Putting the Spice in Spicy

I think words are kind of cool.

Sometimes I look at a word, a completely ordinary word that I’ve seen hundreds of times, and for an instant I don’t recognize it because all I’m seeing are its component parts. I can still remember the time when I realized that breakfast is a compound of “break” and “fast”. I know it sounds silly, but you can see “breakfast” a thousand times without thinking “to put an end to a prolonged period of taking no sustenance”.

Or something.

Then there was a fairly recent occurrence where I stared at the package of my gum and tried to remember whether Trident is supposed to have three beneficial effects on teeth. (At that moment, the only context I had for the word “trident” was that it had something to do with gum. So three-teeth seemed to refer to three benefits for teeth. A second later my brain finished booting and the three-toothed nature of a trident made the meaning more obvious.)

All of which brings me to the apparent divorce between “spice” and “spicy.”

Spice refers to spices, or, components which are eaten for the taste they lend food, not their nutritional value (or lack thereof).

Spicy, on the other hand, refers to the burning sensation that a dish renders unto one’s mouth.

Spices can be spicy (just as, as Alan from QI pointed out, sticks can be sticky), but the spiciness of a spice depends on both the spice and the person experiencing the spice.

You see, for me, the set of foods and ingredients which set my mouth afire is somewhat larger than most peoples’, which is why I feel the need to add the latter rubric. For me, cumin is spicy. Pepper jack cheese is spicy.

I first began to notice how extremely lame my mouth is when I spent a semester studying abroad in Australia. The residence college I stayed in had a cafeteria with a selection even more limited than that of my alma mater, Arcadia (née Beaver).

So I’d walk up to the counter, point to some mess of stir fry, and ask, “Is it spicy?” They would assure me that it was not, and I would get a plateful. Halfway through the dish, my mouth would be burning so much that I couldn’t eat another bite.

The mystery of the cafeteria workers’ apparently incompletely definition of “spicy” was finally solved for me by my friend, Jamie. She had an even more sensitive mouth than I did, and I would usually wait to get a dish until she had pronounced it palatable. She made a great canary.

Anyway, Jamie told me that the cafeteria people did not consider the substance known as “sweet chili” to be spicy. I reasonably pointed out to her that, as it had chili in it, should it not be filed under the heading of “spicy”?

She shrugged. What could you do?

And I know this may sound kind of squiffy, but until recently I assumed that everyone felt the burning sensation, but that most people liked it. Or, at least, that they had a higher tolerance for it. Also, that the only purpose of adding spicy spices was to crate the burning sensation.

But now I know that that’s not true at all. Like cilantro, we’re experiencing two different things. At least, this is mostly based off what my roommate has self-reported. She loves spicy things, and to her, the heat sensation is negligible (but also, sometimes, enjoyable. It might go back to when her grandparents made her chug hot water when she was a child. Some things you never recover from). She calmly pours the hot sauce Mother’s coworker bought while in vacation in Mexico but was too wimpy to try all over whatever she’s eating.

She also tends to add lethal amounts of salt to her food. I expect to wake up one day and find her mummified in her bed.

Anyway. Where was I? Ah! So, she has told me that, to her, spicy foods taste of…wait for it…spices. For me, the burning sensation overwhelms whatever taste these ingredients might add to the dish, similar to the way the fresh smell of cilantro overwhelms the underlying nasty smell. Yey! I finally understand why people enjoy spicy foods so much (and it is not because, as my first hypothesis went, they are masochists. Though some of them probably are. Let’s not make sweeping generalizations, here).

So all is well and good except now I know that I’ve lost the genetic lottery twice. Who knows what new revelations of nasal and oral inferiority the future might bring?



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