Extreme metal is not my thing, but I understand its anarchy. Rock and punk were the vehicles I embraced to express my angst as a kid struggling against the straitjacket of Midwestern life. (“I’m So Bored With the U.S.A.” was not exactly an anthem in Nebraska in the 1980s when I first heard the Clash.) But I was not about to explain myself to the metalheads around me. They wouldn’t have believed me anyway. One look at my collared shirt, and they probably sized me up as a tool of the man.
Sichuan food is so much more than spicy
But I didn’t stop at the Pinch (3548 14th St. NW, 202-722-4440) for the music, or validation. I came for my own exercise in extremism: to order the wings glazed in ghost-pepper sauce. No, wait, that’s not entirely true. I knew what pain lay ahead with a pepper that can be 400 times hotter than a jalapeño, so I gave myself an out from the start. I ordered a plate in which half the wings were coated in honey-barbecue sauce. I actually wanted to eat something.
My plans were scuttled two bites into a ghost-pepper wingette. My head lit up like a charcoal chimney. My tongue was in danger of self-immolation. My eyes were tearing up, and my mouth was pooling with water, the body’s emergency response to a three-alarm fire within its borders. This was not eating for pleasure or satiety. This was self-torture, purposely sought after and paid for by me. My palate was in such pain that I could not eat another bite — of anything.
Heat-seeking, of course, is nothing new. For generations, people in certain parts of China, Mexico, Thailand, India and many other countries have craved the blistering heat of chile peppers, their hunger rooted in culture, cuisine and maybe even survival. Two decades ago, a group of researchers theorized that chile peppers, with their antimicrobial compounds, were probably used to combat food spoilage in the time before refrigeration. Those who lived in hot climates — think: Mexico, China, Thailand and India — were particularly vulnerable to the potentially lethal microbes that multiplied on meats in such weather. Almost by necessity, these folks developed a taste for heat, not to mention techniques for using chile peppers in their cooking.
Pringles could never have captured Nashville’s hot chicken in a chip
“Chiles are used not in violence, but to awaken and stimulate the palate, to make it alive to the possibilities of other tastes,” food writer Fuchsia Dunlop wrote in “Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper,” her memoir about eating and living in China. “They are melded with an undercurrent of sweetness, a robust beany savoriness, or a splash of mellow vinegar-sour, to seduce and delight.”
But heat-seeking has taken on a harder edge here in 21st-century America, where two great regional dishes, Buffalo wings and Nashville hot chicken, have inspired an arm’s race among chefs and chains to see who can bring the heat, the hotter the better. Even KFC now offers Nashville hot chicken, a dish that, like so many imitators, is divorced from the history of the Tennessee town where it was created. As the New Yorker noted in a terrific look at hot chicken, Nashville was captured by the Union Army during the Civil War, and escaped slaves soon sought refuge within the city’s borders. Many of them had been forcibly removed from West Africa, where chile peppers have had an honored place at the table.
Naturally, you don’t have to trace your ancestry to West Africa or Sichuan to appreciate the unique thrills of super-hot peppers. Chiles such the ghost pepper are believed to cause such pain that the brain produces endorphins to reduce the agony and, simultaneously, promote a sense of euphoria. It’s the same process thought to cause a “runner’s high.”
In my youth, when I ran cross-country in high school, I understood the runner’s high, this miraculous moment when the stabbing pain in your gut and the fatigue in your legs suddenly disappear. In those moments, you feel like you can run forever. But competitive running is a sweaty solo pursuit, an activity that forces you to look inside and discover the mental toughness to cross the finish line. Dining is a social activity, and I have no desire to turn it into a competitive sport, either for the endorphin rush or to prove my manhood.
When it comes to eating, I believe in Freud’s pleasure principle: I avoid all pain. Which is why, except for special occasions (like a trip to Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville, a true American landmark), I will no longer play the daredevil at the dinner table. Enough is enough. Eating super-hot peppers holds no pleasure for me. I think I realized this, not among the metalheads at the Pinch, but among the mallgoers at the Ballston Quarter Market, where I ordered the O.G. Hot sandwich at Hot Lola’s, chef Kevin Tien’s Sichuan-inspired take on Nashville hot chicken. It’s considered the second-hottest sandwich on the menu.
I’ve long been a fan of Tien’s refined, Japanese-centric fare at Himitsu. I knew he wouldn’t just punish customers with Sichuan chile oil at Hot Lola’s. So I sat with the burn of my O.G. Hot, waiting for the sweeter spices, perhaps star anise or cinnamon, to announce their presence. But the longer I let those spices sit on my tongue, without a cooling gulp of water, the more I could feel my internal body temperature rise. If you had stuck a thermometer under my tongue at that moment, I suspect the mercury would have exploded out the top, like in an old Tom & Jerry cartoon.
Without even thinking about it, I noticed my hand starting to reach for the plastic cup of water on the table. It was as if my subconscious was shouting, “If you’re too stupid to take a drink, we’ll do it for you.”