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.