“Are you seriously going to drink the salsa straight from the bowl? Do you know how disgusting that is?”
My boyfriend watched in horror as I downed a little plastic cup of salsa verde as if it were a shot of tequila. We were out of things to put salsa on — chips, tacos, rice and beans — and I wanted my eyes to water.
“What?” I said sheepishly as I moved on to the habanero salsa. “I can’t let this go to waste!”
Growing up, I clamored for more salsa at the dinner table just to make a point. I would swap my empty bowl with my mom’s fuller one when she wasn’t paying attention. In my head, eating spicy food has always been a contest, a means of showing who’s toughest.
And how could it not? I came from a lineage of spice-eaters, generations of Mexicans who could put me to shame. My mom and I had just moved to Texas and, being Mexican-Puerto Rican, I had a reputation to uphold. Looking back, it was a funny thought for a nine-year-old to have.
Naturally, my desire to be the best was futile. I couldn’t even handle the spiciest salsa Mom made. It was this extremely dark red salsa, reserved for my dad while we got the usual salsa verde.
Every time I tried it, I choked on the smoky heat — it felt as if my throat was constricting. God knows what was in that container of pure suffering. It was the color of dirt, speckled with yellow-white seeds from, I’m guessing, habaneros and jalapeños. One could breathe it in and feel their stomach flip in fear.
I knew one day I would to get to that level. I just had to.
My parents separated shortly after moving to Dallas because of the recession. Whenever Dad visited, I knew we were going to Abuelo’s, his favorite restaurant (a chain nonetheless). He’d order “The Grande”: three enchiladas, a chile relleno, a tamale, and a taco. And right before we chowed down, he’d ask the waiter for the spiciest salsa they had. That sauce was one I couldn’t handle until after I graduated high school.
It took me a little more than a decade to get even remotely close to my dad’s taste buds. I inhaled cinnamon, jalapeños, habaneros, hatch chiles, ghost peppers — all to be able to eat what he easily could. I suffered from wet burps, sharp stomachaches, and horrible shits. I learned the hard way that water wasn’t the best way to extinguish the flame in my mouth. Tums and time were my only saviors.
Here’s what I didn’t realize, though: My quest meant losing my taste buds.
I don’t remember how I came to the conclusion that my tongue was operating at half power, but I noticed a pattern of continual dissatisfaction with allegedly “spicy” meals. My solution was to coat my food in more chili paste, red hot pepper flakes, or hot sauce. Heat just didn’t feel the same. It was a whisper of what it once was.
I now understood that my dad’s specialized orders weren’t the result of a need to prove anything. They were because he couldn’t feel anything anymore, not even a little bit of numbing warmth. To him, hot sauce started to taste like plain vinegar. And “spicy” meals became a joke.
All these years later, I feel the same way.
Adobo doesn’t cut it anymore. Even the most flavorful, well-seasoned foods are bland to me. Things that are meant to taste bold with a spicy punch fall short, and those that aren’t feel like something crucial is missing.
And when I can’t taste spiciness, I turn to pain. I need my airways to constrict, my nose to run, my stomach to grumble with any dish I eat. I want my eye makeup to be smeared from tears — that’s the only way I’ll know something is actually spicy. I crave that sensation of being on death’s door at every meal.
A few days later, we hit up Prince’s Hot Chicken in Nashville. The story goes that a woman attempted to maim her cheating boyfriend, James Thornton Prince, with exceedingly spicy fried chicken, and he ended up loving it. So, like many other spice chasers, we had to try it.
The levels of spice at Prince’s are plain, mild, medium, hot, extra hot, and extra extra hot. My dad and I had a strategy of ordering three hot tenders, five extra-hot wings, and two extra-extra-hot tenders. (We initially wanted to order more of the extra extra hot, but the cashier talked us down.)
I was hoping to have a beautiful bonding experience where we’d double over in pain, forget we had face muscles, and maybe both feel something for once.
It was surprising how boring our meal was.
“No me enchilé,” he said while chowing down on the extra-hot wing. The guy to our left was breaking a sweat while eating medium tenders. All I could taste was salt.
I took a bite of the extra-extra-hot tender and, sure, my lips tingled, but it was nothing remarkable flavorwise. And this at a restaurant where folks passed out from how spicy the chicken was.
I shed a single spice tear, wiped the spice grease off my face, and left. The spiciness didn’t hit until later, when I couldn’t leave the bathroom for half an hour. It was painful, but it wasn’t the pain I’d wanted.
Maybe one day we’ll have that moment. I’m not sure if I can force it. But I do plan on taking him to my favorite Thai restaurant (they have an extremely spicy papaya salad, easily the spiciest thing I’ve ever eaten) when I graduate.
Sometimes, though, I wish Dad had at least warned me about the eventual inability to feel spice. Now all I’m left with is a scorched tongue.
Izzie Ramirez is a reporter based in New York City, specializing in protest coverage, immigration and city news. Follow her on Twitter.