You never forget your first: the anticipation, the nerves, the after-burn.
I’m talking about hot sauce, of course. I grew up in a household where garlic was exotic and the spiciest thing in the fridge was mayonnaise. Hot sauce represented freedom, experimentation, sophistication.
So when I started college and had charge of my own dining arrangements, I set out in search of hot sauce real and true, the kind seldom seen in suburban Boston circa 1996. While others bought beer with fake IDs, I hid condiments in my dorm room closet.
It started innocently enough. My next-door neighbor was Hmong and from the big city of St. Paul, Minn., and she kept a stash of Huy Fong Sriracha in her room. Rust-colored, bright green top, “HOT” in all caps and rooster on the bottle: What could it be? I first assumed it was an off-brand ketchup bought in bulk at Big Y down the street.
“You’ve never had Sriracha?” she asked, rolling her eyes. “You’ve got to try it.”
I scrambled back to my room to find the only vessel I could — a Triscuit — and held it out for a squirt. Maybe not a classic combination, but one I’ll remember forevermore: the salty woven life raft that until then only knew the milquetoast embrace of cheddar cheese, overpowered by a garlicky explosion of saucy chile that made tears spring to my eyes. Over time, I’d grow immune to the spice, but my maiden slurp was painful yet beguiling. I wanted more.
Pretty soon, I ventured to nearby Northampton to buy my very own bottle, the culinary equivalent of visiting Newbury Comics for the first time. I carted my own personal Sriracha around like a small pet, bringing it to the dining hall to squirt on rice, pasta, and even chocolate-chip pancakes. I was in charge now, and I intended to take full advantage. Every dorm has its character: the Dead Head, the studious one, the person with the pet snake. I became the girl who carried hot sauce everywhere.
My roommate grew up in Bangalore and found my provincial dining mores a combination of pitiable, quaint, and mortifying, especially when I pulled Sriracha out of my bag at a symphony and squirted it all over leftover Chinese food. (Yes, we’re still friends.)
This wasn’t mannered eccentricity: I truly adored the taste. It was hot, but sugary enough to cut the pain; thick and pliable, so as not to run everywhere; with just the notion of garlic. It was powerful but subtle; strong but not overbearing; and meshed well with almost any cuisine. I was in love.
But, as so often happens, I soon began to stray to try new things. Emboldened, I expanded my hot-condiment repertoire: Tabasco, Tapatio, Texas Pete. In fact, my husband and I gave out our very own brand as wedding favors. It was thinner, with more vinegar and bite.
And, with time, I began to watch Sriracha grow even more mainstream, like a friend who breaks into showbiz and drifts away. I spotted it in restaurants, mixed into mayonnaise (how could you, Sriracha?); I encountered it on condiment trays at pubs and on shelves at Target, looking like it didn’t quite belong. And when we did see each other, I’d probably take a squirt for old time’s sake, even though my tastes have broadened. These days, I prefer Cholula for Mexican food and Fly By Jing Sichuan chili crisp with dumplings. I also take prescription medication for acid reflux. Many years have passed since that first dalliance. We are no longer good for each other.
And yet: I still keep a bottle in my fridge, and I sometimes reach for it in a pinch. We’ve grown apart, but I always take comfort in knowing it will be there at 3 a.m. The realization that this soon might be untrue? It’s not just a goodbye to hot sauce. It’s a goodbye to my youth.