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Hot Stuff

Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are. — Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

I was an occasional user. At least that’s what I told myself. “It’s not that I need it,” I’d say, “it’s that I want it,” and wanting is not as desperate as needing. As when I started smoking, the habit developed incrementally. The first time, I tried it out of curiosity. An insistent friend, also a user, urged me on as I brought it to my lips and into my mouth. I coughed a few times; my throat and tongue felt of fire. I recoiled from the burn and swore I’d never go near it again. But when the stuff came near me a few months later, I suddenly remembered the pleasant buzz I’d had that first time, a sort of euphoria peeking through the pain. Reveling in the memory, I broke my promise to myself and did it again.

Despite the burning, watery eyes, and sniffles the stuff caused, it became a part of my daily life. It was no big deal. A little here, a little there, until one day not so long ago, it occurred to me that I yearned for it. Like a cup of coffee or those cigarettes I quit smoking years ago, I found it difficult to get through an entire day without it. Then, last week, I reached a turning point. David, witness to my descent, pushed me to admit that my obsession with heat was no longer a casual one. Hi. My name is Barbarella, and I am a chilehead.

I grew up sheltered from the spicy fruit I’ve come to crave. My mother-of-Sicilian-descent preferred mild sauces — Ragu (with the onions sieved out, of course), Hunts tomato sauce, and tomato paste. Catering to my father’s finicky tastes, the most exotic spices she added to the simmering tomato lava were salt, sugar, onion powder, garlic powder, and, if she was feeling bold, dried oregano. Though my father-of-Irish-descent slathered all non-pasta meals with ketchup and Tabasco, the latter never made it to any of the other plates in the house.

After I left home, I was careful to avoid spicy food. At Taco Bell, I requested mild sauce; at Thai restaurants, I ordered yellow curry with a spice factor of zero out of ten. On those occasions that I was caught off guard, such as the time I bit into a pepperoncini that had somehow found its way into a turkey sandwich I’d brought home from Subway, or when I accidentally dumped red pepper flakes instead of grated Parmesan onto my slice of pizza, I’d spend the next half hour cursing and extinguishing my tongue with ice water.

They say your taste buds change every seven years. It makes sense. I couldn’t stand mustard growing up, but then, without warning, I came to like the stuff a few years after I moved out of my parents’ house. Same thing happened with fresh tomatoes, avocados, and cucumbers. My seven years must be up again — suddenly, I can tolerate onions, I don’t think cilantro is as devastating as it used to be, and, of course, there’s this new preoccupation with peppers. I used to be a “slice of cheese” kind of girl. Now, partly because I have a thing for alliteration, but more to demonstrate the extreme turn my taste buds have taken, I recently switched to a five-“P” pizza — pepperoni, pineapple, pepperoncini, blanketed in Parmesan and pepper flakes.

A few months ago I lunched at Tofu House, a Korean barbecue place that serves boiled tofu in searing clay pots. I ordered the soup with a spice level of three out of four chile peppers. It was the most painful meal I’d ever eaten. And loved. I went back two days later, thinking it was the tofu I was after. This time, I took things down a notch — two out of four. My mouth was on fire, but the flavor of the broth spoke to me through the heat. Soon I was up to three times a week. The spicy hot broth was like heroin, and without a regular fix, my mood would sour.

When I decide to embrace something, I do so with the fixated fervor of an idiot savant. I immerse myself in my newfound passion until, like a freakish appendage, it becomes yet another extension of my personality. One autumnal afternoon in 2003, I decided that red and black made a great color combination. Today, my clothing, jewelry, eyeglass frames, phone, purses, shoes, and even the interior and exterior of my car reflect my color obsession. It is the same with peppers. Their being red is a coincidental perk.

As with any new crush, I wanted to learn all I could about the object of my infatuation. I started reading up on its history. I discovered that, according to botanists specializing in pepper genealogy, all chile peppers originated in South America (it wasn’t until the 1500s that peppers first appeared in Asia). The chemical that makes my tongue burn and my heart pound is called capsaicin, and the level of heat is measured in Scoville units, after the guy who developed the technique for measurement in 1912 (by diluting peppers in water and using his tongue to gauge how much water needed to be added before the heat was no longer detectable). I even studied the process of making Tabasco hot sauce.

Since my confession, I no longer have to slink around alleys and go through back doors to get my supply. Pancho Villa’s market on El Cajon, with their vast selection of chiles, has become a regular stop. My last trip there I bought bags of each kind in my never-ending search for a higher high. On Adams Avenue, I found myself a dealer of liquid fire and left his shop with a sack of bottles in each hand.

Sure, the highs are great, but the burn was a concern. What was I doing to myself? Fortunately, my research revealed that peppers are good for you. There are few things more satisfying than realizing your vice is a virtue. To counteract David’s quips about my “addiction,” I’ve taken to citing health and science journals. When he says, “What, you’re not even going to taste that before you cover it with ground pequin?” I’ll respond, “Six times the vitamin C of an orange. More than double the carotene found in carrots. This is more superfood than blueberries, goji berries, and acai combined. And I just read yet another study that supports the peppers-prevent-cancer theory. I’ll forward it to you.” To which he usually sighs and says something about my habit of rationalizing.

Yesterday, the chilly air and cloudy sky seemed to whisper, “Matzo ball soup from D.Z. Akins.” But, for the first time, the idea of Jewish penicillin did not seem as warmth inducing as it always had. I wasn’t convinced it would satisfy my craving for comfort. As David waited by the door, I rushed back to the kitchen, filled a small plastic container with some of my freshly ground dried hot peppers, and tucked it into my purse. At the restaurant, the servers walking by seemed to take special interest in my bowl, which had somehow turned red. It was the best matzo ball soup ever.

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