Have you ever cried on a first date? I have.
My first winter living in Chicago, I somehow scored a date with a pretty girl, and the snow seemed to melt away. Fast-forward to the Thai restaurant I’d chosen on my boss’s recommendation. My order was met with the question, “How spicy would you like that? Mild, medium, hot, or Thai spicy?”
“Are you sure? That’s pretty spicy.”
These cringe-worthy words actually escaped my lips: “I’m from Louisiana. I can handle it.”
Note: I was 21 years old at the time. Ahh, the ignorance of youth.
The restaurant was BYOB, and we’d brought one of those receptacles of wine that’s somewhere between bottle and jug. We’d been casually sipping and stumbling through the awkward, flirty chatter of a first date when the food came. The waiter stuck around to watch.
First bite went okay. What’s a little burn, after all? The second bite was more problematic. The third bite was like Prometheus himself had visited my tongue with his bounty. This is what being burned alive must feel like. My skin broke out in tears, my eyes were sweating. It happened before I realized it would. I was crying. Literally crying.
Guess what doesn’t cool the palate? If you chose the acidic purple liquid I began tossing down the old hatch, you guessed correctly. As your prize, it’s unlikely you’ll ever cry on a date. Congratulations.
In every life comes a moment during which you realize you aren’t smart as you think you are. Intelligent people learn from their mistakes. Either I lack brains or I’m stubborn as an ox, because I had that moment the next day, when I ate my leftovers. With hot sauce.
But facts are facts. I am from the South. This means I’m hardheaded, but it also means I know my hot sauce. I work at the right place for it: we can make our own; our food editors know the best ways to use it.
Now, personally, I douse everything in Crystal hot sauce. Our food team would probably cry if they watched me destroy delicate flavors under gallons of the vinegary red stuff. If you wander by the factory in New Orleans, the entire world smells like Crystal. It’s in my blood, or more literally, it’s in my lungs.
It’s in all our blood, us Southerners.
Crying a Second Time, or My Burning Southern Blood
The French Quarter is dotted with hot sauce shops, novelty stores that sells various types of the red stuff—including chocolate hot sauce, spicy chutneys, and the like.
You can try each sauce, which is half the fun. One has a sign stating “You must 18 or older to try.” Who wouldn’t be intrigued? In the South, we spend half our mealtime finding the right ratio of hot sauce to food. So I asked the guy behind the counter if I could try it.
“Let me get my camera,” he said. “These pictures go online.”
This is what prison feels like. I was trapped, so I did what any red-blooded Southerner would do. Dipped my chip and took a large bite. Truth be told, it wasn’t so bad.
Until two minutes later, when I found myself downing two 20-ounce Gatorades before even paying for them. Those pictures found their way onto the Web—thanks, novelty hot sauce shop—and I look like I’m giving birth.
The burn remained with me until the following morning.
Why do we do this to ourselves, fellow Southerners? Why?
The Holy Grail of the South
Here’s a true story. This one takes place in a Safeway grocery in Washington, D.C. The snaking line I’m standing in extends through the aisle, and I’m minding my own business, doing that wretched mental math that’s telling me my groceries cost about the same as a lease on a Lexus. That’s when my guardian angel came down and turned my ear slightly so I could hear the following words, spoken by the couple behind me.
“Who the heck needs that much hot sauce?”
My head turns to the right, and a light shines from the wall. There it is, my personal holy grail. One liter of Crystal Hot Sauce, so far away from that aromatic factory. The couple shushes immediately as I take the bottle from the shelf and place it in my basket.
I need this much hot sauce.
We all do. We’re Southern. I called Hunter Lewis, a wonderful chef and one of our executive editors, to ask about hot sauces. My palate was burnt through that day in Chicago. Offhand, he named more hot sauces than there were animals on Noah’s ark.
It gets pretty hot down here in the South, but we like the burn.
Check in tomorrow for a chat with Jay Ducote, the man who invented the first newest sauce/barbecue sauce hybrid.
Until then, stay sweating.
Southern Fried Column is a weekly column brought to you by Travis M. Andrews that focuses on the fun, the ridiculous, and the trending in these here Southern United States. Because sometimes home is a little absurd.