Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Spicy Is a Type of Bland

I grew up with bland food—limited ingredients, limited variety, limited seasonings, and everything overcooked. Little taste and texture remained, and what did remain was unpleasant to me. That I was a fat child was a result of inactivity and mealtime parental intimidation and not due to the appeal of my mother’s cooking. When I got to college, I liked dorm food. The variety was refreshing. Pork was a delight, partly because of the taste, but mostly because it was non-kosher, but that’s another story. I also shed a lot of fat, about thirty pounds during my first year on campus, but that’s yet another story.

Later, when I was in graduate school, earning money as a Teaching Assistant and dating Leonore (who is now my wife of almost 53 years, but that’s still yet another story), we used to occasionally splurge on dinner at a Chinese restaurant. That was my first experience with Chinese food (the very idea of which horrified my parents, but that’s another etc.). In those days, that meant Cantonese food, which nowadays is looked down upon by many as bland and boring. To me, the new tastes and textures were wonderful.

Perhaps I would now find the food at that restaurant a bit plain, and probably I’d find the dorm food bland, boring, and possibly as unpleasant as my friends in the dorm professed to find it. Back then, American food had the reputation of being bland and boring. I never agreed with that, at least not as a general statement to all American food.

Times have changed. Capsaicin is—ho, ho—hot. The spicy bite is in, and the spicier the better. Perhaps this is due to changing demographics and the growing popularity of various ethnic cuisines that favor the use of hot peppers. In addition, there’s a segment of blindingly white Anglos (I’m allowed to say that because I’m one of them) who see the spiciness level of one’s food as a moral and cultural issue instead of a matter of food preference. Those who don’t like spicy food, we are told, are narrow minded, unadventurous, unappreciative of flavorful foods, provincial, and probably racist stooges of running-dog capitalism. (Yes, I exaggerate.) (Slightly.)

For me, the opposite is true.

There’s probably a lot of variation between individuals. Perhaps there are people for whom the addition of hot chili peppers to a dish makes the flavors of the other ingredients all the more detectable. For me, however, spiciness masks those other flavors. Everything else is overwhelmed by the heat. If the spiciness level is high (by my standards; others might consider it low), I become unaware of anything but the spiciness. Even different textures disappear. Nothing is left but the unpleasant bite. I disliked my mother’s cooking because of the lack of taste and texture; it was like chewing tasteless dough. Spicy food is even worse—just as tasteless and textureless as that childhood nastiness, but in addition eating away at me all the way from my lips down to my stomach and beyond.

That’s why I say that spicy is a type of bland. Blandness implies a lack of anything strong, noteworthy, outstanding. Spicy food does have one strong element, but that one element wipes out everything else. In both cases, there might as well be no individual ingredients, and there’s no interesting mouth feel or aftertaste, nothing left to appeal to a variety of senses. It’s all the same.

You might want to stop reading now. (That’s assuming you’ve read this far. If you haven’t, then you aren’t reading these words, and therefore...Well, never mind.) The rest of this essay deals with a subject that’s quite distasteful. Unpleasant, even. In fact, it stinks.

There’s a good reason that many people should avoid spicy food, and that is the dreadful effect it can have on one’s breath.

Years ago, I developed an awful case of halitosis. The was unbearable—for others. I couldn’t smell it, but I could see how others shrank away from me. It depressed me terribly. I had no control over the problem. I couldn’t make it go away. I had no idea why this had happened to me. My health was good. My teeth, a common cause of bad breath, were also fine. Finally, my dentist told me that the source of the problem was my sinuses; he had encountered this before. My doctor later said the same and told me to take an over-the-counter medication. It worked to a degree, but not entirely, and it had side effects, such as disrupted sleep.

I consulted Dr. WorldWideWeb and learned that my problem was common in dry climates, such as Denver, where I live, and was commonly triggered by an allergy, often a food allergy. The advice was to drink lots of water, take a garlic oil supplement, and identify the allergen and eliminate it. The first two were easy. I tried cutting out the various foods mentioned as possible allergens, but none of them did the trick. The trigger wasn’t a food. I continued taking the garlic oil supplement and drinking lots of water, but I felt hopeless. It was time to grit my teeth, avoid human contact whenever possible (on the bright side, I’m an introvert), and carry on with life.

I had been in the habit of a weekly lunch with a friend at Casa de Manuel, a great Mexican restaurant in downtown Denver, where I always had a pork burrito smothered with green chili (along with a side order of menudo and a cheese enchilada, all of which were also really great there, but that’s still yet again another story). The green chili was spicy but not extremely so; perhaps the heat was somehow toned down for the mostly Anglo lunchtime crowd.

Because of various circumstances, I skipped that lunch for a period of a few months, and suddenly my breath became normal. Children and small dogs no longer scattered at my approach. Bingo! I experimented by eating something with green chili again. The dreadful dragon breath returned. That was the last time I knowingly ate green chili. I also generally avoid the red kind, just to be safe. It was hard not ordering the smothered burrito when I returned to Casa de Manuel, but not as hard as dealing with the alternative. (Later, I left that job and stopped working downtown, and Casa de Manuel lost their lease and moved to a distant location, but of course that’s another story, because there are almost a million stories in the Mile High City.)

I say “knowingly” because a few years later, at a lunch with coworkers, I ordered something that wasn’t labeled spicy, and it wasn’t spicy, but it had the distinctive taste of green chili. After lunch, I noticed people keeping their distance from me. It was confirmation of my great scientific discovery, at any rate.

Of course, I could be the only person in the world with this particular allergy to spicy food and this particular reaction to it. I don’t think I am, however. It seems highly unlikely. Beyond that, I sometimes notice that distinctive and awful smell of sinus problems when I’m in a Mexican restaurant. That’s surely not a coincidence.

If you have the same breath problem and can’t get rid of it, try avoiding spicy foods for a while, along with taking a garlic oil supplement and drinking lots of water. You might also consider using a neti pot; if you do, read up on safety precautions first. Don’t worry that food will be tasteless and bland. On the contrary, you might well discover a whole universe of subtle tastes and textures that the spiciness was masking. You might even come to feel that spiciness is a type of bland.

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