Jane’s Diary: Death by Chili

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Growing up, I never liked spicy food. Then again, I was never served any. My default meal as a kid was chicken ala King, white meat, white sauce on white rice. The pizzazz came from a fleck of pimento and a few green peas.

I did not start to eat spicy food until I was a grown-up, married, and on the road. One thing you need to know is that I have many definite likes and dislikes. Among the long list of foods never to be eaten are ketchup, mayonnaise, bologna, anchovies, capers, olives, artichokes, relish, mustard, pickles, most every fish, every single octopus, sushi, kidneys, brains, and much more. I am not allergic, not kosher, not gluten free or any other legitimate excuse. I just hate certain foods.

Fortunately Michael eats everything (although I hear he has recently drawn the line at boiled chitlins), so one of us samples the whole menu and the other one pretty much eats cake and pie.

This had never been a problem until the popular spread Miracle Whip (to me, 100 times deadlier then mayonnaise) asked us to be product spokesmen. They wanted to pay us lots of money, and all we had to do is eat a sandwich on national TV and say “I love Miracle Whip.” Much to the dismay of Michael (who’s fine with it) as well as to our sorry bank account, it became obvious that it would be impossible for me to say the tag line while I was projectile vomiting.

But back to spicy food.  It sounds like an overstatement, but I honestly think I never tasted chili until we hit the road. I grew up in midtown Manhattan in a family that did not eat like cowboys or lumberjacks. Once Michael and I headed west we got into serious chili country. We quickly learned that real Texas chili, known as a Bowl of Red, contains no beans. It is cubes of beef in a slurry of cinnabar red sauce made from red chili peppers, cumin, onion, and not much else. The degree of heat comes from the intensity of the chili pepper. Chilies are measured on the Scoville Scale, a scientific construct that goes from mild to blow-your- freaking-head-off.

As a Chicken ala King type I was suspicious of chili. It looked like a bowl of ketchup and I was not yet a fan of heat. I started with mildly spiced chili; but like a heroin addict who hears the angels sing on the first hit, I was hooked. I needed more, hotter, deliriously dangerous chili.

As I write this I have a super-sized bottle of Tums on my desk next to a prescription for Nexium; but back in the day I had an iron gut. It shocked Michael and anyone else who saw me slurp down a bowl of red that I apparently had no limit to my love of hot food. Nothing was hot enough. Szechuan food barely registered; Mexican salsa was a joke; Indian Vindaloo was child’s play.

One of the lesser known Indian tribes out west are the Tigua, who have a cultural center in El Paso. When we came across it in the 1970s, it included a little cafeteria that served native cuisine. The feature of the day when we arrived (and I suspect it was featured everyday) was chili made by the tribal chief Jose Sierra. My memory is that Michael and I were the only non-natives eating there; and with a watchful eye, the server blinked when I ordered the chili. “Miss, it is really hot; you won’t like it,” she said.

I was used to this. In every Chinese or Mexican restaurant or Indian Curry House, I always asked for the dish “extra hot” and was always told I was better off with the “American style” version. Again, my ability to eat heat was being challenged. I knew what it must feel like to be a macho Alpha Male having to prove myself to doubters.

Despite the warnings, I got my bowl of chili. It had a few pieces of diced onion on top and a warm wheat tortilla alongside. It looked luscious and smelled like heaven. In fact it was so seductive that I did not wait to carry it all the way to our table before I dipped a spoon in and tasted it. I have a vague memory of time stopping, of standing dead center in a cafeteria full of Tigua Indians, of not being able to swallow or breathe. My face turned red and I clutched at my throat for air. At that point I dropped my tray, the chili splattered all over the floor, and woozily I swayed to a seat.

Chief Sierra was a vigilant man. My dramatic retching and flopping around the dining room had made him leave the kitchen to see what was going on. When he approached, I was waving my arms in the air like a born again Holy Roller.  He suggested I take a bite of the tortilla. I did and in a short while, I was back to normal.

I had met my death by chili match. I was no longer 10 feet tall and bulletproof. “Yes, it is very hot,” Chief Sierra said sagely as I wiped my brow and shuddered back to life. “Don’t worry,” he assured me. “It is nothing to be ashamed of, please don’t cry.” What he didn’t know was that I had gotten chili in my eyes. These were not tears of shame, but tears of capsicum.

I still fondly remember the taste of the chili (once the heat wore off) and occasionally will contemplate the ratio of Nexium and Tums it would take to conquer it.

– Jane Stern

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