When I was a child the pepper shaker sat on our table like an icon to some ancient belief system. No one used it. Instead we liberally abused the salt shaker, over and over and over again to the point where my mother and my brother salt their pizza to this day. I used to salt cheese and my younger brother would make a bowl of vinegar with enough salt in it to make it murky and then dip his potato chips in…till his lips went white. We were heavy salt abusers but we shunned pepper.
Then when I was in art college my boyfriend made tacos one night and had a bottle of hot sauce. He didn’t warn me, in fact I think he took secret glee in letting me use this medium hot sauce. I had no experience with hot sauce, let alone pepper. Needless to say I turned red and gasped at the spiciness. Before long though, I was loving it and would use huge amounts of Tabasco on my food.
Then I moved to Vancouver and met my friend Hanocia, who is from the tribal state of Meghalaya in India. She had a whole different degree of spiciness and would carry a bag of peppers in her purse. They were usually red but sometimes green and I believe Thai chillies. I learned to eat these chillies with my meal or whenever Hanocia cooked. At one point we were roommates and she, her boyfriend, and I would sit around eating our meal and chomping on chillies till we were all sniffling.
Hanocia and I once went out for drinks one night and ordered bloody Caesars (for you Americans it is a cocktail made of vodka, clamato juice, salt, pepper, Worcestershire sauce and Tabasco sauce). We finally just asked the bartender for the bottle of Tabasco. He gave us one of the small, table-size bottles that was about a third full. We returned an empty bottle. The bartender’s jaw dropped.
After that, Tabasco really was what I called the McDonald’s of hot sauces, lacking flavor and with too much vinegar. I came to enjoy the nuances of the different peppers, even eating habaneros (or Scotch bonnets) where are 10 on a scale of 10 for hotness. Peppers are rated on the Scoville scale. The hottest is the Naga Jolokia or ghost pepper. I have never tried this one. The second hottest is the habanero or Red Savina. This pepper is of course super hot but has a fruity flavor. I doubt many could eat a whole one. When I’m putting it into a meal I probably put in less than a eighth of a teaspoon.
I had achieved full pepper assimilation. I always seek out hot sauces though due to now having rosacea (a skin condition exacerbated by cold, spice and histamines) I can’t eat as much spicy foodas I once could . Alas. One does have to build up to it slowly, or risk serious burn. The hotter peppers, like the habanero, can physically burn the skin as well as burning on the way down.Black pepper too has developed from those early days. It’s fresh now, not some ghostly reminiscence of flavor. I have a pepper grinder of course, because nothing but fresh pepper will do. I once made an Irish stew where I put so much black pepper in that it was pretty spicy in it’s own right. It’s not as common to have hot black pepper but you can get there. I’m glad I came to learn about the pepper family and appreciate the nuances of the hotters types. I don’t intend on turning away any time soon, even with rosacea.