“Mild, medium, or spicy?”
It’s a perfectly innocuous question, asked thousands of times every day. Yet when I would call in a takeout order, hearing it would throw me into a panic. Have I ordered this dish from this restaurant before? Will they write MILD on the outside of the box, putting my shame on display? How bad could “medium” really be? Before I know it, I’ve blurted out an answer that will consign me to long suffering the next day, because the truth is that I can’t handle spicy food. I could add all kinds of caveats about how it depends on the cuisine and the type of spice, but the fact of the matter is that when I’m ordering my Saag Paneer online, I click MILD when a popup window asks me the same question.
On its face, there is nothing particularly strange or shameful about this. There are various other flavors which, when pushed to extremes, I find revolting — imagine the punishing bitterness of a Negroni, the cloying sweetness of a Mountain Dew — but I don’t feel any sense of shame or inadequacy for my failure to appreciate them. Failure to appreciate (or at least endure) spicy foods, on the other hand, feels like a shameful secret that must be concealed at all costs.
So strong is the pressure that for years I was unable to admit my aversion for much spicy food even to myself. After all, didn’t I see my dad slather his scrambled eggs in Tabasco every Saturday morning? Wasn’t it my obligation to appreciate it, too? Would I be failing my duty as a Martin if I didn’t join him in requesting “Thai spicy” every time we ate out at a Thai restaurant? I gritted my teeth, poured on the sriracha, and ate with grim determination as sweat poured down my face, telling myself that I loved it.
Growing up in Atlanta, I had the opportunity to sample excellent food from diverse global cuisines, in the process learning that all spice is not alike. Spiciness is often viewed as an easily quantified attribute, something that can be directly compared from one food to another — after all, we have the Scoville scale, which ranks foods based on their capsaicin content — but the spice in our foods comes from a variety of different peppers, often dried, smoked and otherwise processed in ways that dramatically affect the overall flavor of the resulting dish in ways that can’t be reflected with a simple numerical score.
Over time, I learned that eating a dish littered with fresh jalapeños could knock me out of commission for a day, while a nearly identical meal made with poblanos or serranos might have no ill effects. I also saw how dishes in different cuisines could conjure totally different experiences from chilis — the way some Thai dishes can slap you across the face with the eye-opening burn of the bird’s eye chili has almost nothing in common with the earthy, subtle roasted flavors of Sichuan facing heaven peppers, which can be combined with the tingling effervescence of Sichuan peppercorns to create the sensation of numbing heat known as “ma la.”
As I tuned my palate to the nuances of the different types and uses of hot peppers in a search for a spice experience that had only the elements I loved, I became convinced that the world I was exploring had almost nothing in common with most of what is marketed and sold as “spicy food.” Hot sauces and spicy wings boast almost exclusively of the extreme level of their spiciness, challenging the consumer to prove that they are able to endure the punishment. I began to wonder if it wasn’t just me. Are the men I see smiling as they dig into their Mega Ultra Hot wings really enjoying the flavor, or are they just enduring it to prove something?
As it turns out, scientists beat me to asking this particular question (thanks, scientists!), and it turns out that such men are probably feeling the burn just as much as I am, and probably finding it just as unpleasant. In a study published in the journal Food Quality and Preference, researchers from Penn State explored the relationship between a preference for spicy food and various personality traits. Their findings revealed an interesting difference between men and women; with women, a strong preference for spicier foods was linked with a tendency to seek out new and varied sensations, as one would expect. In men, however, a stated preference for spicy foods was most strongly linked not with sensation seeking, but with a trait the researchers refer to as “sensitivity to reward.”
This means that men were not necessarily eating the spicy foods (and reporting that they liked them) for the sensations themselves, but because they felt it would lead to some kind of social reward.
And indeed, other research shows that there may be something to the association of manliness and a tendency to drown one’s food in hot sauce. An NIH study found a correlation between mens’ endogenous testosterone levels and the amount of hot sauce they put onto a meal before tasting it.
Does this mean that among us walk a race of ur-men with palates of stone who don’t even notice the pain that sends the rest of us scurrying to the fridge for a glass of milk? Hardly. A study in Motivation and Emotion by researchers from the University of Pennsylvania states that “[c]hili likers are not insensitive to the irritation that it produces,” but that they experience a “hedonic shift” (i.e., a switch from tolerance to pleasure) in how they experience the sensation, prompted by social rewards. (The authors’ assertion that “the body’s defensive reaction to [chili is] harmless,” though, makes me wonder whether they truly understand the pain a spicy meal can cause for some of us.)
Ultimately, I’m not sure whether to feel comforted by the fact that I’m not alone in my charade, or mortified by thoughts of the pain I’ve endured because of my seeming inability to say “mild, please.” I don’t think of myself as a person who cares at all about projecting or performing masculinity — I never played sports, I don’t lift, I drive a hatchback for god’s sake — but this trap was so deep and so concealed that it took me years to find my way out. It’s an excellent example of the subtle and varied ways that toxic masculinity can cause us to suffer, even when we think we’re free from it.
Of course, the cultural association of spiciness and manliness is painfully obvious once you’re looking for it. Of all the bizarre artifacts of spice culture that I discovered when researching this article, perhaps the most strangely fascinating is the YouTube series “Hot Ones,” where the host attempts to interview guests as they eat chicken wings slathered in novelty sauces with names like “Pain: 100%,” “Megadeath with Liquid Rage,” and “Da’ Bomb: Beyond Insanity” — sauces produced by a cottage industry that seems to exist for the sole purpose of enabling the kind of stunt eating shown in these videos.
Watching them, we are treated to such bizarre sights as Keegan-Michael Key insisting “I’m not a fuckin’ pussy” because he was too embarrassed to take a drink of water, David Cross looking forward to “a good 24 hours of ass-on-fire”, and Neil deGrasse Tyson boasting “I took two bites, bitch!” Just five out of the 79 (!!) videos in the series feature female guests. Confronted by this extreme example of spice endurance as proof of manliness, it’s difficult to remember why forcing myself to endure misery seemed like a less embarrassing option than just being honest about what I did and didn’t want to eat.
So the next time you’re out eating and your buddy suggests the Atomic Wings with Punishment Sauce, know that there’s no shame in taking a pass. He probably doesn’t really want them, either.