I never thought I’d be or even understand those older people who say things like: I love spicy things but I can’t eat it anymore. I’d always wonder why, but their answers never offered any clarity. They’d respond in cryptic ways. “It just messes me up,” or “I’m too old for it now”. But then in my early 30s I started to have my own issues with spice. I realized, “it just messes me up”, means: it turns my insides to liquid hot magma. “I’m too old for it now,” means: I’ve seen the down side of the ingestion of fiery foods in too many instances, and a sweaty brow and capsaicin-buzz is no longer worth the unpredictability of what could happen thereafter. I’m 36 now and I get it.
It’s a heartbreaking realization to think of giving up spice, especially for a lifelong lover of hot foods. Me and spice go way back. My mom and dad tell a story about my earliest yearnings for the flamed tongue. Apparently, I happened upon a hot-sauce packet from a Taco Bell when I was barely crawling and gnawed it open, enticed by the burn, I sucked it dry. From then on, my mom carried hot sauce packets in her purse to pacify this urge. At a dinner party once, as a family friend was holding me over his head, my baby eyes held hostage by his “gah-gah-gooing”, my mouth opened and let dribble some saliva spiked with hot sauce directly into his eye. Lucky for him this was years before Taco Bell introduced the “Hot” and “Fire” varieties.
My early boyhood was also filled with a ravenous kind of searching for something a little spicy. Like all adolescent boys it included late night cable tv surfing, plenty of USA Network’s Up All Night, but beyond that I was interested in another kind of spicy sensation. One of gastronomical significance. Those were the dark ages of specialty condiments as alluded to in this excellent Extra Crispy article, “The History of Hot Sauce In America”. Added to this hurdle, I’m from a family of the whitest gringos this side of the Mississippi. They’d struck gold when they offered up the hot sauce packets early on. But no sooner than my neck could support the weight of my own fat head—I needed more. Pickled jalapenos were the early standard. I remember packing them in my lunch in the 4th grade. I’d pull a slice out of a plastic sandwich bag and munch on with my Oscar Mayer bologna sandwich. My parents also began stocking Tabasco on occasion which didn’t offer the crunchy texture of the peppers, but went well with Totinos Pizza Rolls and sloppy joes — you know, kid food. We also had plenty of mild Pace Picante sauce on hand, which is even more limited in its application. My grandparents would later introduce me to Louisiana Hot Sauce which opened my eyes yet again. If I cut my teeth from infancy on Taco Bell Hot Sauce, it was concession stand jalapeños, Tabasco, Pace Picante, and Louisiana Hot Sauce that I turned to throughout adolescence.
When I was 17 or 18 my mom gifted me a sampler pack of Aztec’s Revenge Mexican Hot Sauce. This is the kind of hot sauce you could get at Kmart or Bed, Bath, and Beyond. It’s still available on Amazon and seems pretty pedestrian by today’s standards. All the sauces appear to have the same ingredients, despite having completely different names and supposed flavor profiles. But never mind what the hipster foodie boom has done to leave us underwhelmed with yesteryear’s condiments… Those sauces blew my mid-90s mind. I remember loving them, but practically hoarding them because I didn’t know when I’d happen upon such a varied trove of sweat-juice again. As miraculous as those sauces where, they eventually ran dry. Luckily it wouldn’t be long before a new hot sauce made the flamed tongue mainstream in America.
A few years later, a friend would show me “cock sauce” or the now famous: Huy Fong Sriracha chili sauce. I can’t take credit for the discovery, but Sriracha became a staple for me in 2004. This was before it was on fast food menus, on the table at Chop Chop or Panda Express, and in the sticky door tray of every fridge in America. I was an early adopter of the perfectly spicy versatile sauce. The first food I ever tried it on was an OG Dollar Menu sausage burrito from McDonald’s. To this day I think a breakfast burrito is one of the best foods you can eat with Sriracha, its heavy garlic and bright heat the perfect accompaniment to the yolky, cheesy innards of a rolled tortilla. The second best morsel to graciously hold a generous squirt of the sauce is pizza. Pho, ramen, kimchi fried rice, butter chicken, pad Thai, and the like all tie for third in my mind. Most southeast asian dishes like these have enough dynamic representation across the flavor spectrum that Sriracha doesn’t necessarily level-it up like it does a more one dimensional dish.
Sriracha has been a staple in my house for going on 15 years now, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say its ubiquitous nature makes it feel a lot more ‘meh’ than it did in those early 2000s. Another shortcoming of sriracha is that it doesn’t taste great on 90% of the Mexican food I eat on a regular basis. It doesn’t work on enchiladas, nachos, rellenos, tacos, or burritos. In my estimation it’s because these items have a richness and don’t offer a light broth, starchy carb, or otherwise spacious main component. The Rooster Sauce needs uncluttered space along the savory spectrum to fill. That’s why anytime you have rice, noodles, eggs, mozzarella, chicken or veggie broths, Sriracha can elevate the dish. Anytime you have a low end rich tomato-ey kind of base (spaghetti or ranchero) or even more to the point, a pepper-based kind of sauce like Chile verde or Chile Colorado, don’t even think about using Sriracha. It will compete with the deep flavors those dishes are known to showcase. Still a flagship of the fridge, I’ve not forsaken the power of the cock sauce. Even so, I gravitated to something more versatile.
You’re probably wondering when I’ll talk about Cholula… And the answer is only when Valentina or Tapatio are unavailable.
This never ending quest for the perfectly versatile vehicle of Scoville brings me to the next evolution of my heat-seeking. I switched straight to jalapeños. Every trip to the grocery store would include 3-5 fresh jalapeños to slice and dice for all meals throughout the week. I’d dice them for eggs, slice them for sandwiches, chop them for pico, grill them for cheese trays, and blend them for salsas. This was also the same time I fell in love with the fall harvest of fresh green chiles. Roasting in supermarket parking lots across the southwest, the ‘x hot’ variable of fresh roasted green Chile was unlike anything I’d ever had from under the peeled aluminum can top of those awful “Hatch” brand chiles next to the Rotel. I spent over $100 dollars on the chiles one year. I wrote about it for Vice Munchies in an article you can see here. I’m not sure what happened to our love affair but after a few years of only calling on fresh peppers for my weekly heat rations, capsicums done me dirty.
For awhile I blamed my body’s rebellion to heat on the actual food I was consuming. I pointed the finger at my mother-in-law’s spaghetti and all the other items I’d grown accustomed to pouring on more and more crushed red peppers, sliced fresh jalapeños, and ‘xx’ Hatch green chiles. I can’t eat pasta anymore, or fajitas, or wings because of the grease, or coffee with a breakfast burrito because of the acid, or eggs with butter because of the fat. I searched high and low for a cause to quit everything but spices. Finally, after years of thinking I’d developed the unreasonably sensitive stomach of a septuagenarian Brooklyn Jew, I eliminated the extra spicy foods I’d come to love. From that point on I would no longer request green over red salsas at LBK’s Burrito Tower, Jaliscos, Josies, Raider Burrito, Albarran’s or Burrito King. Bring me the tomatoey gringo sauce from now on please, my brow-sweat days are over. In Amarillo, I avoided the by-request-only habanero heat at my favorite spots like El Vaquero, La Campana, Lupitas, and Tacos Garcia. From now on, I’ll dip chips into the same mild sauces the cowboys with shiny belt buckles do. Can I get a Coors Light while you’re at it?
I’d resigned to live a new life, shunning the sweet heat of spice for digestive comfort. Call it an armistice between me and my bowels—a compromise to give up the capsaicin fueled endorphin rush for a more predictable post-meal experience. I promised not to chase that out-of-body sensation in which sweat pooled at the crown of my head like an anointing from the Greek God of Fire Hephaestus himself. In turn, the admiral in my abdomen signed into effect an immediate moratorium on any and all napalm strikes on my rectum, including the hallmark middle of night surprise attacks that had proved so effective over the years. But as any good American would, I began scheming elaborate or brute force measures out of this treaty. I’m not going to go so far as saying I broke it. But I wanted to have my spice and eat it, too. It’s the American way.
When it comes down to it, I was really just resisting the hostile takeover of my body by a militant force under the banner of “age”. I know enough about the history of warfare to know that the Domino Theory is real. First I’d lose control of the interworking of my abdomen, next would be my knees and other joints becoming sore or clicky for no reason. How long would it be before my eyes require contacts and my ears no longer hear the rumbling early signs of a belly blitzkrieg by the admiral? This wasn’t about breaking a treaty, it was about the containment of a brutish ideal just as sinister and prone to spreading as communism was before the Gulf of Tonkin.
I began to slowly reintroduce spicy things. Sriracha first since it’s a mainstay. Nothing happened. Feeling invincible I lobbed a limited engagement offensive with one of those terribly delicious roasted jalapeños from Rosa’s Cafe. Retreat! Retreat! Through a lengthy process of reintroduction I narrowed down all my body’s strained internal relationships to the elimination of two main items: uncooked pepper seeds and pepper membranes. The interesting thing is even peppers I wouldn’t normally consider to be overly hot can ruin our rather pleasant detente. Take the unimposing shishito pepper or the Young Guns Hatch Green standard “Hot” variety, which is more of a feisty medium. Both pose a real threat to peace. I never thought it would come to this but now I generally shun all peppers that I didn’t prepare. As a general rule I can’t trust a lot of wonderful foods like green Chile cheeseburgers, jalapeño poppers, crushed red pepper flakes, nachos with crisp, fresh jalapenos, pizzas with vinegary pickled peppers. This newly founded peace accord cost me many of the foods I love but I’ve seen the end of too many micro aggressions to know that any gastronomical conflict is always a lose-lose situation.
Not only did I find a way to compromise with the bad beast in my belly, but I recently found a way to win. I stumbled upon a nuclear option when my friend, let’s call him Oppenheimer, introduced me to an online shop called The Heatonist. Based in New York City, the “Purveyors of Fine Hot Sauces”, have opened my eyes to a new world of leveled-up heat in which seeds, membranes, and the crunchy snap of fresh peppers no longer leave me reeling. Not only do many of these sauces exceed the heat level of your average grocery store pepper, but they ramp the flavor up to ten. With a complete flavor profile that often weaves heat, sweet, and acid together, there is a sauce for anything and everything you’d have a hankering for. And therein lies the solution. All my life I’ve been on a hunt for a singular kind of heat. One that’s ultimate versatility would represent a kind of piquant perfection. But the wisdom of age and experience tells me it just doesn’t exist. You need a hot sauce for everything. The wisdom of age experience also tells me hot sauce is just easier on the stomach.