Among my friends hot peppers are not so much a culinary matter as they are a gauge of manhood. While some guys go in for bungie jumping or skating down the sides of tall buildings, my buddies test their testosterone by eating things that other people use to repel muggers.
Let’s face it, hot peppers as a flavor enhancer are fine. But at the point where the cook is using life-threatening peppers, it’s gone beyond food. We’re into the realm of self-mutilation here. Why eat something that tastes good, but hurts really bad? If you’re going to do that you might as well just eat a good meal and then ask the waiter to drive staples into your forehead.
One friend is a pepper fanatic, known for his delicious home-made beef jerky (he marinates it for hours in napalm). He’ll often offer samples to his friends. These taste tests are a kind of sadomasochistic, male-bonding, pain-endurance ritual. “Try some of this,” he says. Then all the guys stand around chewing, making appreciative noises, watching each other to see who’s going to cry.
“Delicious,” I manage to say, while several of my major organs hand in their resignations.
I once saw a chart that described the wide variety of hot peppers and their relative heat. It turns out that the serial killer of hot peppers is the mighty habanero. NASA used habaneros to test the re-entry tiles on the Space Shuttles. Habanero farmers are required to register with Homeland Security. Special permits are necessary to ship habaneros through populated areas.
So naturally, somebody thought that cooking with habaneros would be fun. Probably someone who enjoys shaving with a belt sander.
I once had dinner with some friends in a Manhattan restaurant that specialized in spicy Southwestern cuisine. The menu featured a variety of dishes like “Eat This and Die Pork,” and “Flaming Ulcer Beef.” Right away, a challenge, a gauntlet thrown, a little, mocking voice saying, “What’s the matter, Mr. Pansy Basket?”
After a few Mexican beers my machismo-meter was in the red zone. I was no longer the middle-aged blonde guy from the midwest. I was Paunchy Villa! I ordered a dish called “Death by Chilies.”
Death does not frighten me, amigo.
The meal was a delicious chicken concoction, very potent, but within my range of tolerance. I became overconfident. Off to one side of my plate were two habanero peppers. I popped one into my mouth.
Really hot peppers don’t hit you right away, especially if you’re washing down your meal with beer. It took about a five-count before I stopped breathing. I was pretty sure that the pepper had eaten through my tongue and jaw, and was laying in my lap. I drank water, beer, wine, moist towelettes, anything cold and wet. I was perilously close to writhing. Writhing in a restaurant is frowned upon, even in New York. I sat very still, trying not to weep openly.
“Death By Chilies?” They should have named this stuff “Beg For A Bullet In The Head Chicken.”
After weeks of counseling by sensitive professionals I was able to talk about the experience. I’m a better man for it.
Months later I was sitting in a Cleveland bar when a couple sat next to me and ordered chicken wings. The bartender asked, “You want Mild, Spicy, or Deadly?”
The couple thought it over. The man was tentative. He said, “Could we have Spicy, with a side of Deadly?”
I finished my drink and left a buck on the bar. Amateurs, I thought. Wimps.
[This item was originally published in a slightly different form in 1996 in Howdy, what was then the AOL humor section.]