Friday, 1 December, 2006
Several years ago – could it be over a decade? – I was eating with some friends at one of the local Indian restaurants that I’d become quite fond of. I’d come to know the people there, and there were often tasty treats available to their friends that were not on the menu. Most of us were willing to put our culinary fates into the hands of our waiter. As there were about half a dozen of us that evening, an excellent feast was promised, and I had little doubt it would be delivered.
One of our party, I’ll call him The Fireclown (with apologies to Michael Moorcock), had to have his own way. He often took great and foolish pride in proclaiming that the chile had not been bred that could best him. (This was long before the development of the Dorset Naga, a fruit I’m sure would have sent even him scurrying to find the nearest tequila-charged fire extinguisher. ) He would brag to anyone who would listen about his superhuman tolerance for hot food. His asbestos lined tongue, it seems, was a living legend in his own mouth, immune to spice that would all but kill any mere mortal.
We’ve all known people like him. In fact, all but the most timid amongst us have probably even been people like him at one time or another, though certainly not to his extreme. It’s part of human nature to want to set ourselves apart from the crowd at times. Still, I’ve known few who could in their wildest explorations of arrogance come close to Fireclown’s relentless braggadocio. In any situation, he would boastfully proclaim superiority in word or deed to those around him.
His company was not completely without merit, though. Often, his antics were entertaining, even bordering on witty, and he did have an interesting perspective on many subjects about which he knew far less than he claimed. (This, of course, is the impetus for the “Clown” syllable of the sobriquet I’ve assigned him for the purpose of this little tale.) Once past his more annoying qualities, his entertainment value could actually be reasonably high.
When it was Fireclown’s turn to order his chosen dish, a lamb vindaloo, if I recall correctly, he took great pains to specify that he wanted it very, VERY hot.
“Yes, sir.” Our waiter’s polite acquiescence apparently was not sufficient to demonstrate that he fully understood; Fireclown had to drive home the point with his usual level of finesse – the subtlety of a pile-driver in top gear.
“You know how hot YOU like it? I want it that hot, and more. As hot as you can make it hot. Got me?”
“Are you sure, sir?”
“Damn hot. Hell fire hot. So hot, it eats through the pan when it’s cooking.” He delivered this with an increasingly annoying, loud, accented speech that some affect when trying to ensure that the little foreign man will understand the English. I despise this habit, and shrunk a bit from embarrassment, but somehow sensed that his behavior just might be repaid in an edible form of incendiary instant karma. This could be good.
“Yes, sir. Very, very hot.” He imitated Fireclown’s affectation accurately.
As he turned, he winked a little wink, and wore the sort of smile Siva might while dancing and destroying universes. We were in for a show. When Fireclown excused himself to make a phone call, I warned the remaining cabal that it might be a smart to steer well clear of his dish when it arrived.
While we waited, delightful aromas emanated from the kitchen, perfuming the air with tempting spice, teasing our senses to great heights of anticipation, and stimulating our appetites well beyond ravenous. Finally, when food was brought to table, steaming and beautiful, a feast of rich and earthy colors for the eye met with clear and vocal appreciation, we were well ready to devour it. The last dish to be placed was Fireclown’s: lamb, simmered in napalm.
We ate, forgetting, for the moment, the potential show expected from Fireclown’s end of the table – he always sat at the end. Everything was exceptional; delicate flavors, enhanced, not overwhelmed, by the piquancy of skillfully and aptly added chiles, and we readily shared the dishes – all except for the one that sat untouched by all but one.
FIreclown served himself, took a bite, and broke an almost instant sweat, first on his nose, then his forehead. His pain was evident. Within what seamed to be seconds, his shirt was saturated in large rings under his arms, then along the button line. A humbler man, or perhaps just a sensible one, would have admitted defeat in that first bite, would have begged for mercy from the waiter, would have stopped eating, accepting that the game was up, that he’d lost the battle. Not Fireclown. He still clung desperately to hold his cards close, apparently unaware of the externally visible evidence of his internal inferno. And, he ate. Bite, by slow, pain-inducing bite. He was going to suffer through it, or die trying.
“Now THAT’S the way a curry should be made,” he gasped, almost unintelligibly, between deep gulps of water. Slowly, he continued, tiny taste after tiny taste, fueling the conflagration that was raging on his carpet bombed tongue. The performance might have inspired Dante to create one additional circle of Hell had he witnessed it. He offered tastes of his dish, politely declined.
Several times, Siva would dance over to check on us. “Everything okay?” He gave Fireclown plenty of opportunities to cry uncle. Pride, the one thing he would not swallow, prevailed.
“Wonderful,” the rest responded. “Excellent!” “Delicious!” “Beautiful flavors!”
Fireclown’s response was less convincing. “Yeah, this is the way it should be,” he wheezed. “This is what I’m talkin’ about.” By this point, he was simmering in a sauce of his own sweat.
Siva grinned. “More water, sir?”