Why So Hot?

The other day, I was in the local Walmart, which actually has a good grocery and produce section, and which might be because it sits right next to I-15, and I-15 is the main interstate for produce flowing out of Southern California. On my grocery list was either Chinese plum sauce or sweet and sour sauce. Now, the oriental food section in Walmart isn’t huge, but it runs from floor up to eight feet and extends twelve to fifteen feet from side to side.

In that entire space, I could not find any form of sweet and sour sauce or plum sauce. In fact, I couldn’t find anything besides soy sauce and sesame oil that wasn’t hot, hotter, hottest, or super hot. Except for soy sauces and sesame oil, everything was spiced with some degree of heat, many vowing to be the hottest ever.

That got me to thinking, and as I went searching for some plain Cheetos, I found one bag, barely visible, surrounded by various versions of “hot” Cheetos, again in copious quantities. The same was true of the Dorritos. In the meat section, almost all of the Italian sausage is “heated,” with two lone packs of “sweet” Italian sausage.

I could go on in detail, but it seems like everywhere, from grocery stores to fast food chains, even to upscale restaurants, there’s a heat craze. I don’t like bland food, and I’m quite fond of cinnamon, but I draw the line at food spiced so much with chilies of various sorts that all I can taste is the intensity of the chilies, and that only for an instant before my senses and taste buds burn out.

Not only that, but now I’m even seeing chili ice cream, and there’s an Italian chili ice cream that you can’t get without signing a liability waiver.

Apparently, not only are our politics going to heated extremes, but so, it seems to me, is far too much of our food.

5 thoughts on “Why So Hot?”

  1. R. Hamilton says:

    Unlike some other hot spices (black pepper, horseradish, etc), one can acquire a tolerance for those (capsicum genus, i.e. red “peppers”) whose perceived heat comes from capsaicin and related variants – although to my dismay, I’e noticed that the tolerance falls off quickly with disuse.

    However, I certainly agree that the lack of selection is unfortunate, although given supply chain issues, perhaps not entirely surprising. I see a reasonably well-reviewed Asian market (JJ’s) in Cedar City; also, Lin’s might have plum sauce. Asian markets vary, but you may need to brace yourself for the overwhelming fragrance of dried small fish and shrimp, etc when entering; but one can find seasonings that are more authentic (not necessarily hotter) than the usual Americanized brands, and perhaps some exotic produce.

    Walmart web site shows Kikkoman and La Choy sweet and sour sauce in stock at the store you mentioned, but their in-stock indications aren’t particularly reliable in my experience. Didn’t see plum sauce, although some find Hoisin sauce (two flavors of supposedly in stock) to be a substitute, if spicier and less sweet.

    Being presently in Maryland, where the local idea of spicy is Old Bay seasoning on crabs, I haven’t seen such a dominance of hot flavored items here; perhaps it’s the Southwest influence?

    If I recall the history I’ve been told, strong spices were once (and perhaps still in some places) used to cover up for meat that was a bit off, or other questionable quality ingredients; one of the reasons they were very valuable once upon a time.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      Oops, forget Lin’s for plum sauce. Found their web site, and what Google had spotted involved plum tomatoes.

  2. Postagoras says:

    “Me-too-ism” rules in today’s marketplace. This has been true for a long time in creative work. One hit TV show or movie spawns a host of (usually) poor imitations.
    With food, this becomes a race to see who can add the most of the latest trendy ingredient. Remember “oaky” chardonnay? It got to the point where I was spitting out splinters of oak.
    Today’s beer market has a “hops race” going on, with double, triple, and quadruple IPAs available.
    And as you point out, in chips and condiments, the heat is on.
    This can’t just be marketing people simply practicing me-too product design. That’s probably part of it, but the target age group for these products apparently jumps on bandwagons in a big way.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      True enough. Some mix of demographics, preference, and marketing, changes.

      But I think there’s a regional element to it; I haven’t seen hot versions crowding out plain in an area where tastes mostly favor the bland – although not being bothered by hot (yet not always preferring it), I might not have noticed proportions of shelf space or varieties. I do see more use of lime or cilantro flavors as well as hot flavors. Just as some people find broccoli to be bitter, so some claim cilantro tastes like soap; perhaps that means that as a flavor, its market will never be everyone.

      There may also be an attempt, whether or not accurately estimating their tastes, to market to the growing Hispanic population, although Sriracha hot sauce is Thai in origin, not Hispanic.

  3. Darcherd says:

    Another factor might be the aging population. As we get older, our sense of smell begins to degrade, so we need more and stronger stimuli to “wake up” our taste buds. Of course, this is offset by the tendency for older digestive systems to tolerate spicy food, but I would guess that an aging population may be one of the factors.

    But the other posters are right that there are definitely local variations. Having been spoilt for choice when it came to gourmet spices and condiments when we lived on the West Coast and a definite abundance of Latin-style spices and sauces when we lived in Texas, now that we’ve relocated to Michigan it’s been a bit of an adjustment to discover just how bland the local taste buds are.

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