Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Heat Index

My first experience with spicy food came when I was a youngster.

I was a latch key kid, and that included lunch. My grade school was literally across the street from the house, more or less. So I would let myself in and prepare my own lunch, as early as age 11.

This was circa 1974-75.

Nobody reported my mother to Child Protective Services. I managed to not burn the house down. I'd fix my lunch, eat it, and be back in class on time.

Somehow along the way I have lost that efficiency in my life, but that's another blog post entirely.

The point being, my first encounter with spicy foods came in the form of those Vlasic hot pepper rings in a jar. Again, I was 11 and I started nibbling on those tangy, vinegar-encased yellow rings, usually combining them with a sandwich of some sort.

That was some 40 years ago, and it was way before I discovered Szechuan Chinese food, Indian cuisine and Thai delights.

It was also way before fast food joints and snack manufacturers discovered anything remotely on the warm side, spicy food-wise.

Today everyone is pushing spicy food.

Jalapenos are all the rage now.

Everyone from Frito Lay to Applebee's to Burger King are putting jalapenos in their offerings.

Spicy food is everywhere. Buffalo style (fill in the blank); "bold" menu items; Cajun everything; Thai this and Thai that.

Not that I'm complaining.

My yen for bold, spicy and tangy foods clearly started with those latch key lunches in the mid-1970s. Vlasic hot pepper rings was my first experience. I remember it like a woman remembers her first kiss.

But I eventually had to eat something other than hot pepper rings to satisfy my growing craving.

My mom and I used to eat Chinese food a lot but it wasn't until I went off to college and started working in Ann Arbor that I realized not all Chinese cuisine was of the Cantonese variety.

Spicy Chinese food? Really?

Some co-workers were getting take-out at a Chinese place down the street and it served something called Szechuan, they said. Never heard of it, I replied.

Oh, it's good, they said. Very spicy and hot.

I probably cocked my head, like a bemused dog does.

But I for sure said that I was in on that!


Part of nature's nectar


The food arrived and I'm surprised my taste buds didn't all drop dead of a heart attack.

Never before had they seen anything like Szechuan Chinese food come down my gullet.

What a taste sensation!

So that's when I got hooked on spicy Chinese food (circa 1982). That would change from Chinese to Asian when I discovered Thai cuisine, some five years later.

If I thought Szechuan (and Mandarin) was hot, I had no idea when it came to Thai food.

Thai food was invented for people like me. Intense heat, but still adjustable for individual taste.

Siam Spicy, on Woodward in Royal Oak, gave me my indoctrination to Thai food. I foolishly ordered it "extra hot" on my first visit. I dismissed the sweet waitress's warning.

I should have listened to her.

But that painful (literally) experience didn't dissuade me. I had discovered a treasure trove.

In the early-1990s I found out about Indian food. More delightful salivating ensued.

So here we are today, 40 years after I lost my spicy food virginity, and only now is the food industry catching up.

It's a generational thing, I'm sure.

I was born in 1963. Today's target demographic was born some 20 years after that, and they, as a whole, are more in tune with hot and spicy food.

They are less afraid and more adventurous eaters than the generation preceding them.

The products and menu items today reflect that shift in taste bud stamina. Although when the so-called spicy offerings first started to appear, they weren't nearly hot enough for my liking. Now the heat level is increasing as the demographic is getting younger.

The easiest bet I ever won came some 30 years ago, when a friend wagered that I couldn't eat an entire bag of extra hot potato chips without drinking anything.

I won a case of Molson Brador beer. Like taking candy from a baby.

I still eat hot pepper rings, by the way. Today I call it comfort food.









Friday, February 13, 2015

The Justified Bully

In the 1980s, HBO presented a comedy series called "Not Necessarily the News." In it, pretend anchors used real news clips but altered them for laughs.

Cleverly inserted shots that the HBO show produced, interspersed with the actual clips, would be used for gags.

Of course, the notion of fake news on TV was hardly new at that time. "Saturday Night Live" began the trend in earnest with its signature Weekend Update segment not long after "SNL" debuted in 1975.

While "NNTN" was playful and Weekend Update was very sarcastic, always delivered with a wink and a smirk, there was still further to go in the fake news genre.

Enter Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."

Where "NNTN" was produced sporadically and Weekend Update was weekly (during the "SNL" season), "The Daily Show" was exactly that---daily.

But that's hardly where the delineation ended.

"TDS"'s Jon Stewart was not part of a host rotation, like Weekend Update's, which helped make stars out of everyone from Bill Murray to Dennis Miller to Seth Myers.

Weekend Update has always been presented in a breezy five minutes or so, while "TDS" has always been 30 minutes in length.

Stewart is one of two hosts that "TDS" has ever known (Craig Kilborn began when the show began in 1996 and Stewart took over by 1999), and he stunned his audience with the announcement this week that this will be the year that he steps down.

Kudos should continue to go to Kilborn, the ESPN grad whose smarmy delivery would forever brand "TDS," but it was Stewart's intellectually sharp, biting humor and longevity that cemented "TDS"'s perpetual place in television comedy history.

"TDS" has been guested by a gaggle of political figures and other celebrities over the years, many of whom have been eager to share the stage with Stewart and engage in the ensuing repartee.

Such was the popularity of Stewart's show that it spawned spin-offs, like Stephen Colbert's "The Colbert Report" and "The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore."

Stewart never hesitated to point out the absurdity and hypocrisy of politics, social issues and celebrity. He used his host's chair as a bully pulpit, but it always seemed that those he bullied deserved it. Stewart possessed the incredibly difficult knack of being biting but not mean-spirited. He never tweaked anyone just for cheap laughs.



I believe that the ability to jab someone in a pointed way but sans brutality added to the humor of "TDS." Stewart was no insult comic---he wasn't Don Rickles sitting behind a desk.

Stewart was so entrenched as "TDS" host that it was easy to forget that he wasn't one of the mainstream news anchors, but instead a gifted comedian and an actor/director whose career on the big screen is nothing to sneeze at either.

Comedians will tell you that the beauty of their craft turns up when their material practically writes itself.

Stewart didn't have to try very hard to pull laughs from the daily headlines; so much of what goes on is good fodder. But that doesn't minimize his contribution to television comedy.

Jon Stewart's "TDS" not only poked fun at the news and newsmakers, it illuminated the injustices, ridiculousness and shamelessness bubbling just below the surface of them both.

Stewart pulled no punches, but at least those he tattooed had it coming.