Friday, April 10, 2015

Free Fiction: In Love With Capsicum

Title: In Love With Capsicum

I had a spicy soup the other day and made me think about heat levels in our food, and more.

Carl stared across the expanse of tables at the dozen other contestants. Everyone seated at a table had a pile of napkins nearby, large glasses of water, with refill pitchers between, and spoons. Red and white checkered tablecloths decorated the competition tables, which were centered on the small stage in the local barbeque restaurant. On the floor, spectators cheered and ordered beer to watch the spectacle unfold. The restaurant was holding its fifth annual Spicy Chili Eating Competition, and Carl sat in the middle of all the excitement.

One of the officiators placed a small bowl of chili in front of Carl and he shifted his attention to stare down at it. As soon as everyone had a bowl delivered in front of them, the timer would start, and he would have three minutes to eat a third of a cup of spicy chili.

Carl had already eaten three small bowls of chili, each growing more spicy with the advancing turn. The first had been the most mild, containing only bell peppers and no heat at all. A warm up round that had given the announcer a chance to explain procedures and encourage spectators to purchase their own meals. All of the contestants had made it through the first round easily. After that had come a mouth warming jalapeno chicken chili, followed by a meatless chipotle bean chili that had singed Carl’s tongue.
The bowl in front of him now boasted Serrano peppers. Carl gripped his spoon and waited for the time to start.

“You can do it!”

“Eat, eat, eat!”

“Go, Carl, go!”

His cheering section yelled from across the room and Carl waved at them, spoon still in hand. His sister, Deena, who could eat five-alarm chicken wings and not blink an eye, and his two best friends, Paul and Lucio, who usually were making the five alarm chicken wings, had prompted and pushed and pulled at him for years to develop a tolerance to heat.

Carl had spent his entire life eschewing anything spicy. It wasn’t that it upset his stomach. No, once it got down into his belly, he didn’t notice it at all. He didn’t even burp. What tingled and burned and burst into intolerable pain were his mouth, tongue, and lips.

The smallest banana pepper hidden in a sandwich could do him in. The hint of poblano could cause untold distress.

Teased mercilessly by his loved ones, he’d worked on developing his palate. It had been slow going, but after a year of diligently forcing down pepperoncini and licking spoons dipped into curries, he felt ready to test his newly developed abilities. He’d signed up for a local eating contest. Now he was here, and he was sweating and burning.

The official called the start of the time and Carl dug his spoon into the chili. It glistened, looking ominously hot, and then he brought it up and shoved it in. His mouth, already tortured, exploded into hotness. Carl didn’t quit. He shoveled in the rest of the chili.

Tears streamed down his face and he clutched the glass of water, sucking it down. The water was a false friend, and did nothing to stem the tide of pain as it swept across his tongue.

As he sat there, contemplating misery, he considered quitting. None of the other contestants even looked concerned yet. Especially not the guy directly across from him. With fiery red hair that matched the red-hot spice, he looked like the coolest cucumber ever. He’d calmly spooned down everything set before him and Carl steamed with jealousy.

An attendant whisked away the empty bowl and a moment later a new bowl appeared. He sniffed it cautiously.

“We’re up to our famous cayenne chili!” The announcer waved flamboyantly at the crowd and the cheers rose up.

Carl shook his head. He couldn’t do this. He just couldn’t. Cayenne. It was impossible.
He looked up, ready to raise his hand and quit, and found the red-headed contestant staring at him, mouthing words.

Through his blurry vision, Carl couldn’t quite make out what the man was trying to tell him, but he understood the intent. Don’t stop. Don’t quit.

With resigned determination, Carl grabbed the spoon and shoveled the cayenne chili into his mouth. It burned as it went down, but he ate it as quickly as he could. When he finished, he looked up and saw the man smiling at him. His bowl was empty already and he looked just fine.

“The next chili is habanero based!” the announcer sounded gleeful.

It felt like an eternity for Carl before the empty bowl was removed and the new chili placed before him. This one’s contents were chopped fine. Flecks of dark, glossy green hinted at peppers, but only the dark red beans were truly identifiable. He looked up again and the other contestant was making an encouraging motion with his spoon.

Carl sucked in air and then spooned the concoction into his mouth. He nearly gagged as the heat spread across his mouth, traveling up into his nose and sinuses. A wave of nausea swept over him and the urge to spit the food out became nearly unbearable. He swallowed, forcing his throat to work, and then breathed for a minute, willing himself not to be ill.

Movement at the corner of his sight signaled the attendant coming by to retrieve the empty bowl and bring the next one, but Carl was done. He stood up and waved, and then moved away from the tables and the other contestants.

“Our first forfeit of the night, ladies and gentlemen. I tell you, these are hot! And after the competition, we have packaged samples ready for sale if you’d like to take them home and try them yourself! In addition, we always have our mild chili available for dinner every night, as well as a rotating spicy chili.” The announcer’s spiel turned into a burble in Carl’s head. Hot, he thought. These are hot. Too damn hot.

Carl moved off stage and away from the crowd, into a part of the restaurant not involved with the competition. As soon as he was out of the limelight, his sister and friends swarmed him. They thumped him on the back and hugged him.

“Carl, you made it to cayenne! That’s fantastic!” Deena clapped her hands.

“Those other people up there all love spicy food. Cayenne’s child’s play for them. I’m proud you stuck it out. I thought you’d give it up at jalapeno," Lucio said.

“Next time we make wings, buddy, you know you can eat them!” Paul slapped Carl on the back.

Carl pointed to his mouth. “I need some bread. Or milk. Something,” he told them.

Deena pulled crackers from her purse and Lucio vanished for a moment, returning with a glass of milk. Carl stuck them in his mouth, chewing and drinking, and wishing for relief. Slowly, his mouth started to feel better.

“Want to watch the rest of the competition?” his sister asked.

“Sure. Now that I'm not facing down a bowl of chili, I can enjoy it!” Carl followed them back out into the main part of the restaurant. There were only two people left on stage. A woman with long, dark hair and beautiful dark eyes and the red-headed man.

“Next up, is a combo chili. Rated a 10 out of 10 for hotness. This one’s so hot, we couldn’t use just one kind of pepper. It’s got four different kinds!”

The bowls were served and both contestants dug into the food. Neither flinched.

“Amazing!” the announcer crowed. “And that’s the top of the line, folks. Looks like we have a tie!”

“I should get some of that, just to see how hot it really is,” Deena said. “I’ll be right back.”

“Me, too," Paul said, and Lucio tagged behind him, digging into his pocket for his wallet.

Carl watched them vanish into the milling crowd as he stayed leaning against the wall, content to be quiet and still. His whole mouth pulsed with warmth. He was proud of himself, but grateful to be done. He was torn between feeling foolhearty for trying such a thing and having second thoughts. Maybe he could have handled just one more chili….

“Hey, you did well up there. I was impressed."

Carl turned to look at the speaker who'd come up behind him. It was the red-haired guy who'd co-won. "Uh, thanks. But I really didn't do that well."

The guy offered his hand. "Mike."

Carl shook. "Carl."

"Carl," Mike said, "you should have been the winner. And you did do that well. I could tell how much pain you were in. I sat across from you and watched the whole thing. You were tougher than everyone else up there. I can't speak for all of them, but I'm pretty sure most of us either enjoy the sensation of hot, or else have the right genetics to handle it. Why'd you join a spice contest if you can't eat spicy foods?"

Carl laughed. "I just spent about a year working my way up from not being able to eat ground black pepper on my food, to today. A challenge. And I guess I should also say congratulations on your win."

"Thanks. But I still tip my hat to you," Mike said, and he pantomimed tipping an invisible hat.

"I graciously accept your praise," Carl said. "But aren't you disappointed that you didn't win by yourself, that you had to share the prize?"

"Not really. The girl who won, Suze, and I have been around the block a few times trying to figure out which of us can handle more heat. I'm used to tying with her. Someday, maybe one of us will find a competition with some serious kick. Which it looks like I've gotta go. My ride is waving at me." Mike reached into his pocket and pulled out a slip of paper. He handed it over to Carl. "If you want any tips on things that are hot, give me a call some time. If you're interested." He touched his imaginary hat brim again, smiled, and sauntered away.

Carl looked down at the paper and realized he'd been given a phone number. He felt his cheeks start to warm. Looking up, he saw Deena, Paul, and Lucio on their way over. He tucked the phone number in his pocket and decided to blame the blush on the peppers. At last, his inability to tolerate spice would be useful.

He brushed his fingers against the paper in his pocket, and knew he would make that call.

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