Mom, somehow, always there at the beginning of everything.
Growing up in the northern suburbs of Seattle, when the city was less cosmopolitan than it is today, I did not appreciate my health pilgrim of a mother's fervent quest for the (in her words) "blood purifying" burn of chiles. I remember the comedy of projections sometimes played out in Thai restaurants in order to get the spiciest possible meal and enjoying the small transgression against suburban whiteness that our chile eating represented, although I couldn't have put it in these terms at the time. My mom, in a familiar scene:
–Thai hot, please.
–I don't know. It's very hot. Are you sure? Four stars okay?
–No, Thai hot please. Six stars. As spicy as you can make it.
As an adult, having inherited my mother's obsession for spicy food, I've relived this scene and permutations of it I don't know how many times. Although much has changed. More Americans seem to appreciate spicy food now. More spicy cuisines seem to be available across the country than before. [Ethiopian, Korean, Indian, Caribbean, Mexican, Szechuan, etc.]. More information about how to cook spicy world cuisines has become accessible, along with access to previously difficult-to-find chiles and spices.
This may only apply to big cities. Small town America is still a mystery to me, I admit. I remember eating in a Thai restaurant in Champaign, IL, with my friend Larry, another chile junkie, who had lived in Northern Thailand and who reminisced often about the absurdly spicy nam tok he ate there, called "waterfall" in Thai for the painful tears it would cause. It took some cajoling to convince the owners he could handle the heat. Larry used his Thai, "Ow pet pet (I want it very spicy)," which elicited visible embarrassment and a strained compliment, "your Thai is very good." A comfortingly familiar scene. I was back in the 80s with my mom, except this time I had some philosophy and literary criticism under my belt, along with a vague grasp of postcolonial theory. The scene I had lived with my mom became newly legible. Misreadings, projections, shot both ways. The expectation that spicy = authentic and that authentic = good, in one direction, and the expectation (driven perhaps by a sensible fear of losing clientele) that white people do not like their food too spicy, in the other direction.
I recalled a similar scene, this time in Guadeloupe, where my desire for authenticity translated into a request for hot sauce. Unlike Jamaica, say, which is used to accommodating largely Anglo-American tourists who have a relatively high tolerance for spice, Guadeloupe's tourism industry is largely oriented to a French audience generally intolerant of any degree of chile heat. I say this with some authority, having lived in France for four years. To give you a concrete idea, Mild Pace Picante Sauce would be the spice threshold for the average Franco-French palate. Of course there are plenty of exceptions, including the French of North African and West African origins, travel junkies and adrenaline junkies, etc.. But let me make just one more unfair generalization about France: although wary of spicy foods, the French do tend seek out "authentic" (read: exotic, orientalizing) experiences when on vacation, certainly more so than the average American vacationer. So, accordingly, business-savvy Guadeloupean restaurateurs have learned to include wording on their menus that promotes the authenticity of their food ("aux saveurs exotiques des Antilles"), which is, of course, not at all what people eat at their homes. The spiciest dish may hit a fifty on the Scoville scale, and might not even register as spicy to an American. The meats and fish are upmarket, etc.. Anyhow, after spending a day at the market in Point-à-Pitre, and having tasted some beautiful local chiles and hot sauces, my travel buddy (and food blogger, Christian) and I found a nice restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet for its authentic dishes. I can't remember what I ordered. Probably some sort of seafood fritters, maybe something with bread fruit. I don't know. But I do remember asking for some "piment" (the word means both "hot pepper" and "anything that adds spice, figuratively or literally, to s/t") and getting a small plate with a single scotch bonnet pepper on it, the equivalent of a "fuck you" from the cook. I think my inner hippie girl wanted recognition from the cook in a quasi-erotic communication ("I am not like the other diners, I recognize and want the real you"). The chef, who now I realize was probably trained in Paris and likely belonged to a high-ish rung of the Island's micro class system, responded as he/she should have ("It is what it is. More thought was put into this dish than any home cooked meal you'll get on the island. So eat it or fuck off. Also, please project your quasi-erotic authenticity fantasies in a way that is legible to me. In the French way I know"). I realize I am reading a lot into a single hot pepper and that the chef was probably too slammed to formulate any of these thoughts. For all I know it was the waitress who put the chile on the plate. What matters, though, is the revelation. First, that authenticity is not an interesting or meaningful measure when it comes to good food. Second, that eating others' food is never as simple an act as it seems, especially when traveling. And third, that I must keep hot sauce on my person at all times.
Let the Spice Flow.
I'm not yet sure what kind of shape the blog will take. I don't imagine I'll do much more of the kind of writing I just did above, although who knows? The original idea was to keep this for my own use as a "carnet de cuisine" and "carnet de voyage" to record good meals eaten during my travels and good meals cooked in my own kitchen so I don't forget. The use of spices will be a dominant theme simply because that's how I like to cook best. I might write posts featuring single spices from time to time (an entire meal featuring fenugrek or anise, for example). I might also feature meals based on my garden, a brand new project that has fast become an obsession. I am currently growing Cayenne and Serrano chiles, eggplant, a couple varieties of tomatoes, Armenian cucumbers, sweet corn, and pole beans, in addition to the wild amaranth and purslane (verdolagas, in Spanish) that were already growing in the yard, and which I've already used in some fantastic dishes.
Finally, living in Austin, TX, only three hours from the border, I'm lucky to have frequent occasion to travel to Mexico, so I can guarantee that many posts on the blog will feature past and future trips to that country. By way of teaser, I share a few photos from a trip to Tlaxcala, where I had one of the most memorable and lavish breakfasts of my life thanks to the wonderfully generous Karina Martinez Ramirez de Arellano and her mom.
These photos represent a blog post that never was. They also represent the blog that now can be.