The only time my mom used hot sauce was on my brother’s tongue when he swore. Luckily she doesn’t hear my sailor mouth now or there’d be a constant flow of Tabasco. When my family ate chips and salsa, our salsa would be about as spicy as 32 ounces of ketchup mixed with one packet of Taco Bell Mild Sauce. In 1990, I bought my mom salt and pepper shakers for Christmas, and she’s probably never refilled them, because we didn’t use salt or pepper in my house. So in short, not many spicy experiences.
When I was about 12, my family tried something new: We drove all the way to my mom’s friend’s house in Montana to do some skiing. I played a lot of video games back then, so going downhill, spending all day outside and exercising was a kick for me, but that was nothing compared to the excitement coming next.
Since nobody wanted to cook, we drove to a buffet, which are still among my favorite things in the world. I get to go up to the sneezeguards, take a ton of food and then eat as much as I want.
All-you-can-eat places are also my mother’s favorite because she had to cook for a husband and three sons. Taking us to this place meant her four male brats wouldn’t bother her. But she still had make sure her kids weren’t stabbing each other with silverware, running away or stuffing grapes up our noses.
As we walked through the line, I looked up to her. “Mom, what’s a jall-ap-ah-no popper?”
“It’s pronounced ‘jalapeño,'” she corrected me. Near-perfect English was also a requirement in my house. “Don’t eat those. They’re spicy.”
So of course, I ate one, and it exploded in my mouth. My tongue burned. My eyes and nose started running. I’d never felt agony like this, but this deep-fried pepper was the most amazing thing I’d eaten since my first jelly bean.
I wanted more of this new taste on my palate and didn’t know when — or if — I’d ever get it again, so as my mom chatted with her friend, I ran up to the buffet to grab a refill and tried another popper. I still cried, but just a little bit that time. I wolfed down other plates just so I could zip back to the buffet and sneak more poppers in my mouth. I don’t know how many I ate, but it was definitely too many.
After we finished, my mom’s friend let us watch “X-Files,” and we went to sleep in a guestroom in her absolutely spotless house. The next day, we planned to do more skiing.
But hours later, I woke up sweating. This wasn’t a feeling I’d ever had before. Mouth drooling. Stomach felt like somebody standing on my belly. Strangling me. Headache. I tried and get out of the nice bed, but I vomited when I sat up. I tried to make a pouch with my G.I. Joe pajama top to hold barf as I tried to find the bathroom, but I pooped myself because I didn’t know where it was.
The next day, instead of being on the slopes, I spent the day on the toilet and in bed. Instead of being with her friend, my mom nursed me back to health.
There’s a first time for everything, and that’s how I learned to ski, tried crazy food and experienced brutal food poisoning. I only do one of those things still, so … anybody down to try the new restaurant with atomic hot wings?