Hot Stuff

I take a lot of flak from some members of my family (husband) for not being able to eat jalapeños and other spicy foods. What kind of Mexican are you? they say. Well, the Tex-Mex kind that doesn’t eat hot, mouth-burning foods.

I grew up seeing five-alarm dishes being served to my dad by my mother. In fact, it was my chore to grind the chiles in the molcajete that went into those five-alarm dishes. There was a chile piquin bush growing right by our kitchen door. All my mother had to do was open the screen door, reach out and pull some colorful, pea-sized chiles from it, which she then dumped into the rest of the spices I was grinding.

I remember it made me cry. The aroma, the steam, the fumes coming off those seemingly innocent tiny orange and red chiles. They might have been benign looking but they were not benign at all. For their size, they packed a powerful punch. I don’t know how my dad could eat them, but he seemed to relish anything spicy. As did my mom.

I did try breaded jalapeño peppers once when I visited my son in Mississippi. They came as an appetizer, cut crosswise, breaded, and fried. “They’re good, Mom,” he said, popping one after another into his mouth. I looked at him amazed. He doesn’t eat hot foods, either.  

The second time we went to that same restaurant I caved and tried one, after making sure I had a tall glass of water handy. Was I surprised; they were good! And not the least spicy. Whatever they did to them in preparation, they became, in a sense, emasculated. They lost their sting. Or their stinger.

Now I read that instead of water, you should drink milk to quash the fire in your mouth. I can’t drink milk; it’s just not appetizing to me. So, all the more reason for me to stay away from the hot stuff.

The mouth-burning effect reminds me of the year I suffered with what my doctor could only call thrush, though we knew it wasn’t. It presented as redness and irritation in the mucous membranes, which translated into a constant fire inside my mouth. We couldn’t figure out what was causing it.

At the time, I was the director of three nursing units (with 24-hour responsibility), had very young children (with 24-hour responsibility), and a husband who traveled constantly. I couldn’t eat; it hurt too much. I lived on ice chips from morning till night. I went down to a hundred pounds. The last time I’d weighed one hundred pounds was when I graduated from nursing school seven years before. I couldn’t eat then because I didn’t have time, between my child, school, and two jobs, who had time to eat?

Of course, with the stress my body was now under, I ended up as a patient in my own hospital. The doctors were perplexed. Asked me all sorts of questions, interrogated me actually. Had I traveled outside the country? No, who had time for vacation?

They looked at me as if I was a puzzle to be solved. After much poking around, they hit upon the reason for my “thrush.” A vitamin B12 deficiency. For some reason, my gut was not absorbing enough of it from my food. Since then, I take a supplement religiously. If I slack off, the burning will start creeping back.

Subconsciously, anything hot and spicy takes me back to that awful year, so I pass. I know that capsaicin, an ingredient found in hot peppers, has some health benefits. For one thing, it will clear your sinuses. Fast. Just try some chips and salsa.

Y’all stay healthy.

These are “dress” dish towels I made for family members, with the appropriate theme, of course.

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