Part I: Ortega & Chi-Chi’s
Before The Habañero Incident, my tolerance for spicy was low by most standards. Like many middle-class white suburban families, Mexican food consisted of Ortega flour burritos the size of your face—with a shelf life of weeks, if not months—and stale taco shells.
Don’t get me wrong—it was tasty. We all liked Taco Night at home. There was something about assembling your food at the table that made supper fun. Mom would mix the ground beef and spice packet (which was at times too spicy) in a skillet. We would chop up iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, and onions, and put the shredded cheddar cheese in bowls. The salsa, if we had it at all, was mild—more like a fresh ketchup than anything else. Taco Day in the St. Leonard cafeteria was not much different, except it also included a side of canned corn. There was one fancy Mexican restaurant not to far from us: Chi-Chi’s, which was next to the Southridge Mall.
When I moved to Chicago, food—especially Mexican food—took on a new meaning. What is this small round thing that tastes like corn? A tortilla? You can put beef or pork or chicken on a tortilla? The cheese is white? And what is this thing called “cilantro”? And there were usually two different kinds of salsa at the restaurant table; the mild was spicier than I had ever tasted. A whole new spicy world opened up to me, and it was delicious.
I tried to broaden my spice palate at restaurants. I started eating the sport peppers on hot dogs, the hot and sour soup at Chinese restaurants, the jalapeños in my pho, the medium salsa at the dinner table, the red curry at the Thai place in my neighborhood.
My work friends also helped me increase my spice tolerance. In the lab, lunch was a sacred meal. We put a few tables together in the break room and squeezed everyone around them. We tried to eat lunch when everyone could eat it, sometimes waiting until late in the afternoon. We would tell jokes and stories—and share our food. Lindsay and I would share pasta dishes or salads or casseroles. Ryan would give us a taste of his gumbo or spicy kimchi dish; Mike and Larisa, their french fries. Viju and Avani let me try their spicy Indian pickle and rice dishes, always accompanied by yogurt.
Part II: The Habañero Incident
One day, when we were all sitting around the break room tables finishing up with lunch, Vicky, a native to Mexico, brought in homemade cream cheese stuffed peppers. Some were jalapeños. Others were habañeros.
I tried the jalapeño. It was delicious, and not too spicy. The mild heat of the pepper and the tangy cream cheese was a fun little party in my mouth. I looked at the glass dish and heard a little voice in my head:
Yes, Erika, you really should try a habañero. It small and pretty and orange-yellow. Don’t be a pussy. You can handle it.
On the Scoville scale, which is used to measure and compare the amount of capsaician—the heat—of peppers, a red bell pepper is zero. A jalapeno? 3,500-8,000 Scoville units. A habañero? 200,000-350,000 Scoville units.
I was aware of the scale. But, I had already talked myself into it. I carefully picked up one of the peppers.
Everyone in the break room turned to look at me. I took a bite.
“Hmmm. This isn’t too bad.” I put the rest of the pepper in my mouth.
I looked up. Everyone just stared at me. “What?” I swallowed the pepper.
This is good. See? You’re not a pussy! Yeah. It’s like the jalapeño. You got this. The cream cheese is dancing…in…my…mouth…oh…my…god!
My tongue went numb. I couldn’t breathe. My chest, face, ears, skull turned bright red. I felt the entire tiny pepper as it traveled down my esophagus; an angry, flaming meteor as it splashed into my stomach.
Instead of a party, it’s 3 am and a bunch of angry drunks decided to torch the bar. In my body.
Even my tears were spicy. I put my elbows on my knees and start taking deep breaths. My lab mates tried not to laugh at my pain, but I couldn’t blame them. I would be laughing at me if I could produce sound. They offered me whatever they had available: soda, water, juice. Nobody had milk, but I do remember somebody handed me a cup of yogurt. Someone offered to go to the cafeteria to get milk. But I had too much pride. This was my problem.
Slowly, I could breathe again. But, the pepper had a long way to go. A small intestine is nearly 20 feet long. I was certain that I was burning every one of the villi from my intestinal wall. I walked back to my desk, doubled over in pain. I rocked back and forth in my chair, asking myself why I did such a stupid thing.
After some time, I was able to resume working. I thought it was over. I got through it. But, I was wrong.
I dashed to the bathroom, as fast as I could without accidentally farting the contents of my bowels on to the lab floor. I ran into a bathroom stall, hoping I was the only one around. There was no way I wanted to subject anyone to what was going to come next. What goes in…well, you know the saying.
Part III: The Aftermath:
Since The Habañero Incident, I found that my heat tolerance is even higher than before. I can eat Chef’s Special Dry Chili Chicken with green tea. It’s fantastic when I have a sinus infection or cold, and I can still taste the flavor of the chicken. I add jalapeños to my soups, and Rooster Sauce is a staple in our house. I still avoid habañeros; I think my butthole has PTSD.
Since The Habañero Incident, friends in the lab have left for other jobs both inside and outside academia. I went down to part-time so I could attend school. New people came in from different labs, and made the break room their lunch home. Some became so busy that lunch is often a rushed moment in front of the computer. It’s not the same anymore. But, when we do eat together, Ryan, Mike, and I will still share our food…and jokes…and stories. And we have a good laugh about The Incident.
The Chi-Chi’s near Southridge Mall closed a long time ago. In fact, every Chi-Chi’s in the United States has closed, due to a combo platter of Hepatitis A and bankruptcy. I will never get to try the fried ice cream. Not that I would want to now.
At Mom and Dad’s house last Christmas Eve, we all gathered around the dinner table for Taco Night. We still had bowls of chopped onions, iceberg lettuce, and tomatoes. But, instead of ground beef with the powdered flavor packet, we had shredded chicken in the Crock Pot. Instead of stale taco shells and burritos the size of your face, I brought fresh corn tortillas, queso fresco, and house-made chorizo from the market near my house in Chicago. We assembled our tortillas around the table. The chicken was flavorful and the chorizo was spicy. It was great to be home.