Another tale of how hot food has driven me to severe measures. It's long, but hopefully worth your time. Enjoy!
Kicking it back to 1992 for me, muppets flashback!
I like food. Food is good. Food lets me live. Man has embraced the idea with food and made it a significant section of every culture. Well sure, needless to say we need food to continue living, but the art of cooking has been evolving since man discovered meat and fire. In ancient Rome, popular chefs would have better treatment than most statesmen, a level of luxury close to the Emperor himself. Spices for food have fueled wars for territory and even put an entire race on the brink of annihilation. Nutmeg was responsible for the massacre that killed most of the inhabitants on the Banda Islands, perpetrated by the Dutch in their battle with Britain for the spice trade. Today's culinary world is a much calmer time, void of death and destruction. International competitions range around the world to be the top chef and to create meals that are the best in their category. Spicy food is one of the most prominent kinds of food on the planet. Thrill seekers will engage in endurance competitions to see who can withstand the heat the longest. There are more kinds of hot sauces in the world than any other kind of sauce. I like to consider myself a master of the craft as I have tried over 500 hot sauces. And yes, I've kept count.
I have had this passion for hot sauces because of my dad. As a kid he would often eat them on all sorts of food and being enthralled by this, I wanted to be like dad and eat them too. Since then I've built up a pretty fierce tolerance to their heat and intensity, and I'm continuing to build on that tolerance. Only with one major exception
However, with a tolerance such as this, it has lead to me to show off. In high school, I would challenge friends and strangers alike to jalapeno eating contests and I was always the winner. People would watch internet videos of people's reactions to certain hot peppers and try to exact their revenge on me. I can look back fondly remembering the looks of awe, as I would simply lean back and eat the peppers like popcorn. I'd win bets, contests, all sorts of competitions. There was no hot sauce that I would turn down.
As it's said, "pride goes before the fall".
It was Boxing Day of 2007. I was at my annual family Christmas reunion at my dad's house for the week in Newmarket and I was visiting with all my cousins. My cousin Sarah, however, had to return home to Toronto to be back for work the following day. I had been invited for the ride with her, along side her brother and parents. I was all for it, I fucking love Toronto.
This story truly begins with a little shop of horrors called, "Tastes on the Danforth". The Danforth being Danforth street AKA Toronto's greektown. We had parked in Sarah's driveway and unloaded her luggage when she turned to me and said,
"Hey Luke, you like hot sauce, right?"
I immediately snapped to.
"Oh fuck yeah, I'll try any kind of hot sauce you can bring me!"
A small grin slowly spread across her face.
"Well, if you want," she mused, "there's a hot sauce place just around the corner. It's filled with all kinds of hot sauce and he give out samples to try"
I should have recognized that she was flanking me mentally. It didn't matter. I had faulty intelligence and my CO ordered me into the fray. An ambush was awaiting me.
We started to head toward the shop. It was a beautiful day for being in the midst of winter. The temperature had risen above freezing and the snow was melting. For being in the middle of Toronto, it was fairly quiet. As we walked, music drifted out from the restaurants and coffee shops that lined the streets. The entire street smelled of delicious Greek fare. We turned the corner and headed onto the Danforth proper, and there it was. At the center of the T junction ahead of me was the fabled hot shop. The storefront was misleading. Outside, it was painted in soft, happy tones, with the sign written in large, loopy letters. While inside, it contained death on every shelf, bottled in bright, vibrant colours. I wish all those hours of watching the Discovery Channel would have reminded me that, in the wild, several creatures that are brightly coloured are known for being deadly when ingested.
A bell jingled as I opened the door to the shop. My jaw dropped at the sight that greeted me. The shop was small, but each wall was covered in shelves, filled to the ledge with hot sauces. This was my proverbial candy shop. I spun slowly as I surveyed the bounty I had been brought to. The hot sauces were organized by heat, the lowest intensity at the lower shelves and each shelf that ascended it had an increase in heat. At the very top, there was a glass case that was locked with 6 different bottles placed into a plexi-glass triangle. I started to salivate at the site of them.
"So, what can I do for you today?"
I turned to the voice. The shopkeeper now stood beside me and my cousin.
"I hear you give taste tests." I responded. The shopkeeper smiled and nodded.
"Yes, yes we do. What would you like to try?"
I turned back to the wall of fire and pointed up to the case. I focused on the bottle at the top of the triangle.
"You'll have to sign a waiver to try that one," the shopkeeper chuckled, "It's very hot."
He pointed to 2 posters beside the shelves. One was a chart of the Scoville Scale.
Heat, as in the level of spiciness, is measured in a unit called a Scoville. To add some perspective, an ordinary bell pepper has a measurement of 0 Scovilles. The average jalapeno has a measurement ranging from 2,500 to 8,000 Scovilles. A habenero pepper rates around the 100,000 to 350,000 mark. The world's hottest chili, the Naga Jolokia, tops the scales at around 1,050,000 Scovilles. Components of these peppers are used in several pepper sprays as well, their average ranging from 2,000,000 to 5,300,000 Scovilles.
The other was a large poster of a hot sauce bottle that claimed to be the hottest in the world. It was the very same bottle that was on the top of the pyramid. In big, fiery numbers, I saw 5,600,000 Scovilles.
The hot sauce I was about to ingest was more powerful than military grade pepper spray. Immediately, warning bells went off in my head and I wanted to leave. I turned to my cousin and was about to suggest just that, when I saw the look on her face. She knew I was going to chicken out, she just wanted to have a laugh at my expense. I turned back to the shopkeeper.
"Get me the form."
The form had asked me for certain things no one likes thinking about. My health card number, my next of kin and some insurance information. It made me very uncomfortable, but I began to pump myself up. Before this, there was no reason to doubt my ability. I'd had countless "hot" sauces before and I'd defeated each and everyone of them. I had trophies for the hot food competitions I had entered before. Fuck this Scoville nonsense, it doesn't have shit on me!
I was so very, VERY wrong.
The shopkeeper went into the back and brought out another bottle of the death sauce. I was about 3 inches high and he wore gloves to open the top. When he lifted the lid, the smell made my eyes water and more saliva to form in my mouth. The anticipation I felt started to make my heart race. He picked up a toothpick with a weight on one end, dipped it in oh so slightly, and set it down in front of me. I looked up at the shopkeeper to see if he was joking.
Taking a deep breath, I picked up the toothpick, closed my eyes and set it on my tongue. I felt heat. Not much though. I moved the tiny dab on my tongue around my mouth and the heat didn't really increase. Opening my eyes, I stood there and looked between the shopkeeper and Sarah. Both looked at me expectantly. I started to laugh. I commented that it "wasn't so hot" and that it was just a clever gimmick to get more business for the shopkeeper. The shopkeeper remained silent, grinning. Sarah looked disappointed. I continued to laugh until my throat went dry, then I swallowed.
The sensation I experienced can only be explained by this video.
When I swallowed, heat exploded through my head. At the same time, I went beet-red, teared up and started to sweat from every pore. I tried to move more saliva around to fight the fire, but it only made the situation worse. It was like I had molten lava in my mouth The heat sank lower each time I swallowed. Like a woman in labour, I started to breath heavily in spats, trying to cool my tongue. Nothing was working. The heat was beginning to turn to pain. Some how I needed to stop the suffering. Spinning to the window I looked for a solution and found one.
Back up the street, an ice cream truck was parked with children all around it.
Primal instinct took over. Screaming, I ran out the door.
In a flash, I had bolted out of the shop and into the street and into oncoming traffic. Heavy traffic was speeding through the light. Brakes screeched as I ran onto the road, flailing my arms and screaming like a wild man. I was narrowly missed by a Honda Civic as it swerved to avoid me and crashed into another car. As I reached the other sidewalk, the pedestrians quickly parted for me, their heads turning to watch me as I ran by. However, a flower shop display got in my way and I crashed into it full force, the green Christmas garlands entangling me. I was not thinking anymore, I ignored the pain of the fall and continued to run. I was about 20 meters from the child-swarmed ice cream truck as it started to pull away.
I'm sure for most of the kids there that day, the fact that they were getting ice cream was the best thing ever. Most of them being about 8 and under, I can imagine they would have had the previous day filled with gifts and toys and all sorts of happy things. I can imagine today was probably a family day out on the city, stopping out at a park, running, laughing, playing. I can imagine the joy in their hearts as they heard the tell-tale jingle of the ice cream truck. I can imagine the exhilaration of running up to the truck and being greeted by the kind smile of the ice cream person and getting to choose which treat they wanted. I can imagine as they all watched the truck pull away they all began to eat their treats. i can imagine their perfect feelings of happiness and security.
But I can also imagine that they suddenly heard a sound. Quiet at first, it distinguishes itself out of the constant drone of the city. They hear it build and become more distinct. It's a scream, almost a roar. They would have noticed the direction of the sound, this heinous shriek of pain and desperation. And as they turned they would have seen a hulking green mass with arms and legs, rushing towards them, shouting in a haggered, hoarse voice, "ICE CREAM! ICE CREAM!". I can imagine the terror they felt as they ran away from this thing of nightmares, dropping their ice creams and looking for their parents. I can imagine the feelings of betrayal of the one child who fell behind, as his friends scattered away in different directions, leaving him to flee from the beast alone. I can imagine the sensation of this child shitting his pants as he was caught by the Beast and lifted from his feet, his ice cream cone being torn from his hand.
The next day as I was released from my holding cell, my mother brought me a newspaper. They whole incident was on page two. I couldn't believe it, but at least my face had been covered by the garlands. The drive home was silent and awkward, my attempts to start conversation were met by looks of disappointment.
When we finally got home, my stomach grumbled and I knew I had to go to the bathroom. That's when I had a startling realization. What goes in must come out.
Johnny Cash can tell you the rest.