My husband has a favorite story he tells. Typically, he tells it after a male friend has described, oh, maybe a spicy curry he ate at the new Thai restaurant downtown or how he dumps Tabasco sauce on everything, even French toast.
If I don’t care for the man, I’ll shrug and say, “Tabasco’s mostly salt and vinegar.”
Tom’s one-upmanship story begins with a complaint. After 30 years of marriage and hindsight, I know this pattern of his. He made his first “romantic” overture toward me by complaining that my fried flounder smelled up the entire apartment building. What woman could resist such sweet talk?
Tom’s complaint usually starts like this: “I always tell the waiters I want extra spicy, extra hot. And the waiters will ask me, ‘Are you sure?’ They can’t believe it when I can eat the hottest chilies they have.”
Chili peppers are rated on the Scoville scale. Sauces made of chilies with higher SHU ratings (that’s Scoville Heat Units) come with a first aid kit and an attorney carrying an attaché full of waivers.
A universe for chili aficionados exists just as it does for lovers of wine, chocolate and fine olive oils.
I have read that, like wine, chocolate and olive oils, spicy flavors stimulate the release of endorphins – our natural, happy chemical. I think with Tom’s affinity for chili, there’s more than a simple endorphin jag.
I have two theories:
1. The wiring that connects Tom’s taste buds to the pain/pleasure zones in his brain is crossed up.
2. Pain affirms that he’s a man: steely, able, quiet.
The story he’s telling occurred in England. We’d discovered that the advice often offered was true : The best English food is Indian. I mean, “mushy peas” says volumes about Brit cuisine.
Tom goes on. “The Indian waiter went back to the kitchen and returned with the chef to our table. ‘Are you sure you want very, very spicy?’” Tom assured the concerned waiter and chef, yes, he wanted very, very spicy.
The chef and waiter went to the kitchen. Not much later they both returned to our tableside. The chef said, “We tasted your vindaloo and we couldn’t eat it. Are you sure you want to eat it?”
“Yes, yes!” Tom said.
Our meals arrived. The waiter and chef peered from the kitchen doorway to watch the American diner who’d ordered very, very spicy.
Tom’s quest for a chili too hot to tolerate has been going on for decades. He’s been disappointed chili-wise in many countries, at numerous restaurants, and over countless meals. He’s always polite, though, when the waiters inevitably inquire, “Was that hot?” Tom will say, “It was good,” which isn’t a lie as he’s cleaned his plate. No doggie bag needed.
I watched Tom eat his very spicy vindaloo as I ate my chicken tandoori. The blood drained from his face. Red Rorschach blotches popped up on his forehead. His nostrils streamed. His eyes gushed. He was in heaven.
“I couldn’t finish it,” Tom tells us. “I ate off that meal for a week.” He’s beaming. His eyes take on that cast of reminiscence.
Clearly, he’s happy to have met a chili that stopped him in mid-chew. Tom’s listeners say, “Oh,” at the right moment in his story.
Before the conversation lurches onto the Ravens or the construction work on 83 north, I say, “Well.” I pause making sure I have the floor. “Pain is not a flavor.”
Chuckles ruffle around the room. One of our guests repeats this.
Pain is not a flavor.