The Last Thing I Loved: Serrano Condiment (and, More Broadly, Hot Sauce)

Tobias Carroll indulges in his love of spicy food and his journey to an expansive palate.

Buried somewhere in the first third of a failed novel I wrote a decade ago is a scene of masochistic eating. The novel itself wasn’t autobiographical, but that scene? That scene resonated more for me than I’d have liked. The novel’s protagonist was a young man who was pushing nearly all of the things he loved to extremes out of a severe sense of self-loathing. And so, when taking in live music, he’d stand too close to the speakers; when ordering food, he’d opt for the spiciest item possible. It wasn’t the best way to live but one that seemed appropriate for the character, for the tone I was trying to get right.

It’s also indicative of where my eating habits were at the time that I was writing it, though they were worse for my protagonist than they were for me. Even as he dined on food that would only bring tears to his eyes and endless pain to his stomach, I was learning the delights of hot sauce in many other ways.

Here is where I should qualify some things. I did not grow up eating spicy food. My father’s side of the family hails from Austria and Poland or, I suppose, the ghost of the Austro-Hungarian Empire; my mother’s hearkens back to Ireland and Germany and possibly Wales, depending on whom you ask. None of these are regions particularly known for pushing the outer limits of the Scoville Scale when it comes to their traditional methods of cooking. My parents, to this day, abhor anything with cayenne; a small batch of Christmas cookies that I made years before was politely refused due to a slight hint of heat in them.

And yet here I am, walking to the local hot sauce store on the regular to purchase something made with ghost peppers, and waxing ecstatic about burning the hell out of my mouth in literary form. Something either went horribly wrong or went horribly right many years ago.

I can chalk some of this up to becoming dear friends, in my twenties, with people who hail from the American Southwest and, thus, have a much higher level of experience with spicy food. There’s a possibly apocryphal story involving me in the early 2000s, in which I consumed some delicious green chile stew made by a friend for the first time. I consumed literally all of the dairy products in her apartment in an effort to staunch the feeling of burning, and then I eventually ran to a local bodega in order to purchase more dairy products.

I believe I’ve come a long way since that moment. Though, in all honesty, my fondness for heat on my foods is more cute than anything. I realize that my penchant for such flavors and such spices is, perhaps, impressive based on the point from where I started, but it can’t hold much of a candle to someone with a more experienced palate.

But that’s fine. I enjoy my forays into hot sauce. I went to a hot sauce expo a few years ago and discovered that blackberry makes for a strangely harmonious combination with spicier flavors; I found that Serrano-based hot sauce has a savory quality that lends a nice complexity to, say, scrambled eggs.

Part of coming of age is discovering your own tastes — sometimes metaphorically and sometimes literally. In the case of hot sauce, it’s taken a while for me to get to the point of embracing specific flavors, not just to track down something that was spicy for the sake of being spicy. That same narrative arc could apply to music I listen to, books I read, and places I go.

And while it feels somewhat ridiculous for me to sit here and discuss hot sauce as though I’m anything resembling an expert on the subject, I also take a strange comfort in the fact that I feel comfortable enough to do so. Unlike the frustrated protagonist of that long-ago novel, I can taste something with heat and take pleasure in it. It was a roundabout way getting here, but I’m happy to have arrived.

TOBIAS CARROLL is the managing editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn and the author of the books Reel and Transitory. He writes monthly columns for Words Without Borders and Mystery Tribune.