I should have stayed off the sauce

Jul 28, 2017 By Robert H. Peck, Staff Writer

Hot peppers and I have a hate-love relationship.

No, not quite a love-hate relationship, with both parties alternatively disliking and liking each other depending on the moment. The hate-love relationship occurs when one party unconditionally loves the other, but the reverse couldn't be further from the truth.

In my case, I love hot peppers, but they hate me.

They show me their hate by hurting my mouth and hands when I try to eat them. I show my love by eating them anyway, in heaping measure, working through the pain.

They show me their hate by sometimes getting into my eye when I'm chopping them and bothering it so much that I'm teary for hours.

I show my love by buying twice as many the next time I go to the store.

It's a roller coaster for both of us but I think we're in a good place. I'm looking forward to the future.

Or at least, that was the case until recently, when I lost a bit of interest in some of the dishes I usually stuffed to the brim with hot pepper. I didn't buy them at the store for a few months as a result.

Last week, my landlord-imposed week sleeping in a motel at an end, I decided to make the first truly spicy omelet I'd had in months. I broke out some Serrano peppers and a bottle of habanero sauce that had been coagulating at the bottom of my refrigerator since September.

It was going to be so good. It was going to be so bad.

I diced the peppers nearly to a pulp. Most recipes call for coring and seeding the peppers first, blunting their heat by removing the innards. I did no such thing, and mixed the seeds in with the rest as I have so many times before.

When it came to sauce, I didn't skimp. Generous dollop after substantial splat fell from the bottle to my eggs.

At last I settled in, fork in hand, for the feast. From below, the peppers eyed me balefully, hate to the max, dejected to be stuck with me again after months of believing they'd escaped such a fate. From above, I licked my chops in anticipation, pulling apart the egg with my fork and skewering an especially dangerous bite.

But as soon as the food touched my lips, trouble. I realized that this time, the peppers had won.

Over months of digesting and savoring spice, my earlier body had grown used to the sensation of burning, peppery pain. Because of that, I now recalled as infernal hellfire rose in my gullet and I sprinted for the sink, I had pursued hotter and hotter recipes and sauces to keep up with the ever-diminishing effects of traditional spice.

Desensitized to the heat as calluses formed in my stomach, I skipped from common shelf-brand Tabascos and Cholulas to specialty sauces with titles like "Brain Death" and "Atomic Purge."

It was one of these that had been lying in wait for me in the refrigerator, condensing for months, accruing even greater potency. Setting a trap for my unsuspecting tongue, which, off the sauce for weeks, had lost all of its resistance and now experienced the spice in full the way nature intended: as a sharp deterrent for any mammal that might have been considering putting this plant in its mouth ever again.

I was at the sink for half an hour, cold water running warm over a tongue that was now more like a tuberous wound than anything. I had only skim milk in the house, so water had to suffice.

When I could finally move, I scraped the eggs off of my plate and into the trash, the hot sauce and my Serrano peppers following close on their heels.

I hope I'll build up my spice resistance again some day. Hot foods have demonstrable health benefits, and it's exciting to cook with them.

But for the time being I'm keeping it cool. Ketchup, anyone?

Editor's note: Riverton native Robert H. Peck is a graduate student in the Iowa Writers Workshop at the University of Iowa.