The capsaicinization of American food

Consider spicy-hot food — and consider how recent it is as a
mainstream phenomenon in the U.S. In 2002 many of us cheerfully chow
down on Szechuan and Thai, habaneros and rellenos, nam pla and sambal
ulek. Salsa outsells ketchup. But it wasn’t always that way.

In fact it wasn’t that way until quite recently, historically
speaking. I’ve enjoyed capsaicin-loaded food since I was a pre-teen
boy in the late 1960s; I acquired the taste from my father, who picked
it up in South America. In those days our predilection was the
peculiar trait of a minority of travelers and a few immigrant
populations. The progression by which spicy-hot food went from there
to the U.S. mainstream makes a perfect type case of cultural
assimilation, and the role and meaning that the stuff has acquired on
the way is interesting too.

(Oh. And for those of you who don’t understand the appeal? It’s
all about endorphin rush, like a runner’s high. Pepper-heads like me
have developed a conditioned reflex whereby the burning sensation
stimulates the release of opiate-like chemicals from the brainstem,
inducing a euphoria not unlike a heroin buzz. Yes, this theory has
been clinically verified.)

Baseline: Thirty years ago. The early 1970s. I’m a teenager, just
back in the U.S. from years spent overseas. Spicy-hot food is pretty
rare in American cuisine. Maybe you’d have heard of five-alarm chili
if you’d lived in Texas, but chances are you’d never have actually
eaten the stuff. If you’re from Louisiana, you might have put Tabasco
sauce on your morning eggs. Aside from that, you wouldn’t have
tasted hot peppers outside of a big-city Chinatown.

It’s actually a little difficult to remember how different American
cooking was then. Those were the years when Kool-Whip was cool and
the casserole was king, an era of relentless blandness well-skewered
by James Lileks’s
Gallery of Regrettable Food
. Mom didn’t know any better. Well,
most moms didn’t, anyway; mine had acquired a few clues overseas.

But most Americans of that day inherited the pale hues of British
and German cooking. What zip there was in our cuisine came from
immigrants, especially (at that time) Italians. Thai, Vietnamese
and Ethiopian had not gained a foothold. Chinese was on educated
peoples’ radar but only eaten in restaurants; nobody owned a wok
yet.

Indeed, Chinese food had already caught on in a few leading-edge
subcultures by the mid-1970s: science-fiction fans, computer hackers,
the people who would start to call themselves `geeks’ fifteen years
later. But most of what was available was Americanized versions of
the blander Shanghainese and Cantonese varieties; restaurants that
made a point of authenticity and advertised Szechuan and Hunan cooking
to round-eyes were not yet common.

This all began to change in the early 1980s. The yuppies did it to
us; experimentation with exotic and ethnic foods became a signature
behavior of the young, upwardly mobile urban elite, and the variety of
restaurants increased tremendously in a way that both met that demand
and stimulated it. More importantly, cooking techniques and
ingredients that hadn’t been traditional in European cuisine started
to influence home cooking — white people started buying
woks. And Szechuan fire oil.

The first vogue for Cajun cooking around 1984 was, as I recall,
something of a turning point. Chinese cooking was popular but still
marked as `foreign’; Cajun was not. Spicy-hot gumbo joined five-alarm
chili on the roster of all-American foods that were not only expected
but required to deliver a hefty dose of capsaicin zap. I
remember thinking the world was changing when, in 1987 or ’88, I
first saw spicy Cajun dishes on the menu of a white-bread roadside
diner. In Delaware.

This diner was never going to show up in Michelin’s or Zagat’s; in
fact, it was the next thing to a truck stop. Something else was going
on in the 1980s besides yuppies buying woks — and that was the
embrace of spicy-hot food by the small-town and rural working class,
and its coding as a specifically masculine pleasure.

This probably evolved out of the tradition, going back at least to
the late 1940s, of defining barbecue and chili as what an
anthropologist would call a “men’s mystery”. Despite the existence of
male professional chefs and men who can cook, most kinds of domestic
cooking are indisputably a female thing — women are expected to
be interested in it and expected to be good at it, and a man who
acquires skill is crossing into women’s country. But for a handful of
dishes culturally coded as “men’s food”, the reverse is true.
Barbecue and chili top that list, and have since long before spicy-hot
food went mainstream.

For people who drive pickup trucks, spicy-hot food went from being
a marked minority taste to being something like a central men’s
mystery in the decade after 1985. I first realized this in the early
1990s when I saw a rack of 101 hot-pepper sauces on display at a
gun-and-knife show, in between the premium tobacco and the jerked
meat. There’s a sight you won’t see at a flower show, or anywhere else
in women’s country.

The packaging and marketing of hot sauces tells the same
story. From the top-shelf varieties like Melinda’s XXX (my favorite!)
to novelty items like “Scorned Woman” and “Hot Buns”, much of the
imagery is cheeky sexiness clearly designed to appeal to men.

Nor is it hard to understand why the association got made in the
first place. It’s considered masculine to enjoy physical risk, even
mostly trivial physical risks like burning yourself on a sauce hotter
than you can handle. Men who like hot peppers swap capsaicin-zap
stories; I myself am perhaps unreasonably proud of having outlasted
a tableful of Mexican college students one night in Monterrey,
watching them fall out one by one as a plate of sauteed habaneros
was passed repeatedly around the table.

There’s a sneaky element of female complicity in all this. Women
chuckle at our capsaicin-zap stories the same way they laugh at other
forms of laddish posturing, but then (as my wife eloquently puts it)
“What good is a man if you rip off his balls?” They leave us capsaicin
and barbecue and other men’s mysteries because they instinctively grok
that a certain amount of testosterone-driven male-primate behavior is
essential for the health of Y-chromosome types — and best it
should be over something harmless.

This gastronomic pincer movement — Yuppies pushing spicy food
downmarket, truckers and rednecks pushing it upmarket —
coincided with the rise in cultural influence of Hispanics with a
native tradition of spicy-hot food. In retrospect, it’s interesting that
what mainstream America naturalized was jalapenos rather than
Chinese-style fire oil. Tex-Mex assimilated more readily than
Szechuan, as it turned out.

We can conveniently date that mainstreaming from the year salsa
first passed ketchup in sales volume, 1996. Perhaps not by
coincidence, that’s the first year I got gifted with a jar of
homegrown habaneros. They came to me from an Irish ex-biker, a
take-no-shit ZZ-Top lookalike who runs a tire dealership in the next
town over. He’d be a great guy to have with you in a bar fight, but
nobody who would ever be accused of avant-garde tastes. I guess
that was when I realized spicy-hot food had become as all-American
as apple pie.

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