Friday, 1 December, 2006

The Fireclown

Posted in Culinaria, Humor, The Good Life at 2:14 pm by glpease

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?”

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10 Comments »

  1. Nick Psaki said,

    Greg,

    Yeah, I used to exhibit similar digestive hubris. There was not a Buffalo wing that I couldn;t eat. My tongue and my stomach protested that they were, in fact, mere flesh on my first bite of a habanero. It was then I decided, finally, that spices are accents to a dish, not the dish itself. Thankfully, I still have a sense of taste. The only other experience so painful I have ever had was a too-rapidly smoked bowl of McClelland 2015. My tongue swelled up for three days. Couldn’t drink anything but water, and nothing had any flavor at all for the period.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Nick

  2. Matt Robillard said,

    I loved the story…..I used to live in Orlando Fl, and there is a Wing place called Papa B’s which sports some of the best wings ever eaten. (not talking Hooters or other benial places)- Their Hot wings actually had flavor. But they did have another sauce called Nuclear.
    The person to actually eat an order of nuclear got them free. It also bears noting that to inspire their patrons, Beer was also free with wing orders.
    My friend and I accompanied by our two respective ladies went for dinner one night, and the ladies challenged us gents to eat 25 of these offensively hot monstrosities.
    I quit after two. My friend Jim got about 10 down and excused himself to go to the restroom.
    So the three of us chated and enjoyed another beer when we realized our missing comrade was still AWOL. The ladies, becoming worried asked me to go find him.
    I made my way to the restroom, and upon opening the door found Jim, strandling the sink with his pants undone- at first I was unsure of what I was seeing….and embarassed made to leave when he saw me in the mirror- turning, with tears in his eyes he asked me to watch the door and not to let anyone in. It seems while his hygenie may had extended to washing after urinating, it did not extend to washing his hands BEFORE handling his buisness. The pepper sauce was not unlike putting Bengay in a guys jock strap and he was furiously pumping soap from the dispenser and washing himself over and over while dancing in front of the mirror.
    For my part, Its hard to stand in front of a bathroom door, laughing to the point of crying, tryng to hold back a stream of guys in a sports bar who have been drinking free beer while your friend repeatedly pumps pink soap on his privates…..There was only one way to keep them from draging me from the door….
    When he finally emerged to cheers from the entire bar, he did find his tab had been paid- and the night did end a bit early… But still a great time….

    Cheers!
    Matt

  3. Topdogue said,

    Having learned my lesson about “authentic” spice levels at an East Indian Restaurant in the company of a very considerate person, i do not make grandeose claims for my ability to consume food that would be better used in chemical warfare. That said, i would like to go to this place and have the medium spicy vindaloo. RD

  4. Greg,
    I have been reading your stuff for quite some time, as you and I have many things in common ( too many in fact ) and I have not laughed this hard in a long time. I cried! I read it to my wife, Joanna, and we both doubled over. This was a real treat. Thank you so much for sharing.

  5. patric dean said,

    I love this tale of fire!

    I go to a local thai place where the same type of thing happens.

    A man, it always seems to be a man, wants to show his bravado.
    Will speak to the Thais like they do not speak english, will order a Keo’s evil jungle curry. “now make sure this is hot!” “How hot sir?” “Hot like you would eat at home, ispent some time in ( random place ) and ate lots of hot food.”

    The dish comes out and the sever snickes. The man will take a bit and not noticce the extra hot thai chilies creeping up. 2-3 bites later they push the dish away and gulp down the beer or wine at thier side.

    Later the untouched dish is noticed by the chief who always asks if it was not hot enough.

  6. cdstuart said,

    Greg,

    While this fellow was obviously a buffoon, this story does raise an issue that’s given me trouble in my culinary explorations.

    I love hot food. When I go into a Thai or Indian restaurant, I want a curry that will have me sweating a little by the time I’m finished with it. I want a heat that will gradually build until, when I take that last bite, my mouth is pretty much on fire. I’m well aware that there are levels of heat that will ruin a good dish, but for me, that bar is set fairly high. It’s just a matter of how I like my food.

    At many restaurants in my area, when I say that I want my curry very hot, the waitstaff and/or kitchen assume that I don’t really mean it, or that I don’t know what ‘very hot’ means. They serve me a dish that can barely be called ‘medium.’ This annoys me to no end.

    It’s particularly annoying when the heat of the dish varies by which server you happen to get. This used to happen at a place that has become my favorite local Thai restaurant. The first time I went there, I ordered a Masaman curry, very hot plus. The curry I received was delightful — it had incredible flavor and plenty of heat. It was just what I wanted. The next two times I ate there, I ordered exactly the same thing, and was served a disappointing, lightly-spiced version of the dish I was expecting. The fourth time, I was served by the same waitress who’d served me on my first visit, and I got exactly what I was looking for. Eventually I had to talk to the manager and explain that although I thought the quality of the food at the restaurant was the best in town, I was going to stop eating there unless they started giving me what I wanted consistently. He sheepishly explained that when ‘people like me’ (I believe that meant ‘white Americans’) order their food hot, many of the waitstaff assume that they really want something mildly spicy. I later spoke with the waitress who’d got it right; turns out that she too is a hot food nut and figured it was better to risk teaching some poor fool a lesson than to disappoint someone by failing to give them what they really ordered.

    Things like this happen often enough that I’m surprised when I find a restaurant where it isn’t a problem. It does happen — I recently found an Indian restaurant a few miles from my house that serves a mean lamb vindaloo. The server always asks, ‘are you sure? ‘Very hot’ really is very hot here.’ All I have to do is say ‘yes, that’s how I want it,’ and that’s how they make it. But at most restaurants in my area, if you say ‘hot’ your server will tell the kitchen ‘medium.’

    Now, I would never make the kind of demeaning fuss that your acquaintance made. But I have been known, after several disappointing experiences, to insist emphatically that yes, I really do want that dish served very, very, very hot. Sometimes it’s just necessary.

    I should add that this happens much less frequently outside the area I live in. I’ve been to some great Thai restaurants in Georgia and various places in New England, and been consistently served good, hot curries. Maybe it’s just something about Michigan.

    –Charles

  7. KEN KAPLAN said,

    i wish i had found this site earlier

  8. George Dibos said,

    Ken —

    Spread the word. 🙂

  9. Hi Greg,

    This is just a fabulous post. I just found your blog and I’m enjoying it very much.

    You’re a terrific writer!

  10. Jim Wood said,

    Love these stories.
    Once upon a time (Thats much better than “This is no s..t”, I was an advisor to the Royal Thai Army and one of my duties was to periodically visit each of the border sites along the Burma/Laos/Cambodia borders. Well, the Thais are nothing if not hospitable. Each visit to each site was the signal for a Thai dinner for the big American advisor. Without going into boring detail, I ate some of the hottest food I’ve ever tasted in my life. One incident stands out though from all the rest. As my jeep was pulling up to one of the sites I saw a rather large King Cobra being chased down a path by one of the Thai soldiers. I jumped out of the jeep and shouted, “Did it bite someone?” The little Thai soldier grinned over his shoulder, still in hot pursuit
    ,and replied, “No, for dinner tonight.” Cobra and those little round Thai peppers still comes to mind whenever I enter a Thai resturant.


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