Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Chili Today, Hot Tamale

The Ring of Fire
I had a roommate in college who introduced me to Mexican food and hot sauce. I came from an ethnic family near Pittsburgh so I thought I knew a little about spicy cooking, but the only Mexican family in Clairton moved away when I was just a lad, so my ethnic epicurian experiences were limited to sarma (ground beef wrapped in a cabbage leaf) and pogacha, a round bread about the size of a small pizza but two or three inches high. Served warm, or with sauer kraut in the middle, it was a slice of heaven.
When I got to college, 2,000 miles away in Utah, I thought all the local food was bland. Then I met my future roommate, David. He was from Peru and was worldly when it came to cuisine. He invited me to dinner to El Azteca for my first Mexican meal. The dining experience started off well when chips and salsa was brought to our table - free! I'd eaten in Italian and Chinese restaurante and aside from water, nobody ever gave me anything free, especially before I ordered the meal.
The salsa was hot, and David asked for Tobasco to sprinkle over his meal. I tried to do the same, but when I took my first bite, as the song says, "It burns, burns, burns, that ring of fire..." I probably had several pitchers of water during that meal but learned to love everything made from chili peppers. I think I put chili sauce on everything but ice cream.
A recent scientific article showed many uses for capsaicin, the chemical that gives chili peppers their fire. Surgeons are experimenting with bathing wounds with capsaicin to dull the pain. The theory is that bathing nerves with the extract will numb them for weeks which means patients suffer less pain and therefore require less pain medication. In another experiment Harvard researchers are experimenting with capsaicin to dull pain during dental surgery.
Las Cruces, New Mexico is the self-proclaimed chili capital of the world. Could it become the medical center for pain research? Nothing is impossible. In the meatime, remember my favorite chili-eating song, "It only hurts for a little while..."
Dr. Forgot

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