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,” 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 who never failed to win the face-off with the villain. Chili peppers and jalapeños were no match for me.
Maybe my pride stemmed from the Fourth of July barbecue I went to every summer. There was always a selection of chicken wings with varying degrees of spiciness, the Wings of Death being the infamous nuclear gems at the top of the range.
The adults seemed to cower from these wings, 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, bravery, risk-taking, to let this strange sensation torment your tongue with fire. It’s not a good feeling, I don’t think. But there was something about it I liked.
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 brave souls eating ghost peppers, one of the hottest out there. There’s always a lot of writhing in pain, sweating, and freaking out, and they often end with a scramble to eat as much vanilla ice cream as possible.
Vanilla ice cream. The pure opposite of the ghost pepper and spicy foods in general. It is the antidote that the victim of 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 admirable about a spicy personality. Spiciness is anything but forgettable. The spicy person is unique and impactful, fiery and zesty and vivacious.
When the molecule in the hottest peppers, called capsaicin, binds to a receptor, it sends a message of pain to the cell. 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. Spicy foods inspire 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 the article mentioned above, brave citizen and dentist Jason McNabb is said to have “performed a feat of physical endurance and mental toughness.” He ate 12 ghost peppers. You know, the pepper that induces stomach cramps, vomiting, “extreme burning sensations from the tongue down to the gut,” 200 to 400 times hotter than a jalapeño. And he ate 12 of them.
I guess some would call that ridiculous, pointless pain. They might ask, “But why?” With his feat of bravery, this vanilla dentist transformed into an awe-inspiring hero, a record setter featured in USA Today.
On a smaller scale, my friend and I developed a reputation of our own at those Fourth of July barbecues. 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, those are too spicy for me!”
For a shy, 10-year-old kid who was nervous talking to people she has known for years, being able to eat the Wings of Death without erupting into a ball of fire made me ever so interesting, ever so brave. I was the vanilla kid with the spicy heart of a warrior.
Of course, many cultures incorporate spice into traditional, everyday dishes. They would probably laugh at my pride in my taste buds. It makes my triumph over the Wings of Death look like a pillow-fluffing event at the Olympics. 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. More likely, they are commenting on how crazy you must be to subject yourself to such torture.
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. The dish had four chili peppers next to its name on the menu, a warning to all the vanilla weaklings.
But I was not as vanilla as I looked. I ignored the waiter’s raised eyebrow and ordered the hottest chicken vindaloo. When it arrived, however, it proved to be more than I had bargained for. I consumed the dish with a very red, sweaty complexion, visible even in the dark restaurant. One of my friends took a wholly unflattering flash photo of the scene.
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 and still seeking a way to express my inner spiciness. To prove myself, I ate the spiciest chicken wings with a poker face.
Bravery is an interesting thing. It’s kind of a requirement of being human. It is essential to taking risks. It is essential to handling change.
And I think that’s why we stare in awe at the idiot binging on ghost peppers. He has mustered some level of risk taking, of boldness, maybe even courage, that allows 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, somehow smothering the spreading flames. He must hold his head high and be dignified and strong. 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 even be glad he did it.
Spiciness is the only flavor that causes physical pain. Sure, there are issues with the other flavor categories. Sweets can be too sweet, causing you to stop eating the cake in front of you. Too much salt might prompt you to slow down on the popcorn or suddenly need a glass of water. Eating a lemon might cause your face to scrunch up in shock. But when the seemingly innocent dish on the table in front of you suddenly reveals itself to be too spicy, disaster strikes. The burning sensation climbs through your mouth and up your nose, creeping into 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 flavors – sweetness, bitterness, saltiness. Water serves as the cruel sidekick to a spicy food’s attack. 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.
A temporary sweetness to quell the growing heat, 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 to act as the contrast by which we can appreciate the spice and the sweet. If everything was vanilla, life would be boring. If things were spicy all the time, we wouldn’t ever know what makes life unique.
Despite its apparent rage, spiciness is the essence of flavor. Chinese, Ethiopian, Nigerian, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Mexican, Peruvian, and Thai cuisines are only some of the long list that incorporate spice in their foundation. It adds mystery and individuality to a dish. It adds a kick. It adds heat. It gives the 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 every day. You have to be surrounded by people, witnesses, for such an act of bravery. Maybe there will be another barbecue this summer. Maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, either way. I am much spicier now, as a human being. I’m thankful for those barbecues. But next time, I don’t think I’ll go any higher than the Wings of Pain.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.