I’m a creature of habit, especially during my lunch hour. I don’t often stray from Chinese or fast food. But if I hanker for Tex-Mex, I go to Tijuana Flats in Leesburg. While I wait for my quesadillas, I peruse their signature “Hot Bar,” which contains all their crazy hot sauces with their crazy names and even crazier ingredients, designed to make tasters feel like they have eaten the sun. They even have a nifty little key on the back wall to indicate the “hotness” of the sauce, from a scale of “probably-just-ranch” to “will-actually-kill-you.”
I read each bottle and chuckle at the insanity. However, I wonder deep down if I’ll ever gather the courage just to try one—not to burn my tongue off, but to let myself be a little daring for once in my life.
Here’s some background: I’m a picky eater in remission. When I was little, my mom tried everything to get me to eat anything but dry Cheerios in a cup for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Though I’m still not a huge risk-taker by any stretch, my persnickety palette has expanded now that I’m in my 20s. But there’s one major consequence of my childhood snobbery—an overwhelming sensitivity to spice.
I don’t just mean that drama-queen deal where I whine and swelter after too many jalapeños. No, I’m talking about a sensitivity so profound my eyes water and I evaluate my life choices if there’s any mustard on my chicken sandwich. The instant I detect even a hint of spiciness, I immediately abort mission—I just can’t take the heat.
On the surface, it’s no big deal (I’m not exactly “bold”), but having an aversion to an entire flavor bracket is more inconvenient than you think. It leaves me with entire categories of food—Mexican, Cajun, and Indian—that are totally off-limits because almost every menu item is flaming hot! My friends still try to make me go eat, but I always respectfully decline. I’ve lived the shame of huddling in the corner booth of a nice restaurant, trying to covertly unwrap my sandwich from the Subway next door—a blunder not unlike wearing the wrong colors to a football game.
It might be different if my sensitivity was “intense flavors” in general, but that’s not the case. I love sour foods, to the point it makes others uncomfortable when they see me eat a lemon wedge (I’m still deciding if that makes me proud). Maybe I’m just a big baby, but I think the problem is more that I’m too into “self-preservation” for the Tijuana Hot Bar. When the common icons for spice are flames, teary eyes, police lights, and skulls—you know, things that indicate severe danger to your health—a small voice recommends I steer clear, and I’m inclined to listen.
Spicy food is not the only kind I don’t like. But there’s no other I regret disliking quite like spice. I wish I liked it. I get the feeling I’m missing some unique flavor. I think the problem is this is just another way I limit myself.
I usually play it safe. I’m not big or tough, and I don’t like to wander far from my comfort zone. I’m willing to bet I’ve missed a few opportunities because of it. In a way, the spice thing represents all the risks I never take. Not to sound cliché, but variety is the spice of life.
I guess that’s why I finally grabbed myself a sample at the Hot Bar this time around. Everything in me is screaming not to taste it—even the smell makes my eyes water—still, I think I’ll give hot a shot. It might sting. I might cry. (I might cry a lot.) But hey, maybe not, right? I’ll never really know until I try.