Beer and hot chilli sauces share similar semiotic trajectories, which see them both, as they get stronger, more challenging, or more flavourfully esoteric, converge in a peak of silliness.
Generally speaking. And it was a thumping opener.
Google any hot sauce supplier and in seconds you’ll be dealing with ‘Ultimate Ring Sting’, ‘Bum Burner’, and ‘Death Rectum 5000’.
These are the condimental cousins of the ‘Old Willie Droop’, ‘Piddlesniffer’, and ‘Bachelor’s Bowels’ paraded in pubs on pump clips designed by snickering wank-addled gurners, who one trembling afternoon at Keele University, or slack-jawed at something they witnessed on a farm, decided they’d forever nail their masts to the shithouse door.(1)
It’s little wonder that they – beer and chilli sauce – would, at the heavy-breather altitudes of aficianados, be similarly positioned: they’re an established cultural pairing anyway; twinned complements of shared legends. And leagues of beardos and bald-headed men have indexed one to the other exactly because they are both totems of good nights out and the liquid gold of mornings after… and the capital of good nights out. Sociable circular references for fans of hoops. Ring cycles, if you will.
Cracking. But, image-wise, just not to my tastes.
I love hot chillies and hot chilli sauces. I love hot food. Like all great loves, this was not one easily come by; was never just there on a plate. Really, never. I was raised at a table of very plain comforts. B., by her own insight, makes a joke that the spiciest food I encountered growing up was probably Stork margarine (occasionally she’ll offer a comedy swap-out of Butterscotch Angel Delight). To be clear, there’s no right or wrong, progress or want, implied in that diet’s presence or absence of hot stuff; it’s just funny compared with my ways now – oh, and as a reference to my family’s deep-seated beliefs about spiciness: on which I’ll not elaborate here, but suffice to say that spaghetti continues to be spurned in my familial home on the grounds that it (the naked pasta) sounds like it’ll hurt you.
Away from home is where I had my hot awakenings. As with all emergent addictions (there, the ‘A’ word is out), there were bumpy beginnings. One incident involved a pizza in Nottingham at sixteen. A second, English mustard in a steakhouse: and let’s be very clear – as clear as one’s sinuses after a spoonful – English mustard is impressively hot; I love that it’s hot and that it’s English; that you can patriotically turn your nose up at that of other nationalities, knowing ours will turn your nose inside out: as mustard it (hot English) appears to be excluded from a meaningful Scoville heat rating, but in fairness it’s a very particular type of gustatory impact, and as a positive trade-off seems exempt from the T-shirt-slogan-tittering of the arse-fixated brotherhood. (2)
And the third – in the tradition of Goldilocks’s porridge and Jesus’s choice of rising days – was the one that moved the story on. Up the Hinckley Road in Leicester (how is it that some roads are so ennobled with a ‘the’?), one in the morning, two of us dashed on the rocks of premier nightspot Mosquito Coast, and my first full union with a doner. “Salad chilli sauce everything?” “Yeah – sure,” I echoed the unpunctuated mantra: “salad chilli sauce everything.”
Years later me and Rob walked down The Hinckley Road again. The blue plaque was in place, marking the moment I began chasing my dragon. Okay, not a blue plaque, but a horrible acid shadow low down on the brickwork of a shop mere yards from my first dealer.
One of my other ‘coping mechanisms’ that night was a strangely instinctive inhaling; a peculiar jet-suck of air across my palate, like a backward flautist: intended to cool and becalm but serving only to have Rob in stitches. For someone in search of oral relief it was both deeply ineffective and disturbingly intense. But then you should have seen me in Mosquito Coast.
But I was hooked.
Chilli sauce everything.
Chillies get their hooks into you. Such was the science available at the beginning of the Internet; that the surface of the chilli seed was physically peppered (sorry) with microscopic Velcro-like hooks, that pricked ahold of the tongue to create a devillishly heatful pain. And that’s what I, of a Q.I. mind, told others in turn.
Only relatively recently did the yang to that yin reveal itself to me: that the pain – which is actually more to do with the respective electrons (good name for a band) of nosh and gob (ditto) wrangling in a kind of chemical romance (nah) – triggers a balancing burst of endorphins, designed to reinstate karma and well-being. It was to that flood of my own happy moonbeams I had become addicted.
(And isn’t endorphins such a lovely word? If the name wasn’t taken, Endorphin would be a Pokemon; a benignly smiling porpoise face with a headcrest of purple velvet jags; its special power to tell you in its fluting song how very much you are and will always be loved.)
That the pleasure of very hot food is therefore aligned to bodies celestial, rather than bodies lowered in tearing haste onto the bog, is key to my cocking a deaf ‘un towards the category’s dominant ‘tone of voice’.
The Simpsons, brilliant purveyors of beer and spice, present this endorphinfest in a delicious episode devoted entirely to the chili (3): the result of Homer’s taste trials being a trip of self-realisation across melting deserts in the company of hallucinated guest stars, inner voices and a deep coyote. (4)
I’ve never yet attained that state, but it’s important to have goals.
All of which angle, naturally, makes my chilli business a personal one, manifested – in this world at least – in bottles in cupboards and packets in the fridge. Going, and being, public, I and others can find awkward (aside from the beautifully tolerating B., and my ever-implicated bezzie, Rob); an awkwardness most keenly felt when eating out at Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Bengali restaurants et al.
I have a good friend, Mat, a man of genuine storyteller wit, and Birmingham’s finest Brian Sewell impersonator, whose running gastronomic gag refers to my detachment from the ‘shared order’ dining experience. His regionalist radar wants to root this in my Yorkshire-bred thrift: “nay, lad, ah shall ate as what’s been paid fer, an’ ah’ll thank yer fer doin’ t’same. Waiter – package yon chutney up fer me.” Truth is, when I know that there’s a chance I’m mere feet away from a fresh naga chilli (allow me my fantastical view of how the kitchen is arranged, and the ingredients sourced), and the people-angels able to integrate it into a dish, I will not, and whimperingly cannot, pass up that precious proximity for a sociable scoop of incidental custard jollied up from a centralised hot plate. (5)
In exchange – and to be fair – my selfish drugging usually provides a spectacle of sorts: and I take the ‘guts of steel’ banter as well as it’s intended, knowing my behaviour is marked enough, without my announcing there’s an intergalactic DJ playing MMMBop in my brain. (6)
Addict, I am furtive. Were there anyone at the table of similar tastes, my instinct would be to play it all down. And certainly not to bond on it. A hero author, Nicholson Baker, wrote about the territorial hissings of two gentlemen accidentally brushing sleeves in their reaching for top-shelf publications; and the mutual disgust in their evident porno-mutuality: don’t touch me, you freak! I don’t think I’d be that bad; but I’m happy not to know.
On the heat of others, many years ago I had reason to take in to work with me a handful of Scotch Bonnets.(7) Off the top of the head (see what I did?), Scotch Bonnets are chillies characteristic of Caribbean hot sauces, riding respectably high in the Scoville Championship, just outside the play-off places. I introduced the Bonnets to my then-boss and still dear mentor, Griff; the only person I know with ‘my’ proclivity for piquancy. Perversely spurred on by my pantomimic caution in the handling of them, Griff popped a whole one in his mouth and munched.
I watched him.
“Yeah, that was okay,” he smiled, and took his typical sip on his trademark black coffee.
I watched him for the rest of the day. And all that week. And I watched him over the next nine years he remained a colleague.
Then, between his leaving the company and mine, I came across a folder in an office clear-out. Its wad of papers – inch-thick, and illuminated with map-like diagrams and hieroglyphs, all dating from the time of the Scotch Bonnet – was in Griff’s unmistakably neat, pencilled, hand. I tremble as I reach for it now.
I made that bit up, about the folder. And with Griff it was more likely to be a micro-cassette from his voice recorder: “Idea for a beer, number 786.” But he really did eat that chilli like it was a foam-backed Haribo.
Which interchange stays as the closest I’ve been to a chilli-off… a ‘challenge’ I never even took part in.
And I like it that way. I wouldn’t want to force hot stuff down anyone else’s throat. Where would be the enjoyment in that?
Which reminds, finally, of one cultural positioning of chilli sauce that knocks our own snickering Finbarrs into a cocked (“poot!”) hat.
Demandez beaucoup-beaucoup de sauce piquante (ou harissa dans le Sud) avec votre ‘kebap’ en France, and the vendor monsieur will respond with a Les Dawson-esque phwooarr!-accompanied leveraging of the forearm and fist – convinced and delighted that the thrills that he’s supplying will, electrifyingly, have you rendered a complete stranger to ‘Old Willie Droop’.
(1) I really do hate all that stuff. Including the ‘cheeky fun’ of Top Totty. But this note is really to reference the excellent Pump Clip Parade – a blog-exposée of “aesthetic atrocities from the world of real ale” – with an additional name-check for the ever-funny beer person, Kristy McCready (@kristym809), who champions this blog and others in her tireless promotion of beer fabulousness. Naturally, none of what I say here is endorsed by her; nor by Jeff Pickthall, the passion behind Pump Clip Parade. Take a look:
2) The Scoville Scale (named for Wilbur Scoville – try not picturing an overbite and enormous spotty bow tie) is the recognised measure and rating of chilli hotness. For a couple of weeks about a year ago, the chart was topped by an English farmer and his Naga Viper. Isn’t that great? An English bloke beat the damn hot world! Who’s writing the screenplay of that?
(3) Oh, bloody hell, the spellings of chilli. UK, it’s ‘ll’ In the US, it’s chili. Then there’s with ‘e’s and without. Blah.
(4) Season 8, Episode 162. And in a nice nod to organoleptic evolution across generations, an episode elsewhere has Grampa Simpson asking for a ‘sody pop’ and then yelling for help: “The bubbles are burning my tongue!”
(5) Possibly on account of my unexotic pallor, which in the unflattering glare of restaurant lighting can have me mistaken for Gillian Anderson’s recent knockabout portrayal of Miss Havisham, waitstaff in the ‘ethnic dining sector’ really do take my naga requests with a pinch of salt – or directly replace them with such. I’ve had waiters very sternly insist the heat will ‘overpower the flavours’; I’ve had management come out to speak with me – even pulling up a chair to converse in a hushed conspiracy. And I’ve had B. simply giving me a look. I should just carry a card. Or extra chillies.
(6) Gut-wise, once – only once – post-heat, did I find myself in times of trouble. In the car and ready to set off one workday morning after a birthday evening meal I decided I should rather just nip back in and ‘settle’ my stomach. On re-entering the house I spotted a leak from our kitchen ceiling and quickly found a burst pipe in the bathroom. Water off and plumbers called. Had I not gone back into the house I would have returned at six to ruin. The Secrets of the Naga. Listen to your gut, readers.
(7) The Scotch Bonnet chillies were taken to work to fuel an off-agenda-but-usefully-creative noodling with some ‘spicy beer’ concepts. (This was over a decade ago and a business whose name no longer exists – I don’t think I’m being indiscreet.) Thankfully, the concepts weren’t progressed beyond the noodling. Thankfully, because the problem with spicy beer, as in chilli beer – brashly distinct from the clever brewer’s subtle casting of spice-note hops – is, of course, that it’s always crap. And it results in the exponential growth of double-whammy T-shirt slogans.
© Copyright, Steve Mitchell and Fisher Lane, 2012