Hurts so good

Eating through the pain.

JUST ABOUT EVERY DAY, my favorite foods cause me discomfort—actual physical pain. I almost always know they will before I take the first bite. And I eat them anyway. It's culinary masochism. Officially, there's no such diagnosis (yet), but it's more common than rat hair in hot dogs. Consciously consuming foods that probably could, most likely might, or definitely, no-doubt-about-it will hurt while you eat them is a sickness. I'm not talking about foods that may cause health problems down the road—heart attack- inducing burgers loaded with cheese and bacon, or chubby, well-marbled 26-ounce slabs of steak. I'm talking about burning lips and scalded tongues. I don't mind the pain, and I'm not alone. It seems a phenomenon particular to Americans. We don't want anything but the hottest hot sauce, the kind of blistering heat that sends us searching, panicky and wide-eyed, for relief. The French? They add cool pats of butter to smooth out the edges of a sauce. We hoard handfuls of salt-and-vinegar potato chips until the corners of our lips are raw and starting to swell. We grow up on mouth-scalding hot cocoa and frozen pizzas with artificial cheeses that reach impossibly hot temperatures and sear the roofs of our tender mouths. We learn to take the pain, and eventually we learn to like it. It starts young. My earliest memory of a seriously painful food that I liked anyway is the ultimate '70s suburban standby: the potpie. My sisters and I would beg for them, then spend the endless hour they took to bake hovering close to the oven, using the push-in light switch to check on their brutally slow cooking progress. Maybe it's the foil pie dish, but it's still a mystery how the creamy sauce-stuff that suspends the peas and chicken cubes between the crusts can reach such fire-and-brimstone temperatures. Candy became our next muse. My sister Jenny used to suck on a Gobstopper until her tongue bled. Then she'd save it on a plate for later. Even seemingly safe cereals like Captain Crunch would do a shredding number on the roofs of our mouths (what do they spray on that stuff to keep it from soaking up the milk, anyway?). Didn't matter—two bowls at a minimum, and at least two days of pain. As we got older, different foods tempted our capacity for discomfort. Fish opened the door to the classy gagging-on-bones-at-the-dinner-table routine; tiny bits of crab shell occasionally brought my chewing to a sudden, wincing halt. With the late '90s came a new and inventive way to torture the oral cavity: The barbed-wire bread phenomenon. At first I went along with the masses, struggling to smile through thick "rustic bread" sandwiches while razor blades were having their way with the roof of my mouth. I still eat those sandwiches, but now I bitch. Finally, there is the legendary Slurpee. I'd heard horror stories of "brain freezes" long before taking my first full-fledged, no-holds-barred slurp. I made the requisite squinty eyes while simultaneously poking myself in the ears to try and make it go away. But it was my own damn fault. Just as with superspicy salsas and the sourest candy, those warnings were translated instantly into dares. So why do we do it? Maybe when we can still feel the burn of the salsa on our tongues the next day, we think we're getting more bang for our buck. Perhaps it stems from the time we were 9 and earned awe from Uncle Jim when we managed to nibble off a bit of the red-hot Szechwan beef chili without starting to cry. Or maybe, deep down, we're just a sick bunch of macho culinary jocks. I, for one, don't really care. There's simply nothing fun about lukewarm and subtle. I'll take dangerously spicy over simple and bland any day of the week. And by now, I'm just so used to the pain that when my coffee's too hot, I hardly even notice. It's too unreasonable to think of giving it all up, so I just ride it out. Find your pain Luckily, no food has yet been outlawed or deemed "too dangerous" based on its pain quotient. So get out there, put on your poker face, and eat till it hurts. For Beginners 7-11 is the best place to get acquainted with painful foods, since you can get Sour Patch Kids, Slurpees, and Gobstoppers all in one fell swoop. If you feel like you're being too obvious, pick up some gum to throw the guy at the register off. Various locations Hot as hell Go for it. Don't dab, spoon it on. You won't believe how hot "The Man" is. 911. Dixie's Barbecue 11522 Northup Way, Bellevue, 425-828-2460 Burn, baby, burn Looking to burn off those pesky taste buds? Go to your favorite coffee shop and order an Americano, but be sure to ask for the "wand water" from the espresso machine. Otherwise, you'll get the barely hot enough "tea water" most places (duh, Starbucks) put in, and your hopes of burning your tongue will be dashed. Or try Denny's—home of lethal, tongue-scorching hot cocoa. Various locations Barbed wire bread Various bakeries and many sandwich shops around Seattle offer this most painful of edibles, but the worst offender is Grand Central Bakery. Grand Central 214 1st Avenue S, 622-3644

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