The Heat Seeker: ‘Between Unseemly and a Little Slutty’
Travel Stories: Alison Stein Wellner likes her food hot and spicy. To find out how hot and spicy, she searched the world for heat. Part four of five: What happened in Honduras.
05.14.09 | 10:48 AM ET
In India, I noticed a common denominator among the people that served me food but wouldn’t give it to me spicy enough: They were mostly male. What’s more, India is a place that values modesty in its women. As journalist Amal Naj reports in his book Pepper: A Story of Hot Pursuits, even before the days of the pornographic Spice Channel, spice and heat have long been associated with carnal pursuits: African women bathed in pepper-infused waters to enhance their attractiveness; in Swahili, pili pili is the name for pepper and is also slang for penis; a Peruvian prison banned peppers believing it aroused the inmates. And it is true that at least some of the physical effects of eating hot foods—flushing pink, sweating—are also likely to occur between the sheets.
There is something just a little bit bawdy about being a woman who likes it hot, and perhaps, then, my search for it could strike men as being somewhere between unseemly and a little slutty—a quest that a decent man shouldn’t encourage in an apparently respectable married woman such as myself. And quite possibly, a quest that a young man would not like to engage in with an older woman, and find himself lacking.
Which may be what happened in Honduras, which is not at all known for its spicy food, although plenty of chile peppers grow there, both in the wild and for export. I’d set off on a nature tour of the Welchez coffee plantation, just outside Copán Ruinas, not far from the Guatemalan border. I was traveling with a group that happened to be all female, and my stammering requests in Spanish for hot sauce had already made clear my penchant for all things hot. Our guide was a young man with a wide smile topped with the bare beginnings of a wispy moustache and a cream-colored cowboy hat. He was somewhere between giggly and giddy, clearly amped up by the idea of leading a bunch of girls around the tropical rainforest.
I lagged behind the crowd, snapping pictures of the otherworldly beginnings of banana pods, red hibiscus blooms and bright green berries that would turn into my morning Joe. The group rounded a corner ahead of me, and I heard my name being called. I caught up to find everyone had stopped.
There, hanging from a bush, were chiles—red, skinny, to the best of my identification abilities, tabascos. It was clear that I would now be expected to eat one of these, or at least try it. Of course, I didn’t take a lot of convincing.
The young guide plucked a chile and handed it to me.
“Wait a minute!” he yelled.
He tore off into the jungle. I stood there holding the pepper, feeling vaguely idiotic. The group formed a semicircle around me and the chile bush.
He came back clutching something green—mint, he said, for after.
I took a mincing bite from the thick end, remembering that the seed membranes on the thin end held most of the heat. And I chewed and swallowed.
My husband and I have an old friend, a guy we knew when we were in high school, and not long ago, we reconnected with him for a rainy afternoon of margaritas. I’d gone off to the restroom, and when I returned, he was in the middle of regaling my husband with an off-color guy story. I encouraged him to continue. “Really,” I said, “you can’t shock me.” Well, the rest of the day, he did his damnedest to curl my hair, with ever-escalating tales of lewd debauchery, which apparently reached their crescendo during his days on a rugby team. After each tale he’d look at me, expectantly—but although my eyebrows were tickling the inside of my skull, I maintained a Zen-like countenance and sipped my margarita.
As I stood there in Honduras, with my young guide staring eagerly—and the group training cameras on me—I re-evaluated my stated mission. Although I really wanted to have heat that was more than I could stand, I didn’t want this moment to be my head-banging moment. No matter how much this hurt, I decided, I wasn’t going to create a spectacle, I just was not.
It wasn’t going to be easy. The burning started in the front of my mouth, seemed then to shoot pinball-machine-like, then it spread all over, and it chased the pepper down my throat. I could feel its progress as it made its way into my digestive system. I felt like I had swallowed fire.
Somehow, though, I did not sniffle, I did not cough and I did not cry.
“Not bad,” I said, attempting nonchalance. I hoped no one would ask me to take another bite.
The guide simply couldn’t believe it.
“This chile must have lost its heat!” he said. He grabbed the pepper from my hand and popped the whole thing into his mouth, chewed three times and swallowed.
It was too bad everyone had put their cameras away, because here came the show they were waiting for. First he gasped, and then he started coughing and wheezing, red-faced, shaking his head rapidly side to side like a wet dog, then he was crying, gasping and laughing all at the same time. He crashed off into the jungle in search of a stream and drank from it and came back with his plaid shirt soaked. He clutched a handful of mint in his fist for the rest of the tour, chewing on it pensively. He kept his distance from me.
Which was fine because I wasn’t talking to anyone, either. My mouth burned for the rest of the day. I imagine his mouth burned for a week. But had I reached my ultimate heat experience? I didn’t know—my pride had gotten in the way.