Burn, Baby

My mother's recipe for chili soup — and yes, when I was growing up in Cleveland, we preferred the redundancy of both "chili" and "soup," thank you very much — calls for ground beef, kidney beans, stewed tomatoes, lots and lots of water, and the barest teaspoon of chili powder.

That's why, I suppose, when aficionados argue over whether the best chili is done Texas style (which does not have beans) or Arizona style (which has), the chili soup of the Upper Midwest is never even mentioned. Gourmands may not agree on the legume issue, but there's at least consensus that a dish calling itself "chili" needs, well, chilies.

Just don't try telling that to my father.

As children, my little sister and I were enthusiastic cooks, and (what with a family of seven needing to be fed every day for decades on end) my mother was only too happy to turn over the kitchen for our experiments. But though we were endlessly proud of the first enchiladas ever served inside la Casa de Fenske, my father was horrified. "Too spicy," he coughed.

Never mind that we'd culled the recipe directly from the Midwestern-friendly pages of the Betty Crocker cookbook, 1976 edition. "You should always cut the amount of chili powder in half," my mother whispered. "You know your father."

Today, my sister and I both live in Arizona. We've come a long way, geographically and culinarily, and we've discovered an entire world far from the hamburger casseroles and chili soups of our youth. And my parents realize this. When they come to visit, the spice level in the food here is never far from Dad's brain.

It's hard to blame him. As nutritionists confirm, the ability to tolerate spicy food is a learned skill. If you grew up in Wisconsin, as he did, you'll probably have a much harder time dealing with spice than a kid born and raised in the land of the chili peppers.

I had a trial by fire myself upon moving to town. Just about every meet-and-greet in Phoenix begins with an order of chips and salsa — and the seemingly mildest salsa would send tears running down my cheeks.

Even Asian restaurants seem to kick up the spice here, knowing their customers can handle it. That's the only possible explanation of how a plate of squid at downtown's Wild Thaiger, ordered "medium" but tasting like hellfire, left me completely deaf for an hour. They had no idea they were dealing with a recent ex-Ohioan.

All of this was terribly embarrassing to me. I've traveled far from the white-bread suburbia of my youth and, by the time I was 30, I thought I'd developed some patina of sophistication. (Please?) But my damn taste buds kept giving me away.

The good news, however, is that Page & Plant were largely correct: In the long run, there's still time to change the road you're on.

Bit by bit, I forced myself to have a bit of spice here, a bit of chili there. Oh, I shed a few tears; my mouth went completely numb more than once. (I learned to gobble down bread instead of instinctively reaching for water — liquid just makes it worse.) But as I felt my tolerance growing, I kept pushing, almost like a runner trying to build to a marathon.

And finally, the hot stuff became my friend.

As it turns out, the result wasn't just good for the brag factor or, for that matter, the not-making-an-ass-of-myself-in-Mexican-restaurants factor. Chili peppers are one of those wonder foods, nutritionally speaking.

The active ingredient in peppers, capsaicin, is used to treat everything from arthritis to obesity. Jeff Hampl, an associate professor in the nutrition program at ASU's College of Nursing and Health Innovation, says those seemingly disparate uses make sense. "When you eat a hot pepper, it's kind of like using Ben Gay on an injury — except it's on your tongue," he says. The numbing effect that infuriates my dad actually has topical medical purposes.

Studies have also shown that hot peppers increase your metabolism and lead to less over-consumption of food.

At first, scientists thought that people were eating less simply because their numb tongue couldn't taste the food. Au contraire. Even after eating food seasoned with a non-spicy pepper, like paprika, people simply don't consume as much. "It appears to be a trick of the nervous system," Hampl says.

And the best thing about peppers is another nervous system "trick," as Hampl says. Capsaicin literally lowers body temperature. Because capsaicin makes your body thinks you're hotter than you are, you produce more sweat — and that cools you down. After living through five Phoenix summers, I can certainly understand the appeal of that.

I explained all this to my father during a recent trip to San Diego. We went to a Mexican restaurant for lunch, and although he was concerned about the spice level, he ordered everything extra-non-spicy. Ultimately, he enjoyed the meal.

"Turns out peppers are great for you," I bragged. "I've sooo increased my tolerance."

"So you're losing the ability to taste food," he retorted.

"I don't think that's the way it works," I said.

He gave me one of his "whatever" looks.

"You're killing your taste buds," he said. "I want to be able to taste my food."

I swear, I can never win an argument with anyone in my family. So rather than fight, I just nodded, smiled, and took another giant scoop of salsa.

For whatever reason, I felt cooler already.

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Sarah Fenske
Contact: Sarah Fenske