Stupid Tuesday questions, capsaicin edition

The other night, the Better Half and I ordered some Chinese food.

One of the things that I like about the area where we live is the decent selection of good carry-out.  While none of the local offerings are nearly as good as what I could get back in New York City, I am not such a fool as to expect such things.  Frankly, the bounty of really good, (relatively) cheap food of all kinds delivered to your door is one of the things that I miss most about living there.  Considering how far removed we live from any particularly populous ethnic neighborhoods, I’m pleased with the quality and variety of what we can get now.

But I laugh in the face of the little chili pepper symbol the local Chinese place has in its menu.  It is meant to denote “spicy dish.”  But the spiciness in question is clearly keyed to… let’s say a “domesticated” sense of what is meant by “spicy.”  Only people who never eat anything hot would think those dishes require any kind of warning.  (The Indian place we order from has a more respectable sense of heat.  When they ask “mild, medium or hot” and you choose the latter, you get some real heat there, though it doesn’t blast your face off.)

I will admit to a certain cockiness when it comes to those little spice icons in menus.  I like to think that I can eat like the [insert ethnicity here] people can, that I am an Authentic Food Appreciator.  No namby-pamby, watered-down, white bread spicy food for me.  No!  When I want something spicy, I want it spicy, dammit!

Except every so often I go to one of those restaurants where they haven’t bothered to recalibrate the heat for Western tastes.  Maybe the chef is newly arrived from Bangkok.  Maybe they’re just used to catering to real members of the [insert ethnic group here] community and can’t be bothered to adjust for unfamiliar tastes.  Whatever.  And in I’ll stroll and I’ll see the little chili symbol and I’ll laugh to myself and order the item.  Sometimes the waiters warn me, and I wave their concerns away with a nonchalant smile.  And then I take a bite and it blows my face off.  But because I would rather polish off a Liquid Plumr margarita than admit to a random stranger that I was wrong and lose (what then remains of my) face, I will smile weakly and choke the entire thing down, knowing the whole time that I will pay once again in a day or two.

So that’s this week’s Question — how does life occasionally remind you to be humble?  How is your pride kept in check by the world?  When have you had to choke down a helping of your own hubris?  (I have a rather longer story about my trip to the Taj Mahal and how I Learned an Important Lesson about Knowing One’s Limits, but it’s best told over drinks when everyone has plenty of time.)

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. Losing an appeal to a self-represented non-lawyer was humbling enough.

    So is burning food when I undertake to cook.

  2. I like spicy food a lot too too, and most of the time that chili icon is nothing but a flashing neon attractor, but there is one local Indian restaurant where if you ask for “spicy/hot” they will reply, “Do you want American, or Indian, hot?”

    You need to tell them, “American”.

    Because if you say, “Indian”, I am convinced they just take that as license to fish with you, there is no way that something that spicy is served regularly anywhere. (That said, I ate some just stupidly-spicy Indian food in DC that was also the best I ever had; perfect balance of heat and flavor. Painful, yet I could not stop eating.)

    I also ate some wings at a place once where they make you sign a release form and all that when you order, just caveat after warning after disclaimer.

    I thought it was all hype.

    I was wrong.

    I had to ask for a glass of milk to wash them down, and due to a traffic jam on the bridge, I almost did not make it home before they made their exit, “Alien”-blood-style, from my “lower decks”.

    • Indian food, served homestyle style, comes with a ton of rice, and yogurt, and other things so that the burst of heat isn’t the only thing you’re eating.

  3. At a wine tasting party a few years back, I cut my thumb while opening a bottle of wine. After going to the sink and requesting a bandage, I fainted (fortunately the hostess caught me on the way down).
    that pretty much destroyed my fantasies of fending off a crew of knife-wielding terrorists, barehanded, while shirtless.

  4. Every time I tackle a carpentry project. The old saying, “Measure twice, cut once,” does not apply to me. For me it is, “Measure twice, cut once, measure two more times, cut once, measure again, cut once – throw boards across the garage and scream in frustration.”

  5. Why on God’s green Earth would you ever want to keep your pride in check? One does not get to be 29 and yet to experience self-doubt by engaging in such silliness!

  6. When I taught (college classes as an adjunct and TA), those teaching sessions were recurring lessons in humility.

    As for spicy food… fiancee and I went to an Indian restaurant about two or three months ago, and I ordered the Lamb Vindaloo, and was noticeably being challenged by the spiciness. The nice waiter came along and gave me a free serving of yogurt. A humbling experience, but god(dess) bless that waiter!

    • I’ll add that writing a dissertation (and graduate school in general) has been a very humbling process. I’m learning (and relearning) that I’m not as smart as I thought I was.

  7. In my neck of the woods, you can order Chinese blood custard and mapo tofu from our local chinese takeout joint…
    They’re… sichuan. Their kung pao chicken is served with szechuan peppercorns, which make ordinary tap water taste like you added lemon to it… (my tap water, it tastes sparkly!)
    Awesome chefs.

  8. 1. I used to work in the kitchen of our local Indian restaurant. What we routinely ran into were people who wanted food “hot” but meant “medium.” Even for customers we suspected of wanting hotter food, you always had to earn it by eating the first dish and proving you weren’t about to send food back that was “too hot.”

    2. That said, there were a certain group of people who routinely ate food hot enough to melt your face off. I can proudly say that I was a member of that group. The trick, I think, was having the discipline necessary to never drink any water while working your way, slowly and methodically, through the dish.

    3. As for being humbled, it’s going to play basketball with 20-year-olds. I can out think them, but even at 32, I’m losing quickness and mobility and my game is quickly devolving.

      • No. I’ve had access to it, and somewhere, I have a tiny jar of ground ghost pepper, but I don’t eat as much hot food as I once did. I find that it takes some gradual step up to get to a point where I might possibly enjoy it.

        Meanwhile, I will tell you that my threshold for enjoying hot food was when it made me laugh. In other words, I literally ate food hot enough to make me high. That used to be the marker of the hot sauce we’d make for the family lunches at the Indian restaurant before the place was open for customers; if I was giggling, it was hot enough.

        • My coffee causes taste hallucinations. (It’s that chemically complex. the mind just goes. huh: and then spins the wheel to decide what it tastes like).

        • the phaal challenge at brick lane curry house on east 6th in manhattan was like that. for a good two or three hours afterwards i felt pretty dang high. it was hot, but it was also heavy on the vinegar, which in some ways was harder to deal with.

          you get a free beer if you finish it, but unfortunately indian lagers are just awful. i think the phaal was easier to get through.

          • Huh, I have had a couple Indian lagers that I thought were OK…light, but that’s good with spicy food. I agree they would never be my first choice, but they seem to go well enough with the food.

      • I’ve had hotter. Regretted it, but … eh. Getting the Naga Viper confused with the habanero was my first mistake.

    • If I ask for food hot, or order something like vindaloo, I would never send it back for being too hot, unless there was really something wrong with it or it was inedible. If I act too big for my britches, I feel it my responsibility to deal with the aftermath.

      • That’s my feeling too. But there are some people who expect whatever is in their head, and of course, medium food can always be made hotter, but there’s no real way to bring the heat back down without substantively changing the dish after it has been prepared.

        That said, the difference between those people who eat truly hot food and people who want American hot is very, very significant. Restaurants will mostly try to play it safe until they’re sure the customer isn’t going to be a butthead about it.

      • Yeah, this. You never send food back if it came as ordered. You may need to order additional food to cool it (yogurt or whatever) or to eat instead, but it ain’t their fault if you overstepped your bounds.

        • The only time I’ll go slack on this is when people assume that there exists some consistency from restaurant to restaurant. What’s “hot” here might be “medium” there or whatever. What’s to be done? So I do tend to have some kindness for those people who accidentally go up and over. What I don’t like is when cocky customers get this “Oh, I can handle the real deal!” without knowing what they’re talking about and then expect the restaurant to make amends. It’s one thing to make a mistake; it’s another to be a dickhead about it.

          All of that said, when are we getting together to eat hot food?

          • *snort* I told some indian coworkers of mine about this place in the East end. They came back satisfied, saying, “I never knew Chinese could be spicy!” and “They do spicy like we do spicy!”

          • All of that said, when are we getting together to eat hot food?

            Count me in! I’d love the company and the chance to demonstrate how ridiculously I will torture myself in the service of impressing others.

          • For me, most mildly hot food doesn’t do much for me. I almost ALWAYS need to add a bit of heat to dishes that don’t have their own (presuming it is a dish that benefits from heat, which is nearly all of them). But I also have a reasonable ceiling, above which I know I’m just being cocky and likely detracting from my enjoyment of the meal.

            I find that heat/hot sauces suffer from some of the same problems of IPAs right now, wherein there exists a presumption that more is better. No. No. Hot sauce or other heat additives should add flavor and make the dish taste better, not just hotter. It should be a joy to eat, not torture that makes you regret ever having ordered it. Nor should an IPA simply be as bitter as possible for bitter’s sake. It should taste good. You can make a very hoppy, bitter IPA that is delicious; you can also make one that tastes like crap. Don’t do the latter because it makes you feel tougher or more legit.

            But, yea, let’s get together for hot food!

          • Russell,

            I had hot Indian food in Portland a few years ago. Perhaps we could meet there next summer?

        • *nods* NEVER send food back.
          It is honorary custom of the sacred restaurant to spit in uncultured people’s food, for having the temerity to send food back.

          Order more, say, “I really can’t eat this”… but do NOT send food back. Is about the only way I’ll refuse to eat with someone… if they send food back.

      • I would never in a million years send food back that was as hot as advertised but too hot for me. If I ordered it, I eat it as is. Period.

        (My favorite Korean place in New York is the place called Hangawi. [The hit the zen schtick a little hard, but the food is superlative.] On their beverage list was some traditional Korean drink, the precise nature of which I cannot recall now. And I, smooth smoothie that I am, decided to have an Authentic Korean Beverage Experience and ordered it. The very nice waitress went out of her way to tell me that it is very bitter, and people who have never had it before never like it. I smiled politely and ordered it anyway.

        It was awful. Every sip was like Beelzebub had relieved himself onto my palate. But I drank the damn thing, because I was the fool who ordered it so I was the fool who would finish it.)

        • LOL.
          At the end of such torture, you ought to have informed the waitress that she continued to be correct. 😉

        • like Beelzebub had relieved himself onto my palate.

          This may be an inappropriate story, but this particular turn of phrase makes me think of another similar one.

          (All names omitted to protect the not-so-innocent. Also, this all took place a long time ago, and Glyph himself, at least in this particular instance, was wholly innocent of any illegal behavior whatsoever).

          So, the time/place that I went to college was somewhat known at the time as a US nexus of electronic music, with a scene of large underground/impromptu warehouse or rural parties (“raves”, still sort of a new thing in the US) with notoriously-open drug indulgence. I myself was never really deeply into the scene, although I liked some of the music, and attended some smaller house parties on its periphery, and once went to a small unsanctioned outdoor party under a crane on a canal in the industrial section of Frankfurt.

          Anyway, I had a friend who was really very very deeply into the scene for a few years, but had mostly left it behind by the time of this story.

          One night, she and I were driving back from a bar downtown, and saw on the side of the road an ex-roommate of hers who was still very much in that rave/party scene, stumbling in the general direction of his home from just such an aforementioned party. We stopped and picked him up to give him a ride safely home, and he was extremely grateful.

          On the way to his house, he told us that recently, over the course of a single night’s partying, he had ingested a truly heroic amount of (illegal chemical x).

          Dumbfounded, because this amount was unprecedentedly-excessive even by his own and the scene’s bacchanalian standards, we asked how such an experience had felt.

          He looked thoughtful (well, as thoughtful as one can be when one is blasted out of one’s mind) for a moment; then said, quote, “Well…while you’re up, it feels really, really, really good….But when you come down, it feels like you’ve had the red-hot c**k of Satan in your a** all night.”

          Needless to say, to this day, my friend and I still use the unforgettable phrase “the red-hot c**k of Satan” at every available opportunity.

          And I hope that dude got his life straightened out. Good guy, but pretty out-there.

    • I recall going to an Indian restaurant when I was maybe six or eight, and asking for my food hot (my parents probably asked for medium, but also indicated to the doubtful waitress that I really did know what I meant). Man, I was unhappy when she changed my order to mild…

    • It’s hard to be humble, when you’re as great as we are.

      I thought I got humbled once, but then I realized that since it was Chuck Norris who did the humbling, that was something to be proud of.

    • *snort* After dealing with my flu for 4 days, it is good to see my husband still has his sense of humor.

    • In truth, I am, of course, often humbled. I have had students who were clearly superior to me in native intelligence, and who–if they chose to follow my path–would be far better scholars than me. My daughters can all outswim me without exerting themselves strenuously. My friends (and family) nearly all find my wife more likeable than me. And like Mike Dwyer, I find cutting a board accurately a hellishly difficult proposition (but I love doing carpentry work). There’s more; there’s plenty more. I just make the jokes to avoid having to face up to just how much humbles me.

  9. Most recently? A gentleman I spent a great deal of time with back in my hometown started calling me a few months ago. He was flirting hard core, even I could tell and I usually don’t see those things for what they aren’t. He started calling me beautiful, talking about visiting each other, he got to the point where he was calling me every other day. Since I only wanted to be friends I was not able to take every single phone call. This happened over the course of six weeks when he eventually called to gush all about his new girlfriend. I was so relieved. But then I was a little embarrassed I was misinterpreting what his intentions were. Thank goodness I hadn’t brought it up to him yet.

    • It doesn’t sound to me like you were misinterpreting, just that you weren’t the only woman he was after at the time.

  10. Whenever I am feeling a lot of stress, anxiety, or strum und drang over a “first world problem”, the universe seems to have a way of showing me that there are people whose problems are much more serious.

    Usually this comes from reading articles on the Internet. Perhaps I am feeling a bit burned from having another woman tell me that she thinks I am sweet but she did not feel chemistry. Then I will read about someone who spent years in prison for a crime they did not commit. Or I will read gawker’s weekly series of testimonials from the long-term unemployed who are driven to despair and almost suicidal depression.

    That’s humbling.There are many people with problems much greater than mine.

  11. Confident, cocky, lazy, dead. Those were the words of my old platoon sergeant. I’ve gone from humbling to humbling. In the course of what I do, I’ve simply learned to start with this statement “You know, I don’t really know anything about this situation. You’re going to have to teach me everything before I understand anything. Furthermore, everyone has their own way of doing things. So let’s just start at the beginning, that way there’s no confusion.”

    For a while, I specialised to failed projects. Without exception, the previous teams had made rash assumptions about what was really needed, failed to adequately analyse the existing process, annoyed those who did know the process, failed to solve for scope and magnitude of project and solved for problems nobody had.

    I’m all done with burning the midnight oil keeping rash promises. Every time I feel a surge of confidence coming on, I go outside and enjoy it, then come back to my senses. If ordinary people don’t understand what I’m doing, that’s the sovereign signal I’m doing it wrong.

    It’s humbling to watch my girlfriend become a coder. She’s learned more in a year than it took me to learn in ten. She’s now better at some aspects of coding than I am. Mastery of a given technology doesn’t make anyone a better person. Sure, time has taught me plenty but going to people half my age to ask for technical advice, well, it could be a bit humbling if I wasn’t cognisant of the fact that it’s not about me but the project.

  12. Living with Jaybird is a constantly humbling experience. Mostly because he has an encyclopedic memory for every dumb (and hilarious) thing I have done over the last 14 years, and delights in reminiscing about them.

    • I’m constantly humbled by how she still puts up with me with class and dignity even after all these years. (Plus there’s the whole she’s the smarter one, better looking one, and kinder one thing going on.)

      But it’s not like I’m digging up TRULY EXCRUCIATING stories. It’s just the funny ones!

      Like, we were driving and bickering the way I’m sure you can imagine that we’d drive and bicker. It was a “Moonlighting variant.”

      M: “Yes it is.”
      J: “No it isn’t.”
      M: “Yes it is.”
      J: “No it isn’t.”
      (roadkill on the road)
      M: “Don’t hit the bird.”
      J: “It’s not a bird, it’s a squirrel.”
      M: “It’s a bird.”
      J: “It’s a squirrel.”
      (passes roadkill without hitting it)
      M: “It was a bird.”
      J: “It was a squirrel.”
      J: “THAT’S IT!”
      (Turns car around. Pulls over to the curb. Points at roadkill. “THAT IS A SQUIRREL.” “FINE!”)

      Silence in car for a while.

      Drive past a couple of squirrels dancing around a tree.

      J: “Look. Yellow warblers.”

      (And, of course, they remain yellow warblers to this day.)

      • Yep. No worries about forgetting to be humbled around here. (Though Jay was kind enough to leave out the part where I said, “I HAVE A BIOLOGY DEGREE.”)

        • Did he really turn the car around to examine road kill?


          My sweetie and I had been at Ft. Williams (a park on the ME coast, famous for its lighthouse) early one morning. Saw a fox scratching and stretching, watched it for a good bit. Spent the day in Portland, doing errands and fun stuff. Then went back to the park with a some food to munch on as we watched the sun set. Driving down the hill to leave, we saw the same fox (I presume,) walking back up the hill toward where we’d seen him that morning. Only we saw two very different things. I saw a fox with a dead cat, gray long-hair, not quite full grown, hanging from it’s mouth. He saw a proud fox, no kill at all. And he got really distressed with me for suggesting the fox had someone’s pet hanging from its mouth.

          • My husband saw “The Most Interesting Man in the World”. I saw nobody special.
            (In all fairness, the “lack of TV” bit helps in understanding this one).

  13. You don’t have to ask anyone who programs for a living. The computer’s stupid insistence on doing exactly what it was told, rather than the far more sensible thing you meant to tell it, is a constant source of humility.

    • And being a developer who manages other developers introduces new hazards. Seared into my memory is the time I came across an egregiously bad bit of code, lectured the fellow who had been working on that object about being more careful and actually testing his damn changes, and then received an email from him fifteen minutes later saying that as he was going through source control to see when he had done this, he saw that my name was on that particular revision.

  14. At the risk of sounding like an overly gushing applause line, having my stuff posted next to Russell’s is pretty humbling.

    But here’s a story my best friend likes retelling over an over:

    Once back when I was single, I had a huge crush on a young woman named Lisa. So huge was my crush that I could not get up the nerve to ask her out. One day we were walking in the snazzy, hipster-gentrified, industrial area of Portland, when we saw Lisa walking toward us on the other side of the street. He told me to go talk to her, but I decided to play it cool and walk by, notice her at the least minute, give her a “oh, hey” uninterested head nod and go back to talking with my friend. Like, I actually said to my friend out loud that this was what I was going to do.

    He just shook his head.

    The side of the street we were on was originally a series of loading docks, so the sidewalk is about five feet above the street. I was paying so much attention to not looking at Lisa, and walking in a way that I was sure was nonchalant, that I wasn’t really paying attention to where I was going. When she saw me she called out, “Hi, Tod!” I glance up, gave the nod, and went back to my fake conversation with my friend – real cool-like. Except he wasn’t there. In my attempt to concentrate on looking nonchalant I had veered of to the left a bit, and as soon as I noticed he wasn’t next to me I stepped off the embankment, falling five feet as I gave off a high pitched scream of surprise and spraining my ankle.

    That was a tad humbling.

    • 1) I adore that story.

      2) I am simply awful at taking compliments, and am tempted to prove this by pooh-poohing your very nice opening sentence. Even though I think you are being generous with your praise, I will fight the urge to make a crack at my own expense and merely say “thank you.” And also, right back atcha.

    • Accompanying cute movie dialog:

      “Why don’t you just go ahead and ask me out? The worst I can do is say no, and that would be a lot less painful.”

      “Would you like to go out sometime?”

      “Ummm, no.”

      “See, you were wrong.”

    • Was Lisa suitably charmed with your performance?

      My money’s on “no.” When I abandoned the strategy of being subtle and cool in order to make myself seem “not too interested,” and instead started being honest and direct, as in “I’d like to take you out on a date,” I found that I had much greater success in romance. I attributed this to actually trying to get dates, as opposed to merely wanting them.

  15. How am I humbled?
    Let me count the ways.

    I’m a smart person with a high verbal IQ. And I’m dyslexic. Thus, I am I’m humbled, frustrated, challenged, and otherwise humiliated with each and every word I write.

    I am physically disabled, the biggest problem being the pincer grip. Things others take for granted; like picking up penny from the floor, humble me. Without those found pennies, I have no luck.

    I get migraine, which scrambles my power of speech, one of the places I shine. And then I don’t, and I am humbled as I stumble for words and bumble their spelling and forget to close tags and how to punctuate.

    I’m aging now, having crossed over the half-century mark a few years back. The things I used to learn easily I have to learn and re-learn, and with every day, the necessity of re-learning humbles. What was I saying?

    I am humbled by the sheer knowledge, thoughtfulness, and generosity of so many of you. Long ago, I learned if you want to improve at something, you do it, keep doing it, and try to do it with folk who are better at it then you are. So I am here. And humbled and wondered by the diversity of opinion, and tolerance those opinions (including my own) receive. The humbling I receive helps me better myself, something we should all continue to hope for. Fervently.

    Being a lady who’s given birth and has many of the attendant problems that are common to the impacts of pregnancy and birth on the female body, I am humbled every time I sneeze, particularly if I forget to cross my legs before the sneeze overtakes me.

    I am humbled every time someone plays an instrument in such a way that I must listen, not just hear.

    I am humbled by your humor. I wish I were a tenth as funny, or at least had one of those shiny lights implanted in my forehead.

      • Yup. I’m old enough, I suspect, to be mother to a good many of the regular Gentlemen.

        But I really don’t feel that old, and I bet your Mother doesn’t, either.

        • FWIW, if it was only a few years ago that you passed over the mid-century mark, you are technically old enough to have been my mother, but you’d have to have started quite young.

  16. I have a friend who’s family hails from India and who looks quite Indian, or at least south Asian; you’d mistake him for a white person. Sometimes, we’ll go out to eat and he’ll order his wings as hot as they come or ask for extra hot sauce or horseradish or what have you. Folks will often size him (he’s on the shorter side) and say, “You sure you want that?” He’ll always respond, “I’m Indian. I can take it.” Frustratingly enough, their response is always, “Indian, eh? Do you know my friend? Last name’s Patel.”

  17. West Africans are addicted to hot peppers. The Hausa will feed weaning infants tuwo da miya millet gruel with a clear red skiff of hot pepper sauce, spicier than anything I’ve ever had in any Thai or Indian joint. People just get used to it and can’t abide food without it.

    • It’s all what you grow up on. My kids used to complain about the chili being spicy and want kim chee instead.

      • Adults can adapt, too. I significantly increased my tolerance for capsaicin in my early ’20s.

        • My capsaicin tolerance probably peaked when I was 18.

          That year I learned after the fact that someone had resolved to drink me under the table at a party, and got me to match him drink for drink in prairie fires (well, with Korn instead of tequila). At a certain point I decided I’d had enough, but he insisted I keep matching him, so I just drank shots of hot sauce. This was what made me realize I might be taking the spicy food thing a bit far, as my glasses of hot sauce didn’t even taste particularly spicy to me.

    • and in south america there were riots when the slavers tried to take away the slaves hot peppers…

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