The Heat Seeker: Into the Heartland

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 five of five: From Nashville to Indianapolis.

Photo by Alison Stein Wellner

Believe me, when I went to Indy to watch the 500, I never thought my little side heat-seeking project would come into play. In fact, it was the last thing on my mind the night before the race when I dined at Harry and Izzy’s, the next-door expansion of the venerable St. Elmo’s Steak House, in downtown Indianapolis.

I ordered a meal that couldn’t be more ordinary: salad, steak and a shrimp cocktail to start. The menu said it was “St. Elmo’s Shrimp Cocktail,” but that distinction was meaningless to me.

Most shrimp cocktails are served with pink shrimp primly draped over the edge of a glass or a serving dish, and a dollop of cocktail sauce in the middle. For the St. Elmo’s Shrimp Cocktail, the shrimp swoon all over themselves and are slathered in a thick cocktail sauce. A fork on the side of the bowl spears a lemon, saltines were scattered around the saucer. I squeezed the lemon, seized my knife and, in the middle of a sentence, popped some shrimp into my mouth.

I dropped my cutlery as a sensation that I can only describe as what electrocution must feel like shot down my throat and then up my nose, forking its way into my brain. My hands started to rise and—yes!—I had the urge to clap my hands on my skull to keep the top from blowing off. My hands shot up in the air, my eyes started to water.

And then it was done. As my hands went back onto the table to liberate a saltine from its wrapper, I looked at this seemingly innocent shrimp cocktail, in the middle of downtown Indianapolis, with new respect. And I made a mental apology to my grandfather, who had not been overly dramatic after all.

I have to admit, though, I was puzzled by Indianapolis’ come-from-nowhere triumph in the blow-the-top-of-my-head-off quest—I mean, really, Indianapolis and not India? Not China, Honduras, Louisiana or Tennessee?

There’s actually a fairly simple explanation, and I found it, once again, in The Spicy Food Lover’s Bible, by Dave DeWitt and Barbara Gerlach. It turns out that food gets heat from only a few ingredients: ginger, wasabi, horseradish, black peppers, chile peppers and mustard seeds. Most of these plants are unrelated to one another.

But two of these plants are closely related botanically: black mustard and horseradish. Both find their heat from a compound called allyl isothocynate, “a pungent aroma and flavor that goes to the back of the throat and attacks the nasal membranes,” write DeWitt and Gerlach.

Black mustard is what’s used most often in Chinese mustard—which my grandfather absentmindedly dipped his egg roll in all those years ago. And horseradish—fresh horseradish, 20 pounds grated fresh daily and sealed in plastic to keep the fumes from knocking out the kitchen staff—that’s what delivers the punch in St. Elmo’s Shrimp Cocktail.

Separated by decades, miles and types of cuisine, my grandfather and I each had our unexpectedly intense confrontations with allyl isothocynate. It must be a family trait to believe that when confronted with this substance, we will be able to keep our skulls firmly moored by smacking our scalps hard enough. Indianapolis was probably the last place I would have imagined that I’d learn about a family quirk—and, certainly, that my global quest for the hottest food I could tolerate would come to an end. But so it was, nonetheless.

10 Comments for The Heat Seeker: Into the Heartland

Sarah 05.15.09 | 3:52 PM ET

I really enjoyed these stories. Never been a heat seeker myself, but now I think I’m craving some allyl isothocynate. Great series, Alison.

Christy 05.15.09 | 7:11 PM ET

It’s funny how we so often find what we are looking for in the most unexpected places! The unexpected nature of it, I think, is a lot responsible for the head-clapping reaction no matter what it might be! :-) There is no steeling yourself against the suprise!

One time I was eating at a restaurant in Haiti and a big bowl of a very spicy condiment was sitting on the buffet line. Now it LOOKS like coleslaw BUT it has a very spicy vinegar flavor… This particular hotel always served the “burn all the way down” variety as well… Another American man also dining there walked by and said something like, “Oh! I am going to get some of this coleslaw and loaded his plate with it… I SO wanted to see his reaction when he put a big fork full of it into his mouth! >:-) Unfortunately, he went and sat well out of my view in an inside dining area while I was on the patio…. I think he just might have clapped his hand on his head…! :-) Good series!

Megan Eaves 05.15.09 | 10:12 PM ET

Great end to the series! Unexpected and hilarious - I loved it!

Megan Eaves 05.15.09 | 10:15 PM ET

Great end to the series! Unexpected and hilarious - I love it!

Alison Stein Wellner 05.16.09 | 2:05 PM ET

Thanks everyone! It was a lot of fun to research and write!

Migration Mark 05.16.09 | 10:25 PM ET

I really love hot food.  After bumming around Southeast Asia I don’t think I can eat anything without intense heat.  I find myself always overdoing it with chili, but can’t seem to help myself.  Food without heat no longer has any flavor to me.

Alison Stein Wellner 05.17.09 | 10:05 AM ET

Hi Migration Mark,
There is some question out there about whether spicy food can be physically addictive. Certainly, I think that you can “calibrate” your palate to a level of heat tolerance, so it seems you’ve set your palate to stun!
On the bright side, it’s a great time to live in the United States if you love spicy food. I was just reading about the ubiquity of sriracha sauce:

Indy Chili-Head 06.10.09 | 4:46 PM ET


You must not be a real chili-head or a real lover of hot & spicy food if you found St Elmo’s shrimp cocktail sauce to be a spicy as you’ve described.

i live in Indianapolis, and have eaten St Elmo’s Shrimp Cocktail many times.

It’s tasty, for sure, but not all THAT spicy.

Tim Wilson 06.10.09 | 5:31 PM ET

Indy Chili-head is either a dragon or just clueless. I too have lived in Indy all of my life, and nothing i have ever put in my mouth is hotter than the shrimp cocktail at St Elmo. The burning sensation that you get in your nose is like nothing else that i’ve experienced.

Indy Chili-Head 06.18.09 | 8:44 AM ET

Gee, Tim,

You must be a chili wimp.  I’ve had Thai food and Indian curries at several place around the country that were both hotter than the shrimp cocktail sauce at St Elmo’s.  I’ve had habenero chicken wings (at Lafayette Brewing Company) that are hotter.

I’ve had the waiters at St Elmo’s bring me extra cocktail sauce in a dish so I can eat it with a spoon.

Commenting is not available in this weblog entry.