Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Bowl Full of Spice

There’s a bowl of jalapenos sitting on the kitchen counter, waiting for me to figure out what to do with them. My plan, such as it is, is to pickle them in vinegar and salt, put them in the refrigerator for a while to get good and tasty, and then spend a glorious week living on nachos.

So I’m not Napoleon working on ways to conquer the world. Sue me.

The pepper harvest is the main reason I tag along with Kim’s garden plans. I do not like chard. Squash is okay once in a while. Tomatoes are only good when they’re ground up, spiced, simmered, and poured over pasta – other than that I don’t even like handling them. But hot peppers? I am so there.

Last year was the year of the hot sauce, when I napalmed the house trying to make my own version of Tabasco from the freighter’s worth of random hot red peppers that we harvested. The sauce that resulted was in fact very good, with actual flavor to go along with the heat, and eventually the cats regrew their hair. Win all around, as far as I could see.

This year Kim says that anything I do with peppers must be done outside.

I like spicy food. This is a very difficult way to be out here in the nation’s tender midsection, where garlic is considered exotic. Whenever I find myself in our local Chinese takeout, for example, I have to explain that I want my order “extra spicy.” And when they nod and say, “Okay,” I say, “No. Not ‘midwest extra spicy’ – REALLY extra spicy.” And if you do that enough times eventually you reach a level of spicy that is detectable.

Of course, even I have limits, and those are not as flammable as they used to be.

When I lived in Pittsburgh I went to a BBQ Rib Festival with some friends.

If you’ve never been to one of these things, you should go. They’re fun, especially if you like good food. Various barbecue guys (they’re almost always men, for some reason) set up booths around the perimeter of a field, and you go from booth to booth buying the two-rib samplers in order to experience the widest array of flavors. These guys ride the national circuit, most of them, so they’re all good. You can’t really go wrong, at least not in terms of flavor.

And then we got to Colonel Johnson’s Thermonuclear Ribs.

Have you ever done something and, much later, gone back over the course of events and thought to yourself, “You know, there were a whole lot of warning signs there that I should have paid attention to”? This was one of those times.

The first warning sign was, of course, the name itself. But I chalked that up to the kind of hyperbole and hucksterism that one gets with events like this. Yeah, yeah, “thermonuclear” – good one, buddy.

The fact that this booth was directly across from the beverage tent might also have meant something if I had not assumed that this was just a coincidence. They have to put the beverage tent somewhere, don’t they? Why not across from Colonel Johnson’s Thermonuclear Ribs?

The “Release From Liability” that I had to sign when I got my ribs, though – that should have set off some bells. I was working as a paralegal at the time, and let me just say that - marketing ploy thought it may have been – this document would have stood up in court. It was solidly written, airtight and buttoned down. No matter what this stuff did to me, I had no legal recourse to anything once I signed that piece of paper. Even thinking of suing them probably would have entitled them to take my personal effects and sell them for scrap. It was a masterpiece of the genre.

When I touched some of the sauce to my lips and promptly lost all feeling in my mouth – yeah, that too probably should have triggered some kind of response beyond amazement. But I was young and indestructible, and eventually the feeling returned.

So I set about eating those two ribs.

Sweet dancing monkeys on a stick, was that an experience. Did you know that at certain levels of spicy food, your vision really does get tinged with red? This was but one of the fascinating physiological discoveries I made that afternoon.

I was the only person in my group of friends who managed to finish the ribs. All of those friends had children years before I did, which I am convinced was not a coincidence. And as a friend of mine later sympathized when I was telling him this story some years later, what goes in, must come out.

I don’t do that anymore. I have grown old and weary of the idea of food as a contest of wills. But I still like food with zip to it.

And so my jalapenos await.


Jennifer said...

What? Garlic considered exotic?!?! I'd last for about one meal.

Good luck on your pickled peppers!

David said...

It is a sad, sad, "Italian-free" zone in which I live, really. I am surrounded by people who use the term "red sauce" without irony.

KimK said...

Whoa, whoa, there. Ease up on the "red saucers" there, Dave. Your people call marinara/red sauce/spaghetti sauce GRAVY, for pete's sake. Gravy is brown or gold in color and is meat-flavored. Or it's a bonus. But it is not red. :)

Unknown said...

My MIL is part Indian (subcontinent) and many of my in-laws only consider food hot if you have to take out a hanky and wipe off the sweat that is pouring off their brows.

Shawn Powers said...

hehehe, I'm totally with you. I really really like spicy food, but now that I'm old and, uh, wise I guess, I also like a bit of flavor with my spice.

I have a hard time passing up a challenge though. (If you're ever in Portland, you should try them -- they're really not that bad. I suspect they're no thermonuclear ribs...)

Oh, and a franchise restaurant with surprisingly spicy food? Blazin' wings from Buffalo Wild Wings. It surprises me every time I eat them just how spicy something in a chain restaurant is.

David said...

BW3 has long been one of my favorites! I even remember what the third W was for, back when they still sold it.

I usually order the second-hottest wings, as I find that their top-tier sauce edges into Colonel Johnson territory for me.

You know who surprised me with a Buffalo sauce that was decently spiced (though not head-meltingly so)? McDonald's. Try it with their Chicken Selects - it has a nice heat and flavor for such a big bland chain restaurant.