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.
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.)