Growing up in North Dakota, the hottest thing I ever ate was a radish. "Angry hard-berries," we called them.
They seemed to suggest there was something out there in the wide world beyond the plains, something called "flavor."
For Christmas, my wife gave me a subscription to hot sauce. Every month, bottles of pain will be arriving. This is great! I'm always looking for something new to get through to the jaded oven mitt I call a tongue and let me know I'm alive. My current rotation:
1. The obligatory Sriracha, which I loved before it became hip. Goes good with morning breakfast sausage; also good for disinfecting minor cuts. I discovered it at a Vietnamese place, where I would hose it all over the Spam in the noodle dish. In any other situation, putting hot ketchup on Spam would be the epitome of bad cuisine, but when eating in an establishment where the menu is in Vietnamese, it's a sign of a sophisticated consumer.
2. Cry Baby Craig's. A great local sauce that has a drawing of a weeping man on the label. It says "Bawlin' Since 2012," which suggests that the pain caused by the sauce is capable of lasting through several presidential administrations.
3. Trader Joe's Chili Pepper Sauce. Bought this on a whim and was surprised to find it has a smoky undertone, which is great because I saw Smoky and the Undertones at the 7th Street Entry in '86 and they were awesome.
4. Underwhelming Brazilian Grey Sauce. Daughter brought it back from her year in Brazil, and it's not that hot. But having had it for dinner, I can confirm that it lives up to the Brazilian ethos that believes 2 a.m. is a great time to party.
When the first shipment of my subscription sauce arrived, I was eager to open the box. The hot-sauce arms race requires manufacturers to come up with names that promise ever-increasing quantities of discomfort. Such as:
Regret Your Birth
Bob's "Where Is Your God Now" Perdition Spittle
The first bottle was named Born to Hula, which I certainly was not. It suggested a rotation action of the hips you would perform in the desperate hope that centrifugal force would drive the substance from your body. This particular variety was "Guajillo Monster," which the label described as a "venomous lizard" found in "smoke-filled taquerias."
"On hot days," the label said, "Guajillo Monsters can be found face down in puddles after binge-drinking tequila." Only in the world of hot sauce can this be seen as an endorsement.
Tasting notes: Initial rush of warm regret, blooming into the sinuses like a mushroom cloud. Top notes of peppers, followed by medium notes of peppers and peppers, finishing with a note of peppers. The label also says, "It's not just a hot sauce. It's a way of life."
I am unclear how I can construct a personal code of ethics and behavior around a condiment.
The second bottle: Friendly Fire. It had a well-designed label with all the proper words: "Small Batch. Handcrafted. Locally sourced." Granted, the same terms could apply to a block of cement, but they are the current buzz words in the food universe. This one had a note of guava and was more flavor-forward, as they say, meaning its primary objective is not to numb your mouth so you drool for six hours.
The label recommended that I try it on waffles, and while the future is an uncertain thing, I am absolutely certain I will not try it on waffles, any more than I will pour Twinberry syrup on a Perkins Patty Melt.
The third bottle was called Riza: Organic hot sauce. That's great, because when your bowels issue a frantic alarm and you knock over a lamp to get to the restroom, you want to know there weren't any GMOs involved. The label said "Floral and Sharp," which makes you think you're going to sword-swallow the stem of a rose.
Ingredients: "Kale, ghost pepper and jalapeño." Here's my problem with this stuff in a nutshell. Ghost pepper is heavy-duty. Jalapeño is easy-peasy. Kale … well, it's kale. It's like saying, "You're going to be punched in the face simultaneously by three people: Shirley Temple, Mike Tyson and Mr. Rogers."
But they weren't kidding about the "sharp" part; it would make eating glass feel like chewing warm Swedish Fish. I winced and gasped and immediately had to have some more.
After having tried all three, I was glistening with perspiration, and my entire head felt prickly. When I walked outside to call the dog, my scalp froze. Hot-sauce aficionados call this happiness. But I'm not sure whether I need a shipment every month. I can't possibly consume it all, unless I use it to melt the ice on the steps.
Nonetheless, I'll still sample whatever comes my way, looking for that one flavor that has eluded me since I started down this path.
You know what it is, right? Radish.