Illustration by Sam Woolley

As a baby I gnawed on lemons with joy. I‘ve never been kind to my taste buds. Chain-eating Warhead candies, nibbling habaneros, taking dares on wasabi globs. Short of the really inhumane—nuking your innards with genetic monstrosity Scoville-freak peppers, which some people do, voluntarily, on camera —I was feeling pretty good about my tolerance for anything. Until I went on a road trip down south.

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My friend, a Nashville native, wanted to introduce me to his city’s specialty: hot chicken. (As you may’ve seen, KFC just rolled out a feeble imitation.) When I suggested we eat it that evening, he said he’d have to “prepare his body” for hot chicken, which I received with wincing condescension—aw, that’s adorable. My bigotry was this: nowhere in America could out-spice the stuff from my native Indian subcontinent. Me and my masochistic palate, my iron stomach, we’d be just fine, anywhere in the New World. Chilis—raw, dried, ground—studded almost every meal I’d eaten growing up. But I was warned, and let in on a Nashville secret: put the toilet paper in the freezer to better balm tomorrow’s wounds. I laughed it off.

I met him at Bolton’s Spicy Chicken and Fish, his favorite of the city’s myriad options, with icy six-pack in tow. Seeing four spice levels, we asked them for a sample of the second-mildest. My friends were content to stick with that, but I was feeling typically spice-cocky and went one level up. When it arrived, I saw chicken so dense with dry spice it was dirt-brown veering on black, a would-be omen for wiser eaters. I took a bite: breading crisp, meat juicy, grease over everything. Then I began to hurt. In fact, I half-invented those previous taste details, because in my memory, they were so thoroughly displaced by the burn, which started out quietly, then ramped up, burning even after you’d chewed and swallowed. Then you took the next bite, and the fire picked up from where you left off, more burn, inexhaustible. White bread and mac ’n’ cheese offered no relief, likewise cold beer. So I leaned into it and kept eating.

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Next came the physical and psychological response. Sweating openly. My friend, even on medium-level spice, was sweating so much his glasses fogged up, went opaque. My vision went blurry with tears. I could not, at all times, feel the sides of my face. I could not quite cogitate. I felt like I had to run away from what was happening in my mouth, as if it were not taking place inside my head and could be isolated and left behind—but also, I felt like I could run up a mountain, fueled by this injection of uncanny, unsettling energy. I swiveled from side to side. The employees smiled on. I started shivering and stopped talking or forming any thoughts at all except to motivate myself.

What was my inner monologue as I ate? Fixed, inexplicably, at the center of my mind: the names of early Rich Homie Quan mixtapes.

To prove it to myself, and my friends, and to wallow in the perverse pleasure of the pain, I refused to Stop Going In on the Nashville hot chicken. I reduced it to a pile of dark bread crumbs, reduced myself to a pile of ashes. As witnesses can attest, I wasn’t really “sober” until a restorative vanilla milkshake an hour later.

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After the deed was done, I went out into the January cold to pee and cool off, and I was very careful about what I touched. Prudent: when I put my contacts in, a day, many hand-washes and two showers later, my eyes burned. The spice had burrowed its way into my very thumbs. To be clear, the restaurant offered another level of spiciness above what I ate, and to be even clearer, I daydream about eating it once a week. Spice is a weird drug.