Monday, August 10, 2009

A moment of self-reflection...

A few days ago the Mrs and I were dining at a local Chinese restaurant we frequent. One our regular waitresses there is pretty chatty and we have a friendly rapport. During this last visit I asked for some spicy mustard and some chili sauce (whatever was kicking around in the kitchen). I got my spicy mustard and the now ubiquitous Sriracha and happily nommed our appetizer dinner(1).

After feeding, our waitress came up and asked if I liked the sauces. I replied yes I did. Then followed a conversation about how I knew about Sriracha and had a bottle at home among my other hot sauces and she asked how and where I had acquired a knowledge and love of all things spicy (I'm parapharasing but this was the gist of the conversation). I had a bit of trouble articulating my replies simply because I hadn't ever really thought about the topic. I had assumed that - like drinking, smoking, and profanity - my love of spicy food was something I had right out of the womb.

I don't remember the first spicy dish I ever had. I'm assuming it was something from a Chinese restaurant back in the early day when my father and first step-mother - Laura -were dating. My dad never had a taste for spicy food - though considering his stomach problems and ulcers spicy food was the cure he needed (yes spicy food is good for those ailments - look it up). I don't remember Laura being a chile head or heat junkie but she was an adventerous eater. I do have a memory of loving the red sauce at the Vietnamese restaurant near Pittsfield, MA that I think was owned or funded by Arlo Guthrie. I hope it's still open. I don't recall hot sauce (of any sort)being a cupboard or dining room staple growing up...or jalapenos...or anything hotter than tangy.

Looking back, I think the late 90s was when I truly found my love of spice. Living in DC allowed me to try endless variations on Southeast Asian, African, South & Latin American cuisine, and classic Soul. Moving to Austin in 99 allowed me to stretch my legs further as I developed my ability to cook and my love for food. I recall a long running weekly cooking experiment where I would cook a London Broil cut of steak and share it with a downstairs neighbour. One time I was overzealous with the chiles and every bite was like walking on coals. It was awesome.

I guess as time has progressed so has my ability to moderate flavour with heat, balancing flavours against one another, and experimenting with different types of heat. My love of food, chiles, and other spices had and continues to influence my love of history - even well before i returned to college. The history behind not only of the spice trade that fuelled the Age of Exploration but also the dissemination of the chile pepper from the Americas across the globe is fascinating to me.

This spring and summer also mark my first attempt to grow chiles from seeds and my second attempt to successfully grow jalapenos - hence my new tattoo.

I suppose that the underlying point or reason for my love of heat and all things spicy is good old fashioned pleasure driven curiosity. Either that or I'm just plain nuts.

(1) Appetizer Dinner. A variation on dim sum I came up with back in DC where instead of a full dinner appetizers were ordered - i.e. steamed dumplings, hot & sour soup, and a spring roll. As I went to more restaurants I tried more appetizers. Eventually is was more fun just to eat appetizers instead of entrees.

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