The Word: Inoculation
I am the whitest kid I know. From the pale skin, to the boat shoes, to the taste for pop rock and the inability to dance. Nine times out of 10 if there’s a white guy stereotype, I fit it.
So when it comes to food, it should come as no surprise that I have the spice tolerance of a five-year-old. And I say that as an expression, since I’m sure there are five-year-olds out there who would spice me under the table (where I hide milk and yogurt for emergencies). In my mom’s culture, a cucumber sandwich on white bread with mayonnaise is the spiciest of meals, and she raised my sister and me with similar standards. Macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, and spaghetti featured prominently in my childhood. The likes of Thai and Indian food never crossed my culinary path until far too late. I feared spice before ever giving it a chance.
Last year, my figurative internal five-year-old figuratively grew up. It happened, as so many things do, over a blockmate lunch of red spice chicken. Considering the menu item, I had of course loaded my tray with the requisite bowl of blue cheese sauce and three glasses of milk. My friends, meanwhile, were dipping their pre-spiced chicken in other sauces—Frank’s Red Hot, Tobasco, Sriracha. They decided the chicken, which was already plenty red spiced by my standards, wasn’t quite hot enough, and were trying to determine which of the dhall’s other sauces worked best to bring the meal up to par. I couldn’t keep up.
I decided then and there that I needed to transform my taste buds, to free myself from a life of pasta and rice. Gradually, under the careful guidance of my most pro-spice friends, I began to turn up the heat.
Early training was tough. Frank’s Red Hot was deemed the least painful of the available sauces, and I began adding it to things that even I agreed were bland: macaroni and cheese, tuna fish sandwiches, french fries. I’d force myself to splash a few drops across the whole thing, mix it together until the drops couldn’t be identified (and avoided), and eat steadily, rewarding myself with milk only at the end of the plate. Though my mouth tingled for a while after each meal, I gradually developed a taste for Frank’s particular burn. The initial fiery bite brought the other flavors to life, I learned, and I found myself thinking about other things I actually wanted to add the red liquid to.
I used the same technique to introduce Tabasco and Sriracha to my palate. For any meal I thought wasn’t too spicy to begin with, I’d break out a little red bottle and, steeling myself for the now vaguely pleasurable agony ahead, splash a bit on my plate. I was making progress. My goal of being able to share spicy foods with real people was coming true faster than I could have dreamed.
I got confident in my spices, adding cayenne pepper and red pepper flakes to the kit at home, adding a bit of heat to my meat and pasta dishes whenever possible. My mom, from whom I inherited my weak spice tolerance, quickly learned not to eat anything I had made for myself. Grocery shopping became a battle of wills, as I leaned for the spicier options and she pulled for the safe varieties that now tasted bland to me. It was a constant debate: tomato and basil, or arrabbiata sauce?
When I returned to school last semester, it was time to show off my newfound immunity to spicy foods. Ordering Chinese food for a late-night snack was no longer a game of accommodation, in which my friends made sure there were mild options for the pitiable Andrew. “I thought you didn’t like spicy food!” became my favorite words to hear, as I’d wolf down another bite of whatever red-tinged noodles we had ordered that night. I don’t mean to brag, but I even began asking for a couple squirts of the green sauce when visiting Felipe’s. Ladies, contain yourselves.
Of course, I can’t keep up with my roommates—they’ve been raised on spice their whole lives. I’ve improved, yes, but perhaps I haven’t been completely inoculated? I still can’t dip my Red Spice Chicken in Sriracha like they can without crying myself to sleep later that night. What’s important, however, is that I no longer need to smother each bite with blue cheese or require the aid of milk.
Now if only I could get my mom to try some pepper flakes.