My favorite option, though, is "It's complicated." That's how I'd describe my relationship with hot sauce.
I love the shit. I'll put it on or in almost anything, from eggs to soup to fish.
My stomach and esophagus, on the other hand, are definitely not fans. I've had chronic heartburn for about two decades. My doctor said my stomach lining is still intact, so I've foolishly continued to enjoy the sauce on a regular basis.
While I know I'm no expert on hot sauce, I consider myself at least a slight enthusiast. Upon doing some research, I've been humbled.
I've seen the occasional odd bottles of hot sauce at grocery stores -- with skull-and-crossbones or other faux-scary things -- but I had no idea that there are probably more brands of hot sauce than animal species. I had no idea there was a scientific-based hotness scale (called the Scoville Scale, named for the chemist who created it). I had no idea there was somewhat of a hot sauce cult, people who travel for hot sauce.
As luck would have it, one of the places they travel to is gourmet/international supermarket Jungle Jim's in Fairfield. And for good reason: The "foodie" wet dream sells nearly 1,000 different kinds of hot sauce, which they say makes their Aisle of Inferno (as it's so dubbed) "the largest retail selection in the United States."
So I set out on my quest to get to know my stomach's enemy better. The Aisle of Inferno is in the middle of Jungle Jim's colossal international food section, somewhere between Asia and Eastern Europe.
It's pretty hard to miss -- it's the aisle with the giant fire truck on top of it. The sauces wrap around the outside of the aisle. Under the truck, you'll find hot sauce T-shirts, dried peppers and non-sauce hot spices.
There's a solid hour of entertainment to be found just reading the labels of all of the hot sauces at Jungle Jim's. Hot sauce lovers have a good sense of humor. Some favorite brand names: "Hottest Fuckin' Sauce," "This Sauce Tastes Like Shit," "PETA Hot Sauce" (that's "People Eating Tasty Animals") and "Smack My Sweet Ass and Call Me Sally."
I ended up picking six sauces. Three of them I chose due to their names -- to connoisseurs, probably the equivalent of playing your office Super Bowl pool based on which team has the cutest mascot. "Mean, Green Motherfucker" appealed to my environmentalist side (OK, not really, but it was just green colored). "Tonya Hot Sauce" won me over with its caricature of Tonya Harding smoking a cigarette outside of her trailer and the tag line, "A sauce not for the weak kneed."
I found the "Show Your Tits!!! Hot Sauce" (with a Girls Gone Wild-style cartoon flash on the front) in a special case labeled "Adult Oriented Hot Sauces." Along with boobs, there are penises and names like "Big Dick's Very Impressive Hot Sauce" and "Dickhead," featuring a picture of Osama bin Laden with his turban replaced by a penis tip.
Another case features the "dangerous" stuff, things that are locked up and deemed especially treacherous. These babies get up to 4 million Scoville units (16 million units is the hottest, purest sauce available; for a reference, Frank's Redhot is about 450 units). I passed this case because a) the bottles cost $35 on average and b) I don't think my health insurance covers pepper-related injuries.
I grabbed "Blair's Sudden Death" and "Holy Shit" because they're among Jungle Jim's best-sellers. And I went with "Plasma Hot Sauce" because the bottle does tricks -- the sauce is clear until you turn it upside down and shake the red up.
I also bought supplies: Rolaids (maximum strength, trash can-size), water and some beans and rice. And I read up on capsaicin, the active ingredient in chili peppers measured by the Scoville scale. Wikipedia says the hot sauce burn is from a "harmless chemical reaction" with your neurological system. That made me feel better.
I went with "Show Your Tits" first. Each bottle says something about placing only a drop in your food. Hot sauce ingredients are generally vinegar, salt and some kind of pepper. "Tits" was no different, so I was having a hard time figuring out what special ingredient makes women pop their tops.
One drop wasn't cutting it, so I added a few more. There was a slight kick, but I was starting to think this was Tabasco with boobs on the label. Not bad, but it wasn't living up to any of those YouTube videos I watched that had people literally bawling five minutes after tasting some devious sauces.
The Tonya Harding sauce was slightly darker. I went with three drops, but there was little bite. I pulled out tortilla chips to give it a more direct nip. Nothing!
I skipped the "Mean, Green Motherfucker," getting pissed that I wasn't in pain. I thought this was going to be like Jackass, with me squirming around on the ground and my friends putting hot sauce on their taints. But nothing.
According to the Scoville scale, 2.5 million heat units is what's in most police pepper spray. I haven't had anything much worse than "Altoid."
So I went straight to the real shit, "Blair's Sudden Death." Blair makes a series of "Death" sauces: Beyond Death, Pure Death, Mega Death. The label said just one "micro drop," but a couple of big ones rolled out. I was dialing "9" and "1" on the phone just in case.
Oh, shit! It was instant. I got a nice buzz from the spice, but my tongue wouldn't stop burning.
I chugged water, only to be told milk is the antidote. Chugged milk, but only had about a cup in the fridge. The burn came down after about five minutes, but my mouth ached for another 10. I was hoping it wouldn't come out the same way.
Why do people do this to themselves? Maybe it's the endorphin buzz, but saying it's for the taste seems like one of those guys with the boomin' system in his trunk who blares it so loud it sounds like distorted, earth-shaking farts saying he appreciates music for the emotional subtleties.
The kind of people who love hot sauce have another big reason to visit Jungle Jim's this summer. The store's second annual "Weekend of Fire," a celebration of hot sauces and other extremely spicy grub, goes down Aug. 2-3 at the store's new "Oscar Convention Center."
Hot sauce fan sites and message boards -- yes, there are such things -- are abuzz about the event, listing hotel and other travel information. The convention will feature an array of exhibitors, from the biggest companies to the smallest basement brewers.
So for one weekend this summer, Greater Cincinnati will be the center of the hot sauce universe. Me? I'll be licking my wounds (if the feeling ever returns to my tongue), munching Tums and trying to figure out how to turn all of this leftover "Sudden Death" stuff into homemade pepper spray.
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