According to a yarn of dubious origins, the occultist Aleister Crowley liked to serve his houseguests an exceptionally spicy curry. He would also, the story goes, set out several glasses of clear liquid. Some were water, and some were vodka. He didn't tell anyone which were which.
In college, inspired by this sadistic tale, my roommate Bryan and I inaugurated the annual Aleister Crowley Dinner, featuring hot foods, vodka, water, and inconclusive labeling. Not being as cruel as Crowley, we warned everyone beforehand about what they were getting into. The food was spicy, and the food was good. And only one or two of the guests were over 40.
Why do I mention the guests' ages? Because Bryan has emailed me a curious story in the Boston Globe about the growing popularity of spicy food. Here's the thesis:
Why is hot so hot? The conventional explanation is that the nation has an increasingly adventurous palate. Immigration and prosperity have made Americans more sophisticated eaters, pushing wasabi peas into the mainstream, along with chili-Thai lime cashews, cayenne chocolate bars, and other high-octane combinations.
But some food scientists and market researchers think there is a more surprising reason for the broad nationwide shift toward bolder flavors: The baby boomers, that huge, youth-chasing, all-important demographic, are getting old. As they age, they are losing their ability to taste—and turning to spicier, higher-flavor foods to overcome their dulled senses.
Chiefly because of degenerating olfactory nerves, most aging people experience a diminished sense of taste, whether they realize it or not. But unlike previous generations, the nation's 80 million boomers have broad appetites, a full set of teeth, and the spending power to shape the entire food market.
What evidence does the Globe present that the demand for foods of greater intensity correlates with the baby boom?
1. A consulting group's claim that older adults "have the highest preferences for boldly flavored cheeses, such as blue, feta, and Gorgonzola."
2. The fact that the readership of fiery-foods.com skews older.
And that's it. The rest of the article is a scientific argument, a theory to explain a link that hasn't been established. The central idea is that "at a certain age—after about 40 for most people—the number of nerve receptors in the nose and tongue that respond to smell and taste dim and decrease." Which is interesting, though I was under the impression that the mouth is not the only organ involved in ingestion, and that some of the others grow less tolerant of heat as the body gets older.
More to the point: I'm reluctant to embrace any theory that fails so completely to map onto my own experience. I'm still under 40, and I've been a devoted follower of spicy foods since my teens, if not earlier. Hence those Crowley dinners.
Now, it's certainly possible that I'm just an outlier with a weird genetic makeup. My two-year-old daughter, who likes to eat whatever she sees Daddy eating, has happily gobbled down spicy Pad Thai and Cajun snack mix; that could be my genes in action. (*) But in the absence of substantial data on who's eating what, and on whether the same pattern holds from one culture to another, who can tell? Maybe it's just learned behavior. Maybe in countries with spicier cuisines, people of all ages eat hot foods. Maybe as their food comes to America, we're gradually learning to eat heat as well. Maybe, if there is a correlation with the baby boom, that's because a lot of boomers are educated, adventurous people eager to try new foods. In other words, maybe the "conventional explanation" derided in the Globe is correct, and the rising availability of spicy meals is an product of globalization, immigration, and the prolifieration of niche products and diverse taste cultures.
Wherever it came from, the heat revolution is a cause for celebration. For decades, standard American mass-produced food was extraordinarily bland—a condition reflected by the oddly inaccurate labels on supermarket salsas and hot sauces, where "hot" is a euphemism for medium, "medium" is a euphemism for mild, and "mild" is a euphemism for ketchup. Now that there's more demand for genuinely spicy condiments, many brands have added a new option: "fire." It's a euphemism for hot, because that word was already taken.
(*) She also likes it when I tell her what sort of animal she's eating. "Here, Maya," I said to her once. "Try some hamburger." She turned up her nose. "It's cow," I added. She grabbed it, and with a mighty "Moo!" she thrust it into her mouth. Similarly, she prefers to refer to ground lamb as "baa-baa" and to bacon as "piggy." Prediction: She either will never go through a vegetarian stage or will one day become the most militant vegan on the planet.