I haven’t always liked spicy food. As a child I absolutely hated it. I remember my father tricking me into trying a big bite of spicy chinese mustard at a restaurant in Boston. As a ten year old my knowledge of mustards was limited to French’s (or more exactly, some off-brand form of the mild, unassuming sandwich mustard), and so I was expecting something mild, sweet, and tasty. I dipped a too-small chunk of bread into too much of the mustard. I had not expected the harsh, burning flavor of the chinese mustard, and as it filled my nostrils and made my eyes water I drank glass after glass of water, my father finally cluing me into the bread on the table as a good alternative to the water. I also remember many “hot-pot-lucks” that my family attended. They were at our pastor’s house, and included the various members of the worship team from our church. Our pastor made pasta fazul, my dad, the guitarist, made his very hot chili, and Jane, the pianist, made volcanic meatballs. The adults sat around the living room turning various shades of red and dripping sweat from their faces. They cried and laughed and snot dripped from their noses. Looking back at it now I should have equated the adrenaline they were seeking in the hot-foods with the high that they sometimes exhibited during church. Apparently god is a spicy experience. I never understood it, but the pastor’s wife made us kids a pizza, baked on a stone in her oven, and that made these monthly gatherings okay, if not something to look forward to.
I am not really sure exactly when my attitude towards spicy food started to change. It was probably something as simple as being given hot sauce at taco bell instead of the mild that I usually requested, and realizing that the vinegary substance, when mixed in with shredded lettuce, was not only, “not so bad,” but actually something desirable. I was perhaps 17 years old when that happened. After that I found that I could stand light dashes of hot sauce, and hot peppers stuffed with cheese weren’t so bad. Over the years I grew to really like hot sauce… many afternoons on Guam were spent at the Korean bbq, sipping a spicy corona (a corona tinted red with tabasco and fizzy with lime), and I had a strong desire for the full-body tingle that came with just the right amount of wasabi tucked into a kappa hosomaki. Eventually that respect grew to a love of spicy food. But I remained a spice snob. Although I began to enjoy the warmth that spice gave I did not like foods that made me sweat or cry. That seemed like a bit too much. I liked to hold the warmth inside of me, like a secret.
One of the things that I really do not enjoy about spicy food is the way that it is associated with masculinity. A lot of men (and some women) I know feel the need to “conquer” spicy foods, or enter into a competition as soon as hot-sauce comes out. In my mind this competition makes the ordeal a lot less about the actual experience that can be achieved through spicy food. There is something beautiful in the pure enjoyment of spice. In some ways it can be nearly spiritual. But when it becomes about being better than others, or gets tied into your masculinity I feel that it becomes cheapened. Last week I was out with a few boys for dinner. A particularly spicy pepper came with my beans and sausage, and I was actually genuinely excited to try it. Since becoming pregnant my sense of taste has become quite sensitive and I haven’t tried many spicy foods, but as the morning sickness is finally starting to subside I am ready to take those ventures again. I mentioned that I was a late bloomer in regards to spicy foods, and didn’t really like them until I was about 17. I was just making conversation, but one of the boys picked up on the topic, and with a very proud, challenging tone, said that he liked spicy things when he was only 15. He continued to go on talking about various spicy peppers he had recently eaten, which had made him cry and sweat. In that moment the experience became less about the pepper and more of a competition. I felt awkward towards the pepper- like if it happened to be too spicy for me I was loosing a challenge, and yet I couldn’t not internalize his competitive concept into myself. I wanted to win and prove myself. Moreover, I wanted to disprove his masculinity in return for stealing my moment of genuine spice-appreciation. I ended up passing on the pepper altogether, letting that young man bathe in his concepts of masculinity. It just wasn’t worth it.
But, here’s the thing: I do happen to like spicy food. I like how it feels. I like how it releases endorphins and little bonding chemicals. I like it even though I am a female and don’t equate it at all with an accomplishment. Spice is an experience, not a measure of my worth. I dislike feeling like I am on a battlefield any time the peppers come out and people measure whether I can stand their “hot, Bulgarian peppers,” and I dislike feeling like I am in a pissing contest whenever I happen to enjoy something with a bit of fire around males. I am a non-competitive woman, and I like spicy food. Maybe I have to tuck away into the darkness of solitude to eat it, but there is the truth.