It was at one of the annual Fireman’s Chili Cook offs in a small town right outside of St. Louis, Missouri. The fairground was lined with about twenty or so tents with handmade signs scrawled with the names of the participants. There was Big Bob’s Texas Chili right next to a guy who was stirring his pot of chili with an old wooden boat paddle. He claimed that the paddle gave his chili extra flavor. This was a few years ago, before the big chili cook off for the Kidney Foundation was held downtown each year. I noticed that none of the contestants were actually firemen. I guess that firehouse chili isn’t all that great after all, but I may be wrong on that. Anyway, the firemen were just there to judge the contest and more importantly, eat the chili in the name of charity. We paid our admittance fee at the gate and walked around with Styrofoam cup in hand, going from chili cook to chili cook, sampling the wares. I remember bypassing the guy with the wooden paddle; there was just something about a paddle that had been dipped into some of the lakes and rivers around here resting in the chili pot I was eating out of, that I couldn’t reconcile.
I thought that Big Bob’s was the best; he didn’t win, but I do think that he came in second or third. Another thing that I noticed was that he had the biggest bottle of Tabasco sauce sitting on the table next to the chili that I ever saw. It must have been a couple of gallons. I love Tabasco, so maybe that was the reason that I thought his was the best.
Right after the judging was complete, the firemen staged a Jalapeno eating contest. Back then, if you wanted to spice up your American cuisine, then Jalapeno or red pepper was pretty much your two choices. The goal of the contest was to see how many of the peppers each fireman could eat in the allotted amount of time. The winner downed thirteen of the things and was a little sweaty and red-faced to show for it. He was prepared though; a handy bottle of Maalox came out from under the table and he drank about half of it, along with a few glasses of water. The event brought back memories of when I worked for a chicken chain that had originated in Texas. We were the only chain at the time to have Jalapeno peppers on the menu as a compliment to the fried chicken. Of course, now all of the chicken chains have them. We used to have our own Jalapeno-eating contests after work. I remember choking down about eight of them before I finally gave up. This was far short of the record. We would also create our own version of pepper spray when someone inadvertently used hot water instead of cold to spray the peppers off before putting them in the jar, releasing the fiery liquid droplets into the air and causing everybody’s eyes to water and nose to burn.
Now hot and spicy seems to be the new order of the day at restaurants around town. This may be due, in part, to the influx of more ethnic food establishments into the area. Not only is spicy chicken featured at the chicken fast food chains, but McDonald’s, Burger King, and Wendy’s have their own version.
Asian influenced wasabi seems to be the forerunner if you want to go a few degrees hotter. I put wasabi into a special category all of its own, as the searing effect is felt in the nose, rather than the throat and stomach. It also dissipates faster, instead of hanging around and influencing the rest of the meal. The Japanese horseradish paste is even showing up at some of the classic French restaurants around the area in recipes like Seared Yellow-Finned Tuna with wasabi and pickled ginger. Ginger and its cousin Turmeric root are great ways to add some zing to a lot of classic American fare also.
There are a couple of theories as to why American cuisine is trending towards the hot and spicy: one is the ageing baby boom population. As we get older, we lose some of our ability to taste and the hotter and spicier foods may just give our taste buds the jolt that they need. The other reason is that more and more people are concerned about their weight, and sometimes adding extra spice to a dish and eliminating some of the fat and sugar might not be a bad idea. But then again, you can always make up for it later, as one of the local ice creameries has rolled out a ginger-wasabi ice cream and is considering one with chipotle in the future. And you can also consider putting an extra shot of Tabasco sauce into your Bloody Mary.