Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Ghosts of Peppers Past [Re-Post]

[This piece was originally posted on The Cinema 4 Pylon on October 11, 2015. It is included here for the sake of completion.]

The news is full of stories about the annual obsession with pumpkin spice enemas and whatnot, and it is fully understandable given the season. The stores have gone crazy with pumpkin-flavored everything, and I would be wrong were I to tell you I did not approve on some level. My favorite pie is pumpkin, I love to chew on pumpkin seeds, and I will drink a pumpkin shake on the rare occasion I deign to down a milk-based product through a straw.

Speaking of things gastronomic, I grew ever more excited about Halloween this year once I heard that ghost pepper items were beginning to hit stores and menus around America. I fell in love with the evil little things while still slaving at my old gig, where the very nice lady who served as the director of our one truly noble program -- providing soccer-playing opportunities for the handicapped -- would bring my office partner and I a steady supply of her home-grown ghost peppers and red scorpion peppers. 

I learned quickly when cooking with these peppers that it was best to wear rubber gloves when cutting into them, and if you are not wise enough to cover your eyes with safety goggles, at least cut the peppers with your arms extended from your body and face as far as you can. And I am not one of these YouTube attention hounds that will just eat the entire pepper on a dare. I preferred to figure out what amount for each pepper would give me that desirable spice burn, but not flame my tongue (and subsequently my internal organs) out forever.

While watching a show on the Food Network last Sunday (starring that douchebag chef I don't really like, though I do enjoy his competitive cooking show he hosts), one of the ingredients that absolutely had to be used by the contestant chefs was a bag of ghost pepper-flavored tortilla chips. While the cooking was going on for that round, the judges tore into a bag and test-tasted the chips themselves, behaving as if the bombing of Hiroshima was being reenacted live on television. Of course, I was assuming the judges and host were playing it up a bit, and when a couple of the four dishes set before them turned out to be not quite as spicy as they would have preferred (a couple of chefs were too successfully -- and thus, failures -- in "turning down the heat"), I figured that the chips were probably pretty spicy, but not unmanageably so.

Jump to the next day when Jen is out shopping with her mom, and she texts me from Trader Joe's that she found a treat for me. I flashed back to the experience on TV the night before, and asked "Is it spicy?" and she responded "Could be..." Since Trader Joe's mostly carries items with their own branding, I figured chances were slim that they were the chips I saw on the cooking competition show. And when she arrived home, sure enough, they were Trader Joe's Ghost Pepper Potato Chips instead. Still, I erupted with joy at the thought of tasting anything with ghost peppers added to it! Best of all, they were gluten-free, which for me is not a trendy tag or a mere option; it is the allergy-tested and doctor-ordered manner in which I have to live in order to breath comfortably day to day.

The "ghostly" poem on the back of
Trader Joe's Ghost Pepper Potato Chips.
There is no grace period between my taste buds and a spicy snack. There is no downtime where I study the chip, consider its texture and shape, and muse on the expanse of flavors that could be discovered. And my apologies to Master Yoda, there is no "DO NOT"... there is only "TRY the chip" and "DO deal with the consequences". And I tried. And I did. The dealing would come later (I assumed). I tore that bag open the second it was in my hands, and popped a rather large potato chip into my mouth.

And... I was slightly disappointed. The chips were spicy, but lightly so, as if Trader Joe's (or whoever they had packaging their food) were truly afraid to offend anyone's sensibilities (or send someone to the hospital). So, lacking that barrage of heat after a single chip, I went for what you often have to do with spicy snacks: slowly build a fire and don't let it go out. I ate ten chips one after the other, and got a pretty decent buzz going (not a buzz like in pot, but spice hounds will understand) in the back of the tongue. That made me happier, but it died down quickly. Another ten chips reestablished the buzz, but not wanting to ruin dinner, I quit knowing it probably wouldn't get much hotter than it had. Visiting the bag later that evening and the next day confirmed my conclusions.

The chips are tasty and the packaging is attractive (I like the ghostly pepper next to the poem on the back of the bag) [see picture], but I was getting more out of the chips from the overall flavor than from any accumulation of ghost pepper powder. I would easily buy them again just as a very good potato chip, but for a regular spicy snack, I would much rather dip into another bag of Tim's JalapeƱo or Cajun Potato Chips (though, according to their own website, Tim's is no longer producing that second wonderful flavor). At least with those two styles, the heat stays with you for a while and allows you to build on it if desired.

These chips want to kill your mama...
But, what if you want heat that kicks your ass before you even bite the chip? I wouldn't think  it was really a desirable thing except for heat extremists, but I suppose they must be out there somewhere. Also out there somewhere were the chips I saw on the cooking show, and I wanted to find them. I can't let those weenie judges get to try the chips but not me! I checked for the brand on the internet -- Paqui Tortilla Chips. The store on their website has nothing for sale, and their lousy excuse is that they are too busy making more chips for everyone to enjoy! So, you can't hire someone to set up E-Commerce on your site to sell your product? At least give me some links to locations that sell your chips. Next up was Amazon, which had other ghost pepper related items, but no Paqui chips at all. Yes, I could get other chips to try, but I wanted to find these particular ones.

And so I decided to stake out the local supermarkets next and try to track them down. Vons was a no go... hardly a spicy chip at all outside of Doritos Habanero and Spicy Nacho. Been there, done that. The next day, I took advantage of a ride up to the other grocery store down the street -- Ralphs -- and was able to locate Paqui Tortilla Chips right away, albeit a little bit hidden on the shelf behind a floor display. Unfortunately, they only had their verde-flavored and habanero-flavored chips. Definitely wanted to try both, but I really wanted the ghost pepper ones. All appeared lost until I made the last minute decision to run down to the produce area to grab some tomatoes for tacos later that night. On the way back to the cart that Sande was pushing around the store, I ran into a floor display at the end of a random aisle (one that no food in it whatsoever) that was filled with Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper Tortilla Chips!! Victory at last!

Challenge accepted!!
I didn't hesitate to grab a bag and fought hard to not try one until we got back home. Luckily, we are only a mile away, so it didn't take long. Grocery bags out of the car and into the house. Chip bag out of the grocery bag. A mad dash to my office. Pictures taken of the bag, front and back. And then the tear. A barely perceptible atomic cloud could be seen rising from the slit at the top of the bag as it popped open, its small mushroom a warning against those who trespassed without the most diamond-hard of constitutions.

Let's flash back to that bit I said about heat kicking your ass before you even bite the chip. This is that chip. There is so much peppery dust on each chip in the bag that if you are not careful, and you bring in even the slightest bit as you prepare to bite into it, you will begin coughing without tasting the actual chip. And this is what happened. Since I have been going through a lot of allergy issues the last few years, and coughing has been the subject of much unendurable pain to me, this was not a happy thing to occur. I try so hard to not begin coughing at all, since it almost always leads to even more coughing, and sometimes it can go on for hours or days. I have it under control with asthma medications and some other major changes to my diet and exercise plan recently (yes, I actually do have a plan finally). So I didn't enjoy it when the first chip started me off on a fit right away.

I settled down and took a proper bite. It should have been a much smaller one. The chips are the usual large tortilla chip size, but every bit seems to be fully coated with the pepper mix, so you cannot avoid the heat at all. And it is pure, Hades-inspired heat. The first chip was so hot that I couldn't have another one for over ten minutes. Even with the cough warning, I was truly unprepared for it. I even nearly fell into the novice trap of reaching for a water, though I knew full well it would only worsen the problem. Because I am a pepper moron, I wouldn't try to drown it anyway even if I had something at hand that could do so, like milk (which I hate), and I let the forest fire in my mouth and throat gradually die down and mostly dissipate.

Then I did what only a true slave to the spice can do (I feel like I am in a twisted version of Dune): grab another chip and eat it. I was soon able to have a few in a row, with the burn down times a little less each time. As I write this (Saturday), it is now the exact amount of time that it took me finish off the bag of Trader Joe's chips, and I still have over a half bag of the Paqui left. In fact, after that initial burst of activity, I only had a few more later that night, and just three chips today. The problem for me is that the Paqui brand are tortilla chips, and not potato chips. If the more insane amount of pepper dust were on potato chips, I would still probably finish them a lot faster, because my true comfort snack love is potato chips. I prefer tortilla chips when they accompany other foods, like salsas and bean dips, or in nachos, or when I add them to tacos to make "Nacos" (as on Kim Possible). For me, having other tastes and textures with the chip itself helps to break up the overall blandness of the tortilla chip. I could see crumbling these chips into a taco salad to add a devilish burst of flavor and spiciness, and then again, it would be a case of combining a tortilla chip with other items. Overall, though the spice level is exactly what I was hoping for and more -- they are the hottest snacks I have every tasted -- there is not much taste-wise beyond the burn except for the taste of a pretty good tortilla chip.

Where the Paqui chips definitely prevail is in the packaging. While their website failed to help me at all except tell me about their flavors, the bag itself is delightful. As you can see from the picture above, the words "Homemade Horror" appear right on the front of the bag, and if there was ever a more appropriate connection between the text on a bag and the Satanic contents within, I haven't discovered it. Once again, there is also a ghostly looking pepper on the packaging, and definitely not as intentionally cute as the one of the Trader Joe's bag. Best of all is the text on the back, where a warning declares "The contents of this bag are extremely frightening. Paqui is not responsible for any injuries that may result from ingesting this delicious terror." The list of "Haunted Ghost" ingredients is prefaced with "MADE WITH HORROR AND", and then heads into the unimportant, real world stuff. Fun packaging that not only sells the product but gives you ample reasons to shy away if you are not built for this speed.

On the whole, I wish the heat from the Paqui chips were on the potato chips from Trader Joe's. I would buy the Trader Joe's chips as is for a regular, delicious potato snack in my home (if I weren't actively trying to excise salty snacks from my diet), but am disappointed in the heat profile. I think I might try the habanero tortilla chips from Paqui next for a comparison. And if I wanted to be evil at a party, I would definitely sneak some Paqui Haunted Ghost Pepper tortilla chips into the bowl on the refreshment table. I would love to see the faces on the unsuspecting partygoers as their abilities to taste normal and to possibly maintain regularity get destroyed for the remainder of the evening.

You probably shouldn't even invite me in...

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