My father hasn’t been able to smell or taste for the majority of the time I’ve known him. I’m not sure why, exactly. He’s always chalked it up to polyps in his sinuses, which without a medical background or an assist from Google, he determined he got from cleaning chicken shit out of coops when he was little.
Come to think of it, maybe it wasn’t chicken coops. Maybe it was some other type of animal, or maybe it was from removing asbestos or mining gypsum, or some other job he did as a kid he constantly lorded over my head to make me feel like I wasn’t pulling my weight around the house. Kids in the ‘90s had it so easy because we didn’t ride a bike around the neighborhood delivering newspapers at 5 A.M.
Since Dad couldn’t taste any of our meals, my mother responded by removing seasoning from her recipes altogether. This was something I didn’t realize until my late 20s, when I was mystified by my wife’s cooking.
“It’s a family secret,” she said when I asked her about her delicious green beans. “I call it ‘salt and pepper.’”
The spice shakers were verboten at my family’s table. The only condiment we had available was hot sauce, because though Dad couldn’t taste anything, he could feel the sauce’s burning sensation on his tongue.
Like any good introspect who constantly mines his childhood for answers, I think this is the reason I developed my obsession with spice.
I don’t care what’s in front of me, I can’t eat it without kicking it up a notch. Every breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’m dousing whatever you made in hot sauce. Sorry to insult your culinary skills, Michelin Star restaurant, but daddy needs a thrill for his tastebuds.
My wife, Melinda, does the same thing. She always reaches for Frank’s, partially because she grew up in Buffalo and partially because she likes the ad campaign they did in 2009 with that sweet old lady named Ethel who proclaims: “I put that shit on everything!”
I need more heat, more danger. My refrigerator has an entire shelf dedicated to hot sauces, one more volatile than the next. Every summer, I plant an assortment of jalapeños, habaneros, and ghost peppers in my garden. One year I even planted Carolina Reapers, which currently hold the title for the world’s hottest pepper, but those were too much for me. I once put two slivers on a grilled cheese sandwich and cried for three hours, which my kids thought was hilarious.
For me, selecting the right level of spicy is just like drinking liquor: You want to get maximum enjoyment without tipping over the edge into Vomit Valley. Occasionally I’ll overdo it, but I always keep coming back.
I must not be the only person with a sense-deprived father who heaped masculine guilt on me, because in the last few years, the market has responded to my needs in spades.
You can’t throw a rock in your local shopping center without hitting a spice-enhanced variation of tried and true products. The Angry Whopper, the Spicy Chicken Sandwich, the 3-alarm Frosty.
Okay, I made that last one up. But I am NOT making up Flamin’ Hot Mountain Dew, which is set to hit stores in September.
Two days ago, I was at the grocery store to pick up stuff for dinner when my eye was pulled by a cardboard display for Blue Diamond almonds. These weren’t just any nut; they were Blue Diamond Xtremes, the almond’s creepy Doc Martens-wearing cousin who might be on hard drugs at the family picnic. The top of the can read THERE’S NO CRYING IN SNACKING.
While there were a variety of flavors to choose from, I selected the can with the most flames printed on the side: my old friend, Carolina Reaper. I couldn’t get them into my cart fast enough.
I tore into them in the parking lot, and they were just as spicy as the misspelling of the word extreme advertised. I crammed them into my mouth hole until I convulsed into hiccups and tears streamed down my face.
More, more. It hurts so good.
For the unaccustomed, it’s an interview show where celebrities answer profile questions while eating progressively spicy chicken wings.
Why do I enjoy watching household-name celebrities trying to remember their media training while downing wings doused in battery acid? I think it’s because it somehow makes them more human. I watch Post Malone choke on a wing and think, I can do that. I’m manly enough to handle it. It doesn’t matter who you are—Olivia Rodrigo, A Rod, Malcom Gladwell—hot sauce is the ultimate equalizer.
I started thinking about how when I became a famous writer, I’d know I’d made it when Chris Evans invited me on Hot Ones, the same way musicians envision hoisting a Grammy over their heads.
I wanted to be ready for this inevitable appearance, so I decided to start training by hosting my own version of Hot Ones at home.
I pulled six sauces from my refrigerator shelf and dabbed a little of each on the wings Melinda pulled from the oven. The first four were no problem at all. The fifth one was pretty hot, but I still felt in control. The last one, a sauce called Da Bomb that they use on the show, was fucking painful.
The milk we had was expired, so I ate ice cubes from the freezer instead.
Melinda didn’t fare too well either, opting to forego a cup and drink straight from the kitchen sink.
Several hours later, Melinda and I sat on the couch, my lips still buzzing with Scoville-induced trauma. “You know,” I said, “I’m good with never being on Hot Ones. I don’t think it would be good for my writing career to die on camera.”
Not long after my failed Hot Ones training, my dad sent me a text message giving me advice about some random life decision I was struggling with. “Be a man,” he suggested.
I knew what he meant. Being a man to him is about grit and manual labor, pushing through pain and making do with a lack of taste and smell for three decades.
But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve discovered it’s more complicated than that. Being a man is about strength and discipline, yes, but it’s also about compassion and love and dedication. It’s about bettering yourself while also taking care of the people around you. To me, being a man is being a good fucking person.
I may have missed my chance to deliver newspapers at 5 A.M., and I might not ever be famous enough to be on Hot Ones. But I’ve got my family and my friends and my shelf full of hot sauce. That’s all I need to feel like a man.