It was lunchtime at the Junior High school, and I chose nachos. Of course I chose nachos, 'cause why wouldn't I? Crispy rounds of ground corn covered with a creamy orange cheese-like sauce. Obviously it wasn't the best choice, but you can't blame middle school students for exploring eating independence.
I don't remember exactly ~ maybe he was in the lunch line with me, or maybe the challenge came before I stepped into the line ~ but one of the older students dared me to eat jalapeños on my nachos. It doesn't sound like a big deal now, but at the time my culinary experience went from bland to potatoes. Cocktail sauce on my shrimp and yellow mustard on my sandwich was about as adventurous as I got.
I have to admit that I had been curious before that day. I'd wondered what the fuss was. I knew they were spicy, but had no reference for what spicy tasted like on the tongue. Was it something that would cause me to suffer? Would the jalapeños stick around on my palate for hours, their spiciness a day-long reminder of a bad choice at lunchtime? Sure, other people ate them, but what about me?
And then my challenger, the older student who dared me to eat jalapeños on my nachos, put three slices of that pickled pepper in his mouth without even a chip. He chomped them down alone, with nothing to temper the spiciness. That did it. If he could eat them by themselves, I would surely survive the common gustatory experience of chip and cheese with pepper on top.
I waited 'til he'd gone. I waited 'til I was by myself so that my reaction, good or bad, would be mine alone. And they were delicious. The flavor infused my mouth; surprising spicy, but also sweet and tangy.
My recollection, many years later, is that lunch that day was a more expansive encounter with flavor than I had experienced before. It's dangerous to read too much into what happened long ago, but today I relish the opportunity to expand my gustatory horizons.