Back in the mists of the mid-90s, when I was a young sprat just barely turned twenty and believing myself to be invincible, I accompanied tikva
to Washington DC and had a day's meal with her father who was then living in Georgetown. When I say "a day's meal" I do mean a full day because that's how long we spent eating with her dad, who had a fondness for fun ways to eat. He'd often have backwards meals, starting with dessert and ending with an appetizer. Or he'd go around from restaurant to restaurant, sampling a little here and a little there, and that is what we did on our fine culinary day out.
We started at some place I've completely forgotten--all I can remember honestly is that there was brick and vaulted ceilings and plants around us and it was kind of like a DC version of Fitzwilly's for anyone around who knows that stalwart of Northampton dining. I think they served sandwiches. We next took high tea at the Four Seasons, extending pinkies, nibbling on petit fours and listening to the pianist play the most delicate version of a bittersweet and beautiful tune which we eventually realized was the theme from Schindler's List
. And then we went to Rocklands BBQ
for our real meal. It was there that I had the first of many experiences with A Lot of Capsaicin.
Rocklands featured what it called a Wall of Fire: a large display featuring many, many kinds of hot sauces with names that promised certain death or at least an ass-kicking. I have since learned many barbecue joints feature similar Walls of Fire, including one in Marlboro which I frequented heavily during my exile there. To take a bottle from the Wall of Fire is to take your life into your own hands; the restaurant assumes no responsibility for what might happen should you make the conscious and sober decision to try some. I was at the time unaware of just how mind-blowingly hot some people liked to make their sauce, and I innocently picked one from the wall that came in a neat wooden coffin-like box wrapped in police caution tape. Clearly, I thought, this was a totally cool sauce from people who just liked to boast and that I'd sure enjoy it on my pulled whatever sandwich. (Whether I had the chicken or pork that day is immaterial. The relevant details have swirled back into that mist, anyway.)
I didn't know at the time that I was dealing with Dave's Insanity, one of the more prevalent hot sauces around and one which boasts on its label that you can strip your driveway with it. Not only that, but the wooden box-caution tape bottle was full of something called Dave's Insanity Special Reserve. It turned out to be a hydrogen bomb in a bottle but again, it was dealing with someone twenty years old and invincible.
A brief tangent on Scoville units, then: the Scoville is the measure of heat (the "pungency") of a pepper or similarly spicy food. A jalapeño or chipotle pepper can be anywhere from 2,000 to 8,000 Scovilles. Cayenne and tabasco rank around 50,000 or so. Dave's Insanity sauce, made primarily from habanero, tops off around 150,000 Scovilles.
The Internet tells me that the Private Reserve sauce I had has been "reportedly variously from 500,000 to 750,000 Scoville units". Sure, great, I know that now
. Back then, I heeded the keen advice of the counter man and put one single, solitary drop in the middle of my pulled whatever sandwich. The next thing I knew my eyes were opened WIDE
and my mouth had suddenly turned numb. My sinuses weren't clear, they had been Roto-Rootered. And the back of my throat was reminding me that it existed, too.
Knowing enough to remember that carbonation and/or water were bad ideas when you ate something hot, I gasped for some milk. The counter man, who clearly enjoyed watching people in surprise, presented me with milk in the tiniest cup possible, the kind that usually contain chutney from the take-out place. I finished that sandwich, mostly because after a few bites I grew too numb to everything
to be concerned. And when we walked out of that fine establishment, I could see through time and IT WAS FUCKING AWESOME.
I have since learned many fine things about capsaicin and its effects on endorphins, the brain's own doggy treat. I have also learned that roller coaster riding and other adrenalin-inducing activities produce the same kind of endorphin effect, and I have learned how to temper my spicy food eating so I can enjoy without much regret later on. I ate at a small, family-run Indian restaurant frequently enough to get to know the family; they started cooking me vindaloo the way they liked it, with full-on heat, "spicy yes", not the toned-down version for American palates. I'd leave that place full of vindaloo and a little bit of rice pudding and I'd have a Goddamned Vision Quest on the way home. And I married sovay
, who shares slivers of scotch bonnet with me and who once ate a habanero whole. (To be fair, she thought it was a much tamer pepper when she took it off the plate. But she soldiered forth through the thousand-yard stare and everything.) I don't think I have devoted my life to the pursuit of heat, no. Spicy is a sometimes food, and I enjoy it during those sometimes.
There is a subset of spicy food likers who treat it as an exercise in masochism; they boast of sweating through the searing pangs and surviving the experience for another day. They go for the stuff that's made for heat, not for flavor. Dave's Insanity caters to them. Sure, it's super-hot and will make your endorphins dance the fandango, but it'll obliterate the taste of whatever you put it on. There's a reason I don't remember whether my sandwich at Rocklands was pork or chicken; the protein underneath had pretty much melted at that point. But I don't go for the endurance. I like food that tastes good. So I'm happy when I eat food which both burns my mouth out and tastes delicious while doing so.
There is another Washington restaurant which Sonya and I discovered did heat right: the Afterwords Cafe at Kramer Books in Dupont Circle features a goat stew made from scotch bonnet peppers and added to the menu, so it is told, by a chef homesick for his native island. We ate there in 2012 quite by accident, on the first night of a weekend in DC, and were so taken by the dish that we ate there again the following night. There's only one other dish I've ever immediately gone back for and that was the pickle-brined chicken at Cambridge Brewing Company. (Seriously. It is incredible. You eat it and then make mental plans to stock up on chickens and pickle brine for when you wash up on that desert island.) We've since had the goat stew at Highland Kitchen in Somerville, which is incredibly tasty but comes up short to the Afterwords stew.
Tonight in Somerville we had goat stew at Magoun's Saloon
in Magoun Square as part of the place's monthly themed menu. Wednesdays of each month feature dishes on a certain theme: German biergarten stuff, Italian bar food, variations on burgers, or just plain bacon everywhere. We love what they do at the Magoun and try to make it as many months as we can. They've never failed us; the food has never been bad, just very rarely not-as-good-as-the-other-stuff. This month was the Heat & Hops menu, featuring a ton of spicy food and a ton of IPAs to go with. I'm not a big fan of IPA and Sonya hates the taste of hops, so we focused mostly on the food. I did, however, have a wonderful bitter (a room-temperature pint of bitter is a thing of beauty and a joy forever) and a mint chocolate stout which did its best to leave a wintergreen taste in your mouth.
The goat stew at Magoun featured a curry different from the Afterwords stew, not as sweet but no less flavorful. The menu said "West Indian curried goat" and I really really think green curry was involved because the last time I remember a taste like that it was at an old, long-since-gone noodle place in Amherst which would sell me huge take-out containers of green curry noodles with chicken for cheap. I have since forgotten that restaurant's name, alas (it was in that back section of buildings near Bueno Y Sano) but that taste will never leave my memory. The goat meat was incredibly tender and flavorful. We have grown to trust Magoun's to make good decisions when bringing out special dishes; we knew going in that they were going to focus on flavor as much as heat and damned if we weren't right about that. Even the plantains stayed sweet while the scotch bonnet and habanero peppers went to work. We both insisted the goat stew should go on Magoun's regular menu, but we'll settle for running over to have it whenever it's available. It just better be available in less than a year, that's all I'm saying.
We also had lamb meatballs in a bright orange harissa sauce which provided a much different burn. The stew had a slow burn, giving you a chance to enjoy the goat and the plantains and then gradually turning up the heat. The meatballs detonated upon impact, I mean WHAM--a mouthful of WHAT DID THEY PUT IN THIS AND IS THIS LEGAL. And yet the lamb tasted great through it all. You just had to chew very carefully and slowly so as to not get so much capsaicin-laden oil as once. So we did.
Since Sonya and I don't go in for the whole Ironman Don't Let 'Em See You Sweat thing (seriously, since water doesn't work as a cooling agent the whole concept of "eating it all without water" is silly--hydrate yourselves, people!) we were perfectly happy eating grilled pita, rice and french fries for our starch. Sonya said she welcomed each and every opportunity to scrape the oils from the roof of her mouth. I agreed, and the sweet pita was lovely in between. It wasn't a cure-all and I didn't want one. It kindly gave you a rest and let you continue at your own pace.
Dessert was a dark chocolate and chipotle pot de creme. I am not a big fan of chipotle usually; the smoky flavor usually tells me "Hey! You're eating at a place where chipotle is the New Hotness!" But somehow Magoun's did something fantastic with the pepper which let it show off a real dark, musky flavor which wasn't anything I'd tasted from chipotle before. They even put the damn pepper in the whipped cream garnish, which you could also use on the pieces of strawberries and candied ginger that came with. It was good and it went reasonably well with that stout.
We ate out in part to celebrate what would have been the cat's seventeenth birthday. Normally this would call for fish of some kind, sushi or 'n chips or whatever, but we were determined to make Magoun's before the monthly menu changed over to the Italian bar food. Thus we had a dinner tonight which would have, with the exception of maybe the whipped cream, been completely Cat Mooch-Proof, and wouldn't that have driven the little bastard crazy. We took the bus home riding some insane endorphin highs, and the smiles have not left our faces mostly because they kind of freeze into this rictus, y'see. Woo hah.