The Death Pepper

So, I was reading a news blurb this morning about a new species of death-pepper recently discovered. It’s called a ‘Scorpion’ pepper, supposedly has enough capsaicin to eat through a rubber glove, and can cause a blistering ‘high’ that has been compared by some spicy-food aficionados to crack cocaine.

I’ve never understood spicy-food addicts. I love good food–everyone who knows me will soon realize that–but I want to taste what I’m eating, not overwhelm my palate with the same substance we use as a counter-irritant on a damaged leg muscle. At least I won’t go out of my way to seek out hyperinflammatory chili. Large red chilli pepper

Is it the thrill? The dare? The claim of superior strength and ability to withstand the dreadful assault on one’s delicate senses? (You…can’t…beat…me! I…WILL…prevail!) Or is it the idea that one is so insensitive (aka ‘tough’) that one is unaffected? (‘You call this hot? Ha! I laugh at your feeble attempt to break through my barrier of insensitivity.’) I’m not sure.

I once purchased a bottle of hot sauce named ‘endorphin rush’ on a dare. When I got it home, I opened it (carefully!), inserted a clean (afterwards probably sterile) toothpick about 0.5mm into the surface, and then touched the very tip of the toothpick to my tongue.

An immediate numbing sensation followed. I had no feeling in that area of my tongue for several hours. I gave the bottle to one of my insensitive friends. The Scorpion peppers of the world are quite safe from me.

As I often do (especially when pressured to write weekly blog posts), I became reflective. That pepper represents that (name withheld) book I tried to read last year. I recall the book–it was an assault on my imagination, throwing everything violent and disagreeable at my poor brain, non-stop, from the very first page. The book had been highly touted as a best-seller, but my ‘tongue went numb’ and I couldn’t finish it.

I won’t elaborate on the sort of (ahem!) ‘plot elements’ included in chapter one, but let’s just say I was thankful the book is a fantasy. The reviews described it as ‘gritty’. I suppose the author forgot to wash the dirt off the death-pepper first.

I read the reviews. There was obviously some of the same kind of thinking going on–the same appeal–as with the tongue-numbing hot sauce. Some reviewers called the book a ‘non-stop thrill ride’. Others praised the ‘guts’ of the author (and, by association, their own courage as readers) for not shying away from unpleasant realities. Some addressed the naysayers, referring to those who criticized the work as wimps who would obviously rather read about fluffy bunnies. We should all ‘get over it’.

Okay, I get it. And I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy a little grit (especially in the literary equivalent of an excellent clam chowder). For example, at the moment I’m reading the latest Stephen King novel, __________, which I classify as fantasy. It’s a wonderful mix of flavors and textures–dark and decadent, light and refreshing, saltwater-tangy, sometimes even a little fruity–and, yes, the grit is definitely there. But the Scorpion-pepper? Well, I don’t know yet. I haven’t finished it.

I have decided I really can’t handle death-pepper books. My imagination blanks out, my eyes get stuck in permanent roll as the gritty author tries to shock me with escalating graphic violence and degradation (aka ‘smut’), and I end up doing the reader-equivalent of drinking a big glass of milk: I abandon the ‘gritty’ book and re-read one of my old favorites like James Herriot or Richard Adams (Watership Down was one of the best literary meals I have ever enjoyed). I might even feel compelled to go up to my loft and write, which, for me, is the equivalent of a big ol’ slug of ‘Maalox for the mind’. In Alterra, I get to cook.

I acknowledge the appeal of death-pepper books. I can visualize a bunch of rugged, Carhart-clad guys slouching in the corner booth at their favorite chili parlor re-living past glories. Yeah. That stuff in Fort Worth was pretty bad–had m’gall bladder out next day. Yeah. Those rape scenes involvin’ the explodin’octopus weren’t so bad, though. I’ve read worse. Yeah…the one with the (censored)…now THAT was gritty. I had to watch four hours of Winnie the Pooh afterwards.

They’re just not for me.

One of my aforementioned favorite authors loves to throw chapters of unmitigated grossness in an otherwise gripping story–it’s become almost a game for me to guess what and where–will it be roaches? Maggots? Horrible, mutant rats? I know there’s gonna be slime and other forms of mutant mucous somewhere. Oh, well…nobody’s perfect. And of course there’s the obligatory ‘sex chapter’…well, can’t have realism without it, I suppose. I still love the author. His books are a real festival of flavors.

Some books are like dessert-carts. Delicious at first, but too sweet. Variety of flavors, but nearly all in the same family. Some books are like boxed mac n’ cheese. They are all the same, are predictable, and sell by the millions. I will eat, er, read both, depending on my mood, but what I really want is a unique combination of flavors, textures, and images that will delight my ‘palate’, keep me involved from first course to last, and perhaps even leave me thinking about it for a long time afterward. (And, no, I am not going to draw the analogy of onions ‘repeating’ for hours after one eats them, nor will I remind readers that eating a whole banana just before departing on a hundred-mile horse race is NOT a good idea. That’s not the kind of ‘afterthought’ I was referring to.)

  1. Well I must admit to sending a note to an author once suggesting that the book read as if the plot was contrived to allow the telling of the debasement, torture and sexual abuse of the heroine. It might have been possible to take the “good” parts and make a real story from them. But this appears to be a trend with some authors.

    • Hi, Geoffery: I have never quite understood the need to center an otherwise appealing and worthwhile story around violence for the sake of violence. As with many modern films, if they’re not blowing things up every five minutes they’re not content. Personally, I find films like that really dull–I switch off and start looking at my watch, hoping they’ll get back to the story. Same with books.

  2. Ok, in defense of those of us that like it spicy (I have a 24-bottle hot sauce rack mounted to my dining room wall), I can offer reasoning as to the “why”. I started eating tabasco (no longer considered hot sauce in my book) when I was at the Air Force Academy and wanted the food to have a taste. That was the beginning of the end. To someone that eats hot sauce regularly, what’s hot today is not tomorrow so you have to gradually increase the heat level to keep it interesting. I do have to admit, there are some really awful sauces out there (Endorphin Rush being one) that are pepper extract and none of the good taste of the pepper itself. Those are just for bragging rights and typically taste nasty. However, there are many (especially those form the Caribbean) that are wonderful and add many facets to scrambled eggs, pizza, hamburgers, pasta, etc.

    In other words, if you start slow, you’ll not be able to stop. 🙂
    Mo’ hotta, mo’ betta!

    • I’m thinkin’ we should get Estle to whip you up some Alterran Sutherling pepper-stew.
      We might have to order you a new lining for your mouth, but apart from that… 😉

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