A Love Affair Born of Fire


We always remember the first time, don’t we?

Among other things, I remember my first brush with the fire of chiles. The heat, the flames, the pain, and, well, yes, the ecstasy.

A taco, not on the streets of Tijuana, but rather in a gymnasium in Seattle, changed my life forever. I now date things B.T. or A.T.– Before Taco or After Taco. Epiphanies being what they are, I really think I had one of my first epiphanic experiences that day.

After several meals featuring hot dogs, hamburgers, and lots of Coca Cola (usually verboten), my parents were in the mood for something with a bit more variety. We had just seen the Space Needle. Nearby stood a food emporium, set up in the arena of a basketball court. White cement bleachers edged with green guardrails stretched from floor to ceiling, and below, on the arena floor, a colorful festival of international foods enticed us. Having grown up in San Diego, with its huge Mexican population, my parents beelined it to the taco stand, in hopes of finding the tamales they’d loved as children.

The vendor carried no tamales in his inventory, but he suggested ground-beef tacos instead. Plenty of shredded cheese and lettuce garnished the insides of the cardboardy-hard, fried corn tortillas. My father squirted some wonderful smelling, slightly vinegary red sauce on his taco.

“Tabasco Sauce” read the label on the thin, narrow-necked bottle, red as the fake blood we painted on our faces at Halloween. I decided to try some and grabbed the bottle off the vendor’s cart and started to shake it over my taco.

Dad said, “Be careful, that stuff’s pretty hot,” as I poured more and more of the sauce onto the taco. “Dad …, I know what I’m doing,” I retorted. “I’ll be fine.”

Little did I know!

Salivating, I asked, “How about getting something to drink, too?”

He replied, “We don’t have anything because the taco vendor is out of sodas. You’ll just have to go without. Or drink water.”

“No problem,” I smirked. I didn’t think anything more about the lack of drinks as we meandered around the nearly empty arena, finally settling down on some bleacher seats at the bottom, near the floor.

My stomach growling, I unwrapped my taco and took a hefty bite. Yow! My mouth shriveled and recoiled like a salted snail, my eyes watered without stopping, and my nose did something like what we now might call a break dance. Hot sauce coated my lips and my tongue, and in agony I beat at my lips with a thin napkin that tore right away. In an instant, prickly little bubbles erupted on the inside of my mouth. I spied a drinking fountain at the top of the bleachers and I took off like a Globetrotter playing the Boston Celtics in an exhibition game, taking the steps two or even three at a time in my haste to get to water.

Returning to my seat, I took another bite and the same thing happened. I could do only one thing: I ate that taco sitting down next to the water fountain, rinsing my outraged taste buds in a torrent of ice cold water after every bite. In spite of the pain, I sensed a flavor circus playing in my mouth.

But blisters or not, I was hooked. Foreign, exotic food tasted so much more alive and real than the food I ate every day. I loved it. In spite of the agony.

And so I began to learn to cook after that. Really cook.

I discovered Time-Life’s Foods of the World series not too long after that and I vowed that someday when I had lots of money I would own all of them. In the meantime, I copied the recipes I loved and pasted them into spiral notebooks of various colors.

And that is how cooking and culture became my passions. If my physical body couldn’t afford a trip to a particular country, I traveled there instead via my taste buds.