Sunday, April 17, 2005

Red Hot Riplets and the Nature of Heat

A true story from some years back. The setting: some nameless McDonalds on some highway somewhere in America. I approach the counter, a sandwich with one bite out of it in my hand.

"Um, I ordered the spicy chicken sandwich."

"That's it."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."

"Really?"

"Yeah, that's it."

"Oh, okay. Thanks."

People have talked for years about all the silly and sad ways that our litigious society has sucked the sap and vigor out of the American character. Playgrounds are soft and soulless, there's nary a high dive to be found and fireworks give nothing but little colored farts now. But for someone who lives on the gluttonous edge of life, there is little sadder than what has happened to the word "spicy" (places that won't serve rare steaks ... oh, but that's another post).

Oh, how many times have I had to convince a Thai waiter that I can handle what they serve? How many little flame logos next to a menu item have augured nothing more than a light dusting of paprika? If the word "wet" had been abused as much as the word "spicy," restaurants would serve glasses of gruel with your meal.

For those of us who hunger for heat, a tiny twinge on the back of the tongue will not do. We want our mouths to become the forge from which we can be formed anew. We want sizzling virtual pain, the agony box from Dune that tests your human nature.

"But how can you taste your food when it's like that?" people ask. Does hot wax on your chest make your genitals numb? Spice transcends flavor; if anything it is closest to the Japanese concept of "umami," a whole mouth taste. But it goes beyond that as well. Because when the sweat breaks out on the upper lip and the pain doesn't subside between bites, true seekers of the flame understand that heat is a drug.

All good foods are, of course, but spicy foods do have a literal drug in them: capsaicin, an alkaloid that fools the brain into thinking there is a chemical burn. And it makes you sweat and buzzes your metabolism. It's an upper. And that's what we're looking for when we look for heat.

Which brings us, finally, to Red Hot Riplets. Riplets, the finest packaged food to come out of St. Louis, are exactly what they advertise: red frickin' hot. My girlfriend can't eat them any more since one went down the wrong pipe, bringing on a coughing fit and mental trauma. These chips, blessedly, aren't "kettle cooked" or "dashed with sea salt" or any of the other horrible things that people have done to try to fancy up potato chips. They are chemical wastelands, rippled and radioactively hot, like the world of the Road Warrior. They are fantastic.

Last year, the chips got a more visible champion in the visage of Murphy Lee, one of the St. Lunatics. Murph's debut album had a tune called "Red Hot Riplets," including the chorus "I need some Kool-Aid/ With my Red Hot Riplets." St. Louis leads the nation in Kool-Aid consumption. Is there any wonder?

But, to my grief, Red Hot Riplets have yet to break out of the local chip market. In fact, you can't even find them in most suburban grocery stores around here. So, I'm eating them while I can, enjoying each orange-fingered powdery goddamn moment of it.

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