Recently I went for dinner with a friend to this Thai place. It’s one of those places where you specify how spicy you want the food on a scale of 1 to 25. Now, I don’t pretend to be all super-spicy food guy (“Yeah, I like my salsa to be cruel! It should punch me in the face! It should get me fired! It should use up all the minutes on my phone!”), but I’m generally not afraid of a little spice. So, we’re ordering and the waitress asks how spicy I want it. I’m feeling bold, so I say 19. She says, “You can’t handle 19. You can have 12.”
Okay. Now. The waitress and I don’t know each other – I’ve never been here before. I think she’s speaking more out of nationalistic pride than anything else; that and the relatively safe assumption that, being an American, I’m a total spice wimp. (Really? There are people who think fast food salsa is too hot? It’s basically ketchup with pulp). I also realize completely at the time, that she’s probably right – I very likely over-estimated myself, and she knows the menu; but 12? 12?? I look like I can only handle 12? It’s not like I asked for 25 – I understand that at restaurants like this the highest numbers are like an exclusive club. It was only 19! Plus her tone was so dismissive it just got my hackles up.
So it’s her pride against mine and I get stupidly insistent that I want 19. I can handle 19! How does she know I didn’t spend several years living in Thailand? (I didn’t) Or that I haven’t won chili pepper eating contests? (I haven’t) Or that I’m not a Balrog – the fire-demon from Lord of the Rings? (Okay, it’s probably relatively clear to her that I’m not a balrog, but I’m just saying…)
All the while in my mind thinking, ‘what the hell’s wrong with you? Listen to the woman. I don’t even think I want 19.’ I’m feeling insulted. She thinks I’m belittling the intensity of her culture’s food. Finally after much back and forth, we agree on 16.
But you know I didn’t get 16.
You know, now that I’ve implied that Thai food isn’t all that, that she went back to the kitchen and said, “Mr. Big Stuff out there thinks he can handle authentic Thai food!” And that’s when they broke out the special spices. Spices in a rack that can only be opened by turning two keys simultaneously. Spices you can’t look directly at. Spices grown in soil fertilized with the blood of executed psychopaths.
When she brings me the food, it’s so hot the bowl is glowing. The heat from it is emitting a low hum.
“Looks great!” I say in a manner that probably fooled no one.
It was agony. And I couldn’t just suffer through it; I had to look like I was enjoying it. Red-eyed, sweaty, hunched over… Mmmmm. Nummy. I’m guzzling my water and my friend’s water (What? He got, like, an 8 spiciness. He can drink water later). I’m trying to sneak my water glass to the bathroom to use the sink in there, and when that doesn’t work? Guzzling straight from the tap. The public-restroom tap. I’m even thinking at the time “I’m probably getting all kind of hepatitis right now, but you know what? That’s later. I’ve got to worry about right now.” Occasionally the waitress would come by with a little smile on her face. “More water?” she’d ask knowingly. And here’d come the casual act. “Oh, hm. Water? Uh, gosh, I guess. Sure. Since you’re here. A little more water would be fine. Always good to be hydrated. 8 glasses a day and all that.”
I did reach a moment where I wondered if it was possible to still retain my cool while throwing up and/or weeping, but I made it through the meal. The waitress still gave me a knowing sneer, but by the end I like to think there was a tiny hint of respect as well. But my eyes were a little blurry by then, so I could be wrong. And maybe the next time someone asks for spicy food, she won’t be so quick to dismiss them. Maybe she won’t be so quick to presume, to correct, to dictate. Maybe she’ll take a moment and think, “Oh, this is gonna be great.”
- “Salsa” by Roboppy, Flickr
- “Balrog” image property of New Line Cinemas
- “German American Bank Vault Lock” by Minnesota Historical Society, Flickr