I used to be obsessed with hot wings. I would order them at the highest level of spiciness offered in a restaurant, usually extra spicy with fire sauce, a side of death, and a stack of napkins to cry into. The waiters always raised their eyebrows and asked me if I knew how powerful extra hot really was, to which I would arrogantly respond, “I think I can handle it.” My personal chicken wing philosophy at the time: If it doesn’t make you cry, it’s not worth it.
In high school, one of those school magazines that recognize precocious young artists printed a poem I wrote, a passionate sonnet to the chicken wing called “Chicken’s Kiss.” My passion wasn't limited to tasty birds, however. I had an impressive assortment of hot sauces lined up in my refrigerator, like Dinosaur Duels the Devil hot sauce. The label depicted a fire-breathing brontosaurus sword fighting Satan. Sometimes I dribbled hot sauce on a bowl of ice cream because I liked to eat my pain for dessert.
In college, I stopped eating meat. Hot wings were removed from the dietary equation, but my cravings for foods that burn only multiplied. I couldn’t even take a whiff of the dining hall air on Wacky Wing Wednesday without my mouth watering. I flipped open a Thai food takeout menu searching for answers and discovered drunken noodles, a sort of string bean and bell pepper stir fry with a spicy sauce speckled with Thai chilies.
Every Thai restaurant menu has a spiciness scale of one to five chilies, with one chili representing mildly spicy (or American spicy, as Thai folks surely call it) and five chilies indicating Thai spicy. One might notice, scanning through a menu, that there are no more than two chilies in a row beside the titles of spicy dishes. Sure, two chilies on the scale of one to five (Mexican spicy?) is pretty hot, but it seemed important to experience the particular burn of five chilies for myself.
The Thai food restaurant in the area where I grew up used to employ a totally Thai staff. Smiling Thai women in traditional Thai garb used to pour our Thai tea and bring us complementary Thai soup. Then all of the Thai ladies were slowly replaced with white guys in button-up shirts. One day, while out to lunch with Dave, I asked one of the waiters if I could have the drunken noodles at the highest level of spiciness.
“Are you sure?” he asked wryly. “That’s really hot.” I assured him that I could handle it.
When my meal arrived, I ate half of the plate with my eyes streaming and lips burning. I must have downed five or six glasses of water. It was glorious.
“I hope you’re enjoying that,” Dave said, watching me sob into my napkin.
Homemade salsa became another source of spicy indulgence. My brother and I would stay up late chopping up tomatoes from the garden and variety boxes of hot pepper from the farmer’s market. The first time I cut a jalapeno, I ingeniously used my bare hands. The acid got under my fingernails, singed my skin, and sizzled into the wee hours of the morning.
Following advice from a forum I found from a Google search, I soaked my hands in straight-up white vinegar, scrubbed them with dish soap in the hottest water my hands could stand, and washed them in ketchup. In the end, I drifted into an uneasy sleep in bed with plastic baggies full of ketchup tied over my hands.
It’s funny to think that a jalapeno, barely spicy enough to tickle my taste buds, could cause so much agony on my skin and I can only imagine what hot peppers do to my internal organs. Why do I eat these things and why do I enjoy them? There certainly is a hint of masochism to adoring spicy food.
Last night, Dave refilled our jars of curry and red pepper flakes while I did the dishes. He peered into the enormous bag of red pepper flakes and took a sniff.
“Red pepper smells really weird,” he said. He brought the bag to me. “Smell this.”
Dave accidentally squeezed the bag and a red pepper flake popped into my eyeball. It felt like fire under my eyelid. Wailing, I ran to the bathroom and doused my eye with cold water to get the pepper flake out, but the burning sensation lingered. Once my eye cooled down enough for me to see, Dave consulted the internet, finding amusing anecdotes about people burning themselves with hot peppers and how to keep cats out of your garden with a barrier of red pepper flakes. The burning stopped before “how to get red pepper flakes out of my girlfriend’s eye” turned up with any useful answers.
Somehow, after all of this, I’m not in the least put off by hot peppers. I’m am no less interested in a plate of Thai food or a salsa that needs to be chased with twenty gallons of cold water. Recently, I read in a nutrition book that cold-blooded, reptilian monsters like me crave spicy food to warm our bodies and increase circulation to our extremities, which explains a lot. But it doesn't explain why I’m drawn to food that makes me cry.