the Wings of Death in a while. They’re not the kind of thing you eat everyday. You have to be surrounded by people when you eat them, have witnesses for such a wild leap of faith. Maybe there will be another barbeque this summer. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, either way. I, as a human being, am much spicier now. I’m thankful for those barbeques.

But if I ever go back, I don’t think I’ll climb higher than the Wings of Pain.

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