Ring of Fire: Pepper Avoidance and the Personality

In response the the daily challenge: Ring of Fire:

I can eat anything and not suffer “the ring of fire” (such a gross but fitting euphemism for what spicy food does to some people’s butts.) I adore stuffed jalapenos. I pickle peppers each summer. I cook with scotch bonnets. If I turn down a fiery meal, it is only because the flavor has been lost behind the heat, not because I have whimped out.

See? We link our personalities to pepperdom. In the same way kids challenge each other on how high they can jump their bikes or skateboards before either dying or giving into fear, diners define strength by the depth of heat we can stand. Think of the contests held for pepper sauce, hottest chilis, or even the number of peppers one can consume in one sitting. I recall a story of a man who killed himself in a pepper-eating contest in Texas, where a hole literally burned open his stomach. I keep hoping this is an Urban Myth. (Or in Texas’s case would that be called a Country Yarn?)

Either way, we Americans beat our proverbial hairy chests with the pepper.

My husband’s stomach is actually much more tender than mine. I know this only by observation. He will still eat anything and everything spicy or otherwise without complaint, never acknowledging defeat verbally. We both love a great plate of Pad Kee Mao, (Do not hold the spice) at Atlanta’s Little Bangkok. My hubby proudly out-spices his wife, as he should, being the more powerful male diner of the species.

My tough little Irish Grampa adored spicy food, introduced to it long after he lost his hair. Didn’t matter how much sweat he mopped off his bald head, he was not going to knuckle under to a mere bowl of chili.

My mother-in-law daintily admits that she simply can’t stomach even a little spice. She always gives a feminine flutter of her hand as if she is swishing away a distasteful image in front of us, when she turns down the grilled peppers in fajitas. A dear friend of mine, a southern gentleman so Anglophile, so Shakespearean expert that he almost has an English accent, proudly brags that if even a trace of black pepper, the mildest of our seasonings, touches his lips, he bursts into flames of pain. Raw cinnamon has also been a nasty culprit.

Histrionic, much??

Like some sort of ring-of-fire rite of passage, my sons and father bond over finding the best, tongue-destroying spicy pepper sauce: “Oh, Maaaaaan, You think THAT’s hot. . .waitayoutry THIS one!”

Doesn’t matter that my Dad suffers not the ring of fire, but the ring of Pompeii when he eats certain foods, not just peppers, but onions, potatoes, even apples. But, hey, what sort of man would he be if he feared an apple, let alone a pepper?

So he willingly gobbles up the spiciest food. That would even be anything with the Wai-Wai pepper, a plant cultivated by the indigenous people of Guyana, The Wai-Wai (and also by a botanist friend of mine in North Carolina with the license to grow a few pots of the pepper each year.). The fruit of the Wai-Wai has a heat index far higher than any pepper you can find in any market in America. Just touching the flesh of a freshly cut pepper and then your tongue is unbearable. Even unbearable for me, for my husband, and if my sons and Dad would just be honest, for them. The botanist, however, is a real man; You can use a half teaspoon of the fresh pepper to season super spicy chili, but he can eat it straight without too many tears.

I am sure, given the proper Licensure, the Wai-Wai tribe could become billionaires of this export as people world wide prove their superiority through their Wai-Wai consumption. Restaurants would prosper. So would all the tall tales.

(By the way, I lied. I do suffer when I eat cayenne. My bladder for some reason gets mildly enflamed. But that’s just between us. Don’t tell anyone. I have a powerful reputation to protect, you know.)

I (don’t) Eat, Therefore I Am

God’s Guide to Food. God Sex Food. Women, Food, and God. All are titles of recent books. I figure most of them are about diets. I don’t really care. What I notice, though, is how many people seem to believe that if they can just get the right combo of foods. . .they will go to heaven. By people I typically mean my dinner guests. And by Heaven, I mean any wondrous place other than who they are right now.

And, as a person who likes to cook for others as a way of showering them with love, I am mighty weary of this crap.

My cook’s nightmare begins in grade school. Children younger than school-age dislike the typical gaseous cruciferous veggies because their tongues typically abhor the garbage after taste. This is true of all babies, pretty much. But visit any school and you will run into kids who dislike steak, or all things orange, or strawberries, or Cheetoes or anything that they can hold up and say, “I am the kid who Hates XYX; it is what makes me more special than you!” When you raise a family, you can watch your own kids try to board this trend when they ask, “Hey, Mom! Is there any food I get hives from?”. And they are disappointed when you answer, “No.” Worse, they start saying things like, “You know I can’t eat anything with leaves!” Uh, since when? Since you met that intriguing kid who can’t eat anything with eyes?

Since when did what we avoid on our dinner plates become the new vanity plate?

Now shift this to the college campuses, where students drink beer like water, cling to sushi stools like birds, and avoid animal proteins (other than raw fish), and any of its cosmetic byproducts like anthrax. Again, trendy identity qualifiers. Woah to the kids who actually eat burgers with their fries!

My own children have a mom who was rarely allowed to dislike any foods; I sneered at spinach for the bitter scummy feel it left on my teeth, and I had to eat it anyway; now I actually love it. I was reared by a Mom who almost always served a meat and three, along with a starch, while we travelled the world with an Air Force Dad; we children pretty much ate everything and liked it. But my own boys have a Dad whose pickiness was catered to: his mother served him “eggs and chips” whenever the rest of the family was enjoying a curried shrimp or a wine soaked rabbit. He wanted me to allow the same avoidance in our own children. When my oldest son squirmed at the veins of a chicken leg, his father defended him rather than point out how rude it was to reject the food we had paid for, and I had worked hard to serve.

Not that I condone guilting kids into eating. But what happened to acceptance and etiquette? Instead, their Dad (my ex) expected me to either cook several meals depending on the current wishes of each member of the household, or make eggs and chips every damned night. I fought this battle hard, and luckily my sons now have broader palettes than their father. But to give him some credit, though he still eats with a sniff and a sneer at many home meals, with his British roots showing, he learned to be politely accepting of whatever a hostess serves him when he leaves his own home.

Not so with, it seems to me, everyone else I know. . .

And like I said, I am certain that much of it is some sort of mass identity crisis. We have a friend who is a tier in the fruit-chewy, vitamin-pyramid trend out west. On a camping trip to Yosemite, while the rest of us enjoyed whatever the chow meister served, she was forcing greens on us through sweet green candies. All I saw her eat were these gummies. So just how does one gummy bear, provide all the nutrients, anti-oxidants, calories, and fiber of a nice, roasted crown of broccoli? And how are these different from store bought vitamins? Don’t ask her, or she’ll paper you in jumbled reports from labs (paid for by the company she represents. . .)

Most of all, she will come close to convincing you that she feels transcendent after a rainbow of chews. This diet defines her. I won’t even bother describing her negativity about our fireside S’mores, the anti-sugar personality is so recognizable and rampant amongst us.

As is the gluten free personality. It is so prevalent that even my bag of Almonds advertises itself as gluten free in order to make itself more marketable. (I love Seth Rogan’s interview with Terri Gross, where he pointedly makes her feel awkward about her avoidance of gluten. Track it down if you can) Yes, there are people who truly can’t handle gluten, just as some people can’t survive a bee sting. But for those of us who are not allergic, it has no ill effects. I know there are popular reports that defy my statement. Just as there are many that support it.

But just what makes so many people so willing to turn away from a grain that has carried humanity through millennia of its survival? Think Djokovic, the tennis phenom who, when he gave up gluten, was unstoppable on the majors track. Maybe if we give up gluten, we too will be and feel more god-like. (Never mind that he suffers Asthma, IBS, and a number of allergies, specifically to gluten, where many of us do not.).

Enter the Vegan. A choice that could be respectably a moral one, a physical one, or. . .as I am lamenting here, a personality. An identity. Sometimes it’s the victim voice, sometimes it’s the superior voice they use when the rest of us eat steak while they enjoy a grilled portabello, but either way, it is quite a vocal banner they wear. “Look at me, I’m a Vegan!”

Overall, I watch so many people I know (more often women than men) jump on these bandwagons for what they say is their health. But it feels very much as if they are seeking a new self, hoping for miraculous change. A friend of mine stuck to a gluten free, vegan month. She was hoping for something notable, some new vigor, dare I say, a whole new woman. She challenged herself and at the end of the month, she returned to lobster and filet and said: “Thank God, I am me. Take the last five years off my life. . .I’d rather have cheese.” She didn’t find a new her, but embraced herself.

Now my point isn’t that sugar, animal fats, salt, gluten, red dye number 666, are fine. Of course most of us will feel better if we enjoy moderation and daily exercise. Instead, I am arguing that abstinence is often trendy and over-controlling of others.

Bowl games 2014. I am often the cook for gatherings of friends, partly because I am good at it; mostly because few others cook (which is a topic for a later blog). I try very hard to create a menu that pleases people and meets their needs.

My sister-in-law has a shifting, never quite cemented, long list of foods she cannot (read:will not) eat. No meat (which may or may not include fish) No sugar. No soy. No Dairy. (unless she goes to Steak n Shake where she will completely ignore these rules, though she fully expects me to comply at all times. I love her, so I try.) My mother can no longer eat fish. My brother-in-law avoids red meat and sugar and cheese. A dear friend is sometimes Kosher. His wife is gluten free. My husband and I joke about another friend’s love life; our first question is always what is the latest woman in his life free of? Probably carbs, to round out our menagerie of “There’s nothing left to eat” fools.

One party where my fish-free Mom came, too. I wanted to make something warm and hearty ahead of time. We served chicken chili, gluten free corn muffins, a salad. I had already asked my SIL what I could make her, and she said not to worry. The people who were to bring a sugar free dessert “forgot”. The gluten free woman “really didn’t like chicken” so wouldn’t eat the chili The one for whom I made it in the first place because he loves chicken chili, enjoyed it, but also whined: “You know, if you had used soy crumbles then maybe______could eat it, too.” Whaaat, she CAN eat soy? I thought she couldn’t. I was offended.

Next party. Fish-free Mom wasn’t coming. I decided on shellfish stew, red based, since a few couldn’t/wouldn’t handle a cream base(though we all know a lobster bisque with sherry and cream is to die for). I chose this for my SIL, (no meat, no cream) who then wouldn’t eat it because the broth just wasn’t one of her faves (though she eats tomatoes, drinks tomato juice, and eats tomato sauce). I ended up grilling her fish and veggies (same ingredients from the stew).

At a gathering in the mountains, a guest didn’t eat asparagus because of the pee-changing effects. Another likes chicken, but not from the grill, could I pop theirs in the oven?

At a brunch last weekend held in honor of an out of town guest, addressing everyone’s issues, but also choosing something that didn’t require me to stand at the stove, I made a seafood quiche, using shrimp and crab,( SIL faves), and Eggs Beaters (to help the BIL’s cholesterol). I left off cheese on half of it since SIL can’t handle dairy, but a few of us embrace cheese. I also said-screw it-and made butter and sugar-laden cinnamon rolls from scratch. And I served fresh fruit, which was almost ignored.

Well. . .BIL sighs: quiche is not his favorite, but he’d eat it. Dairy-free SIL-happily and knowingly serves herself the side with cheese, which doesn’t leave enough for the cheese eaters. The cheese eaters had to take a cheese free slice.. But SIl also moans about eggs. . .another of her possible no-no’s.

And EVERYone devours the rolls, the anti-sugar, anti-gluten, anti-dairy alike.

The only thing consistent with our guests is their inconsistency.

I give up. I told my husband I am no longer cooking for friends and family. I cannot meet their needs obviously, and these typically sweet people allow their FOOD IDENTITIES to overrule etiquette and manners to the point of rudeness, and even confusion. And for what? To belong to some trend? To feel superior?

Just when I reached that boiling point, I saw an Easter Dinner commercial from Walmart. Two women are setting a table. One remarks about place cards. The hostess explains how she has to strategically place the vegan, the meat carver, the gluten free, and the sugar free away from or near certain foods.

If Walmart can mock this food identity issue, it must be so common place, that I am not the only cook suffering this silliness. The fact that guests now believe it is okay to treat hostesses like restaurants is a true problem. I am finished with asking people what they prefer to eat. I don’t care what your relationship to food and your God is. Take the initiative to tell me if there is a food that will cause you to swell and die in under 2 minutes, and I won’t kill you. Otherwise, bring your own dinner, host your own parties, or eat my food without a peep.