Too Hot to Handle

Mild or spicy? If you are among the small tribe of redheads living in Hawai'i, it's hard to convince chefs to serve you the latter.

A few years ago, there was a television show, Roswell, about teenage aliens. Earth food tasted bland to them, so they always carried bottles of Tabasco sauce. It was just one way they were different from the human high schoolers, and I can relate. Ordering spicy food in Hawai’i, I feel like a pale, freckled visitor from outer space.

"No refund!," the woman behind the counter at a North Shore shrimp truck warned me, as I insisted upon ordering the spicy plate of crustaceans. In another common restaurant scenario, I get warned, "Thai hot? It’s really hot. Are you sure?" A dinner companion once boomed, "Never challenge a Thai chef! Get medium!" Challenge? I just wanted to order my food the way I like it.

I’m sure people mean well, but why the protectionism? I must look even haole-ier than haole.

"People think very definite things about redheads, among them, that they have sensitive stomachs," says Marion Roach, the author of The Roots of Desire, a book that examines the cultural and scientific perspectives of red hair. She thinks this idea stems from the misconception that all redheads are Irish, and thus "only like stew and potatoes, all very comforting, of course, but certainly not our only food groups."

illustration: Michael Austin

The world’s largest cluster of redheads is actually in Scotland, Roach points out, "where the locals eat the most frightening thing on the planet, haggis, which mixes a sheep’s lung, heart, stomach and liver with some suet and some oatmeal. After haggis, no spice, no condiment, could be too disagreeable. This odd association with bland food/red hair also links to our skin color: so white, we’re apt to burn. That’s true, of course, but only on the exterior."

Roach explains that red hair is the result of a mutation on the MC1R gene. It emerged 50,000 years ago in humans and has spread to about 4 percent of the world’s population.

In my research, I found some red-head lore related to Polynesia: The European explorers who visited Easter Island in 1722 reported finding a mixed population of both dark-skinned and light-skinned people, some with red hair. Intriguingly, the Hawaiian language has a distinction between the red hair of Caucasians, po’o ‘ula ‘ula, and the red hair of Polynesians, ‘ehu, or ha ‘ehu ‘ehu.

Growing up, I didn’t have any problems ordering spicy food, particularly hot wings, a beloved dietary tradition in western New York State. If you live in a place that’s cold nine months out of the year, you need something to defrost your blood, and atomic chicken wings are just the ticket. In fact, the Anchor Bar, in Buffalo–the restaurant that claims to have originated Buffalo wings in 1964–sells an even more extreme flavor, called "suicidal." Perhaps my taste buds flamed out and have never recovered.

From looking at me, it’s safe to assume that I burn easily in the sun. And when people try to keep me from capsicum-laden treats, I know they are trying to be nice. But don’t let these freckles fool you–just pass me the chili water.