By A.F. Kooy
I’ll never be a hand model. I don’t think my hands were ever that pretty, but now they are crisscrossed with burn marks and cuts that (aside from a dimpled crescent on my right index finger which I got hanging a particularly heavy door) all come from the kitchen. I have a bad habit of hitting the back of my hand on the hot racks when I pull anything out of the oven, so my right hand always has a ladder of burn lines in various states of healing. I’m a bit exuberant with graters and have lost bits of both thumb knuckles. My left hand bares the marks of my right hand’s incautious knife skills.
There are benefits to having good kitchen hands. I know how much heat my hands can handle. The palms of kitchen hands are forgiving and won’t burn or scar when holding things that would burn just about any other part of the body on contact. This is handy because it allows me to use my bare hands as utensils. I can cut bread fresh out of the oven. I can transfer a twelve-pound brisket from the smoker to the cutting board. When I’m feeling too lazy to reach over to the silverware drawer and pull out a fork, I flip bacon with my hands, licking the salty grease from my fingertips as I transfer them to a paper towel to cool.
I started cooking in high school. My mom had always been a terrible cook, but luckily, once my older sisters left for college, Mom stopped trying to cook and gave my little brother and me the run of the kitchen. We assumed that the atrocious stir fry and disgusting casseroles we grew up with came from the few cookbooks Mom had lying around, so we didn’t open any of them. Instead, we felt our way around the kitchen, tasting each spice separately and discussing possible combinations. My brother was drawn toward the more delicate possibilities of herbs while I went for flavor bulldozers like garlic and hot chilies. Together we usually made a pretty well-balanced meal as long as I was regularly reminded to keep the spices down to an acceptable level for normal human consumption.
Five and a half years of marriage has helped me learn to self-regulate the spice levels of the food I cook. I’ve increased my wife’s ability to handle spice, but I still have to cook a few levels below what I would prefer. When I cook for myself, I like my meal to make me sweat. I layer the spices so that the heat rolls over me in waves. I make a killer egg and brisket burrito. The spice hits on the front end with a generous application of horseradish which lights up my sinuses and makes my breath burn my lungs for a second. The heat builds as fresh habaneros ignite the rest of my head and burn a path into my gut. The Sriracha drizzled over top doesn’t seem to bring any spice to this combination and tastes more like a nice salty garlic spread.
I’ve been playing around with Ghost chilies lately. The Bhut jolokia as it is officially known, reigned as the world’s hottest chili from 2007 to 2012. This pepper is measured between 900,000 and 1.5 million Scoville Heat Units (Tabasco sauce measures in at 2,500-5,000 SHU, habaneros fall within the range of 100,000-300,000, and the Carolina Reaper, which is the current hottest pepper, is up around the 2 million SHU range). Capsaicin, which causes peppers to be hot, can cause a euphoric rush of endorphins when ingested. Ghost chilies have a high enough level of capsaicin to nearly incapacitate the eater. Some claim that this pepper can have a hallucinatory effect. While I have never hallucinated from peppers, Ghost chilies produce an effect in me that is not unlike the first time I went into shock from an injury.
I was a counselor at a summer camp. I hid in a garbage can during an extreme game of hide and seek, and a member of the recreation staff decided to empty a couple of pitchers of water he filled up from the coffee maker on top of my head. He thought his prank was pretty funny until I was standing outside the garbage can shaking uncontrollably. Someone got the nurse, sat me down, and took off my shirt. I watched a flap of skin peel away from my collarbone and slide down my stomach. I started laughing because the piece of skin looked exactly like the United States of America. The nurse radioed the camp director and the campers were sent to their cabins until the ambulance arrived because a swath of skin had sloughed from my back too.
It hurt a lot, but the predominant feeling I remember was a sense of intense energy. If I could get my hands to stop shaking, I was sure I could knock a tree down or run up a mountain. It felt good.
I burned myself on purpose for the first time later that year. I had been avoiding my friends for a few weeks when I was invited to a birthday party. I arrived late. Everyone was already inside. I could not get out of my car.
I had overheard my friends voicing concern about my constant absenteeism, and I knew that if I skipped this party they would start asking me directly. I didn’t know how to say that I was depressed, that something was wrong. I was ramping up to a panic attack in my car, but instead of reaching for the gear shift to put it in reverse, I pushed the lighter in. When it glowed red I tapped it to my chest and for a moment. Everything cleared up. I pressed the cylinder just below my America scar and held it as the sizzle and pop of my skin resounded through my collarbone and sternum. My mind cleared with pain and euphoria. I went in to the party and every time I felt my smile slipping, I pressed the burn. Luckily, this was during my Hawaiian shirt phase, and the island sunset print I was wearing hid the fact that I had blood soaking through my undershirt.
Burns take time to heal, and I was on the football team. I changed quickly, and no one noticed for the first few practices. The burn still hurt, and every time my pads scraped against it, I felt like I ran faster and hit harder. But I was ashamed of the scar. Only sad sack Emo kids hurt themselves. I wasn’t some whiney punk threatening to slit my wrists because my girlfriend dumped me.
The freshman kicker was the only one to notice.
“What is that? Did you burn yourself with a car lighter?”
The quarterback had been mouthing off to the coach during practice, and we all ran. I was tired and forgot to change quickly. I had a list of somewhat plausible lies to explain the burn but they all evaporated because he called out exactly what I had done.
“It’s just a burn,” I said.
“No way, it’s a car lighter. It’s got, like, the spirals and everything.”
Other players were coming back from the showers, and he was talking loudly. I realized that I was twice his size, and that he was a freshman, and a kicker.
“Shut up, asshole,” I said and shoved him against the lockers as I left.
The last time I went to therapy on a regular basis was when I had insurance. I flirt with therapy now, attending a few sessions every other year before realizing that I can’t afford it. The last therapist I saw was pretty good. She had very good timing and asked questions that surprised me and got honest answers.
“How are your masochistic tendencies?” she asked and though it wasn’t a surprising question for a therapy session, it surprised me because I had not mentioned anything about it. I was worried I looked like a sorry little asshole who could only go through life carving up and burning off little bits of flesh. I was afraid I looked like a child.
But she caught me off guard, so instead of a lie, I thought about peppers. I told her of the five habaneros I ate with breakfast. I told her that I thought this was a healthy outlet. I told her about Master Tonic.
Master Tonic is also referred to as a plague tonic, so if the Black Death comes around again I’m ready. The base is apple cider vinegar with the mother still in it. The mother is a probiotic entity that has many beneficial qualities and will keep the tonic from spoiling. Equal parts white onion, garlic, ginger, horseradish root, and the hottest pepper you can handle go into a jug with the apple cider vinegar. The first recipe I used said I was then supposed to bury the jug in the ground under the light of the full moon and dig it back up at the new moon. I stuck it in the back of a cupboard for two weeks. Once the vegetable matter is strained out, the Master Tonic is ready to drink. The recommended dose is an ounce or two, twice a day. I may have gone a bit overboard the last time I made it because I ended up with a gallon and a half.
Everything in Master Tonic burns in one way or another. It is immediately felt in the head and lungs and gut. The gut burn sticks around for about a half hour which functions as a good reminder to stay away from loved ones because Master Tonic imparts paint stripping, relationship ending bad breath. Each ingredient has a long list of benefits, and the combination is said to cure almost everything from the common cold to cancer.
When I left that therapy session I checked my watch and realized that I had two fresh burn marks on the back of my hand from pulling a pear cobbler out of the oven the night before. I wondered if the therapist had seen my burns and thought they were intentional. I didn’t go back, though, so I never got a chance to ask her.
I recently bought some silicone mitts to use while cooking, and I’m trying to be more careful with my knives. I don’t use the mitts as often as I should—I can still pull a twelve-pound brisket from the smoker with my bare hands with only a little cursing—but just having them, knowing I can be safe and protect my hands from pain if I choose to, makes me feel a little more like an adult.
I added dried ghost chilies to my last batch of Master Tonic. It has been sitting in the back of the cupboard for over a year. I could really use a panacea in my life right now, but I never quite get around to cracking open the jug of Master Tonic. I’m not afraid that it will be too spicy, I’m worried it won’t burn as much as I need.
A.F. Kooy received his MFA from the University of New Orleans. His fiction may be found in Blood and Thunder and Ricky’s Back Yard. He currently resides in New Orleans where he is a stay-at-home dad and a member of the Peauxdunque Writer’s Alliance.