Discovering Spicy Food For the First Time

Readers, a confession: I was born in Syracuse, New York, and I was raised by parents who grew up in Ohio. In other words, I didn't learn about the existence of spicy food until adulthood.

We thought onions were spicy. Black pepper--an incredibly powerful spice--had to be used with great care. There was even a joke back then that say it all about my childhood food environment:

Q: What's the definition of a long and successful marriage?
A: When you've opened your second bottle of Tabasco sauce.


And they were referring to the tiny 2-ounce sized bottle.

And then my lifetime bubble of blandness imploded during a visit to Dallas, Texas. My older sister had just moved there, so I paid her a visit during Thanksgiving weekend. I was maybe 18. She wanted to introduce me to Tex-Mex cuisine, we went to local restaurant, and I saw something on the menu that changed my life forever: a dish called "The 911 Hotplate."

I don't even remember what was in it. It was probably a mixed sampler plate with a burrito, a chile relleno and a taco or something like that. It doesn't matter. All I remember is how my entire mouth was so burned out with all the spice that I literally couldn't taste anything for the next four days.

Which was unfortunate, because this was the night before Thanksgiving dinner. Which meant that the turkey, the stuffing--even the apple pie--all tasted like Styrofoam to me.

To someone born and raised on bland cuisine, it was practically incomprehensible--even vaguely kinky--to learn that people could actually find pleasure in spicy food. More importantly, I felt like a complete pansy when I couldn't take the heat. I was determined to learn to like it.

That mouth-searing Tex-Mex meal had me hooked. And over the next few years, I made a point of sampling hot, spicy food wherever and whenever I could. It took a few years, but I eventually adjusted. Now, in Indian restaurants, I order the vindaloo without fear. I add cayenne pepper, chipotle pepper, and hot curry powder to spice up everything. And by now Laura and I are well past our hundredth bottle of Tabasco.

I'm not sure what that says about our marriage, but I'm pretty sure it means we've both adapted to spicy food.

Readers, what was your first experience with hot, spicy food? Share in the comments!

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On Spice Fade, And the Utter Insanity of Throwing Spices Out After Six Months
The 911 Frittata
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11 comments:

Anonymous said...

Not unlike you, I grew up in a spice void. Seriously, my grandmother had a glass bottle of garlic salt in her pantry that listed MSG as an ingredient! I married into a non-spice family as well - as in NO spices. (& every thing has to be very well done - you should have seen the look when I ate sushi!)

I am the rebel, my cholula is ready and waiting to be added to everything & anything on my plate - especially eggs!

chacha1 said...

I grew up in southern Georgia with a pair of Midwestern parents. My sister and I were thus also spice-deprived. Our small town had two Chinese restaurants and one Mexican restaurant. I am pretty sure that none of the spice mixes used therein were remotely authentic.

Probably my first experience with spicy food was in Atlanta, where I frequented a Mexican restaurant that made gringo AND Latino versions. Still not super-spicy, though at least I did make the acquaintance of chorizo there.

I prefer flavor to heat, so while I do love cayenne and Thai red chili paste, I am more lavish with the application of curry, paprika, ancho, chipotle, and the like.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm. I must've run with a different crowd of Syracusans. The guys I used to go camping with used to have a macho ritual where we'd eat hot peppers straight out of the jar until someone would give up and grab a glass of milk or a hunk of bread. (Trust me, if the peppers are hot enough, water or beer will only spread the pain) :)
And the horseradish sauce at Clark's Ale-House? Now that was HOT.

For that matter, you must have missed out on sampling true Buffalo wings?
:P

Anonymous said...

My parents are from Northern India so spice has been in my life since birth.

I am not a huge fan of tabasco sauce because it still is not hot enough for my taste buds. I do enjoy trying different types of chilli peppers.

My favourite lately has been thai chillies, that have the heat and it hits you at different parts of the tongue.

Spicy Indian food is terrific for people who want to experiment with different flavours!

Janet C. said...

I was going to say that my "first contact" with spicy food was when I lived in Mexico as a teenager...but as I think about it that really isn't true. I grew up in Texas, and my parents used to love a certain barbque joint in Houston (so much so that when my Mom had to fly back to defend her Master's thesis the year we moved to California she returned with a whole barbqued turkey from the place as our Thanksgiving treat...apparently driving the rest of the plane nuts with the smell)....but that being said, despite her love of that Q my mom was a fairly bland cook. Well, she wasn't much of a cook at all...but she had her moments.

Still, my parents were always willing to experiment with ethnic food when we had our traditional Sunday dinner out. After all, it was inexpensive, and that was important to a family with four children and a professor's income...:-) So when we spent my dad's sabbatical year in Mexico, I was already tuned in to spice. I loved the Mexican food, and learned to love jalapenos even more when my Mexican friends taught me that you can dampen their kick with bread much easier than water....:-)

My first serious boyfriend thought I liked food way to spicy, and even complained that I had burnt out my taste buds and couldn't appreciate the subtle flavors in blander food. I guess I should have known from the start that the relationship was doomed....The good news is that I now have been happily married to a man from India. He loves the Mexican dishes I cook for him, and I love the Indian dishes he cooks. And I lost track of the number of hot sauce bottles we've gone through in our life together:-)

Melissa said...

I ate a bowl of jalapenos on a dare when I was a teen, but that was what it was. Even at that, I never ate anything spicy growing up with my New York Jewish parents. No chiles, no salsas, no dry spices. No real onion or garlic was ever used in my house, either. Oy.

Thankfully, I moved to California in my early twenties. Bless southern California. Real Mexican food, Thai food, Indian food. Now I don't think I could live without heat. I wouldn't want to anyway. :)

Little Les said...

Haha! I had forgotten about the 911 hotplate, but when I read this, I did remember it being stacked blue enchiladas at Chuy's restaurant on McKinney Ave. From their website:

"Beware the green chile sauce, Chuy's hottest, although it is a legendary hangover cure. The 911 hot plate with stacked blue corn and smoked chicken enchiladas will get your attention - ask for extra water."

Yum!

Little Les said...

PS - sorry about the styrofoam dinner! :)

Joanne said...

I am a spice FIEND. I live off the adrenaline rush that comes with eating something so hot you have to keep shoveling it into your mouth just so that you don't feel the burn as much. The boyfriend is NOT a spice food lover...but I'm working on it. I need that 911 hotplate!

Emmy said...

After growing up PA Dutch (spices being considered salt, pepper, and celery salt. My dad was a maverick for using a little crushed red pepper on spaghetti), finding a Penzeys store in Columbus Ohio was like finding Ali Baba's cave! I've completely gone off the deep end, not just with heat (I like a little bite, my husband wants a butt-burner), but all manner of herbs and spices. I find great satisfaction in that my mom hates my cooking. ;)

Marcia said...

I was probably in the Navy. I may have had some spice in college, but probably not really.

I lived 1/2 block from a restaurant called "El Ranchero" in Arlington VA. Their salsa was SO spicy it could clear my sinuses in a second, so I went whenever I had a cold. But boy, my mouth would burn.'

Now, living in So Cal, I always wonder...if I went back there, would it be spicy? Or was it just wussy PA girl?