I grew up in a pretty whitebread Canadian family, where roast beef was served on Sundays with baked potato and frozen (but of course cooked) vegetables, which I always thought were gakky. Liver was also dished up once every couple of weeks, along with the ubiquitous brussels sprouts (which I do like). I figure this must have been one of the rare fresh vegetables of my youth.
Other delicacies included tongue, which indeed looked like a monster tongue, “beans I like,” which was an insipid concoction of watered down tomato soup, lima beans and wieners, and meatloaf with bacon laid across it. All of these things were liberally salted, beyond liberal really as my mother was a huge salt abuser, along with using some oregano, seasoning salt and other suspect spice blends. They made things salty but nothing was spicy.
Every set contains a salt and a pepper shaker and ours sat on the table like some iconic god, visible but unknowable. I’m sure the same shaker of pepper lasted ten years. Of course, the prepackaged pepper of yesteryear was mostly flavorless, like those little packets of pepper you get in fast food restaurants: mostly color and no taste.
So I knew nothing of spice. The closest my family ever moved towards spicy was chili powder in the chili. And lots of salt. Salty badness. My mother still puts salt on pizza, one of the saltiest foods out there. She’ll assault with salt before tasting.
When I was in art college, my boyfriend invited me for dinner to his place one night. It was student fare but tacos with a bottle of hot sauce. He didn’t warn me that it was “hot” hot sauce so I was a little overwhelmed with that first taste. But then…my tastebuds awoke and I began to experiment more with this. I also started drinking Caesars (for you Americans, it’s similar to a Bloody Mary but instead of tomato juice with the vodka you use clamato [tomato and clam juice and sugar--not as gross as it sounds] with Worcestershire and tabasco).
Then another of my friends talked about some manly man test they did which involved either drinking tabasco or putting a lot in the drinks. I think I particpated in the second part (I was never stupid enough to drink it straight) and my penchant for spice continued.
I then moved to Vancouver, where I met my friend Hanocia, from a tribal state in India. She carried a bag of chili or serrano peppers in her purse to eat with her food. We would go out and drink Caesars where we usually just asked for the bottle of tabasco. We returned an empty bottle to the bartender one night with at least two inches gone from it. His jaw dropped as he stuttered, “I’ve never seen anyone use so much.” And we weren’t even sweating the spice.
Then I moved in as a roommate with Hanocia and her boyfriend, where we would all sit eating the normally spiced food but with a bowl of chili peppers on the table. It wasn’t hot unless you were sweating and your nose dripping. By this time I had achieved the cast iron stomach needed for the truly ferocious peppers. I even had a poster of all the peppers on my kitchen ceiling (the only space for it) and it became my goal to try them all. When I went to India, Hanocia’s people, the Khasis, tend to eat their food plain but with a bowl of peppers. At the end of the evening I had more stems along the side of my plate than anyone else. Beau goggled and said, “Wait till I tell the girls at work, and you’re a white person too.” (A note: all peppers come from central America and did not originate in Asia.)
Over the years, I did sample as many peppers as I could find, right up to the scotch bonnets or habaneros, that rate 10 for hot on a scale of 10. They are so hot that few people can eat a whole one and they can blister you. Many people can’t eat these because the heat burns away any flavor, but I like habaneros because they have a fruity flavor under that atomic heat. (I”ve since found there are hotter peppers but I haven’t tasted them.)
I’ve made five pepper chili, which has included serranos, jalapenos, Thai chili, pequenos and habaneros. I don’t count or use bell peppers (I react to them) because though supposedly all peppers are of the nightshade family these are considered different. Maybe they’re nightshades but the others aren’t, but all are peppers.
My love affair with hot peppers has developed over the years and friends have gone to other countries and brought me back another bottle of hot sauce. I have about 15 in my fridge at any one time. It just goes to show that a white kid from the bland food sticks can attain heights of chili pepper hotness. But alas, my champion pepper chomping may have hit an end as rosacea is exacerbated by spicy foods. I’m still hoping though because I do love the taste way more than black pepper, though that will do in a pinch.