Mama Hint: Dreaded Chile Oil

The term ‘that’s a mama hint’ has been in my family since my sister and I have been small.  As guessed, the saying was created by my mama who used it in common sense situations… or… well, situations that didn’t seem so common sense at the time, but instead saying, “I told ya so,” she would educate us.  Say I’m cooking and I hit a pan handle, spilling all hot food on the floor.  My mama, breathing in deeply, would come over, help me clean the mess, and say, “Next time, don’t put the pan handle perpendicular to the stove door; keep it parallel.  That way you won’t accidentally hit it.  That’s a mama hint!”  The examples are endless…  If my sister is about to fill a birdseed container on the kitchen floor, my mama may foresee a future problem (as all mom’s do, with those psychic abilities), stop her, and say, “Look — If we move the feeder outside, you don’t risk spilling anything inside.  Instead, if you miss the feeder, you’ll just end up placing seed on the grass, which will still feed the birds.  That’s a mama hint!”

Strangely enough, even after my sister and I moved out of our parent’s house, our ‘mama hints’ didn’t stop.  To this day, we still dub any tip given to one another as a ‘mama hint.’  Sadly, I found myself wondering how long these ‘mama hints’ will last…  James doesn’t know about the coined expression, so I fear when we get married and live together it will die.  That’s why — after being faced with a certain situation — I decided to expand my blog and bring to you my ‘mama hints.’  As my mom both educated me and got me out of sticky situations, I want to help you.  Realize some of my ‘mama hints’ may seem silly… but let’s be honest, advice can be.  Other times though, I hope my ‘mama hints’ can save you from mistakes, loss time, and grief… which — trust me — are three things you’ll want to avoid (and hopefully can) by reading my very first mama hint to you…

Serrano pepper

Chile oil.  James and I are convinced that if people did not use it as a form of torture back in the day, it can — without a doubt — be used in that fashion now.  …Not that we’re advocates of torture… just sayin’.

My story starts over the weekend when I convinced my wonderful fiancé to prepare chili with me.  While we normally munch my chili, I’ve had this unusual craving for spicy foods (thank you for that thought, my dear friends… but no, I’m not pregnant), and James’ chili fit the bill because it’s packed with that warm heat mine lacks.  So after buying our ingredients, we went into my kitchen where I took the stand as my love’s sous chef.  I diced onions, chopped green and red peppers, minced garlic… and finely cut my ultimate enemy — one small green Serrano pepper.

Serrano pepper

I’ve never cut a chile before so this was a new experience.  Sure, I’ve seen a large number of the Food Network chefs take a knife to the beast-like vegetable, but as I realized (yet again), actions seen on TV are hardly ever that easy.  Just like butterflying a chicken is not a simple slip of the knife through joints, dicing a chile is not an easy “cut, cut, done.”  For all that have not tackled chiles yet, listen closely on how not to cut one…

“Okay, chile,” I said to myself.  “I’ve heard some nasty rumors about you, but buddy, I’ll give you a chance”… and with that, I cut it in half long-ways.  “Hummm… This is unusual,” I thought, and that’s because the Serrano pepper was filled with a thick membrane.  While I worked to remove the foam-like insides, I noticed another problem: The seeds were not attached to the membrane (like a red pepper); instead, they were firmly stuck in the inner ‘skin’ of the chile.  This wouldn’t have been a big deal… if it weren’t for the fact that the membrane and seeds were impossible to remove.  I cut and scraped with a knife… to no avail.  So (as I do when some problems are too hard to solve) I rolled up my sleeves and prepared to get down-and-dirty with the chile.  I took my thumb and dug the nail deep down into the heart of the Serrano — scratching the membrane and seeds out until that green sucker until it looked like a hallow chile  canoe.

Inside a Serrano pepper

Pleased with my work, I finely diced it then placed the bits in our chili.

Confession: I’m obsessive compulsive.  Really.  …Well, okay not ‘really’ really… but that’s simply because I don’t want to go to a doctor to be branded with a label I know I’ll have to disclose for the rest of my life.  But, trust me, I do suffer from obsessive compulsive disorder.  That means (as all obsessive freaks do) I have to do the dishes as I cook… If not, I’ll have a nervous breakdown when the plates, bowls, measuring cups, and you name it are smiling up at me at the end of a meal.  So while I was cleaning, I noticed something strange — My fingertips hurt to be under hot water.  Again, because I’m obsessive (and a germaphobic), I have to wash dishes in extra hot water.  Because of this, my hands are more than used to scalding hot temperatures… yet, this time my fingertips hurt so badly, I couldn’t even manage lukewarm water. Strange…

After cleaning up, James and I watched my newly addicted TV show One Born Every Minute.  For those that haven’t seen it, the show is about pregnant women giving birth… with several hidden cameras placed all over the maternity ward to capture every crazy family battle, hilarious husband-wife conversation, and of course, every different birth.  The show is greatly entertaining, but this day, I found I could not concentrate.  My fingertips — namely thumb — were buuurning.  James can attest that at the start of the show, I couldn’t sit still… and by the middle, I was full out screaming in pain louder than the daggon pregnant women delivering.  No joke.  It was the worst pain I’ve ever felt in my life.  I’ve had broken bones, surgeries, etc; this topped the list.  My thumb was silently combusting, exploding, a volcano leaking burning lava except that ‘lava’ seemed to be sliding further inside my hand.

It got to be so bad, I truly thought my hand was paralyzed… and that’s what I told James: “James…  I think my thumb is paralyzed…  I cannot bend it…  I’ve been trying and cannot!  In fact, I cannot even feel this…” and here, I touched my hand.  James, my absolutely sweet fiancé, instantly started questioning me.  “Okay.  Tell me again — It’s a burning feeling?…  Exactly where?…  When did it start?…  Would it help if you kept something cold on it, like dip your thumb in ice water?” and off he dashed for the freezing water.

What happened?  Well, it’s obvious looking back…  That little Serrano pepper excreted its fiery chile oil (or capsaicin) on my fingers and under my thumbnail… since I’m ever so brilliant, using my chewed-extra low thumbnail as a chile seed-scraping tool.

This was around 1:00 p.m.  For the next three hours I soaked my thumb in an ice water bath… to the point that I had another problem — I froze my thumb.  It’s true; I couldn’t bend it and momentarily stopped all blood flow.  My option then?  Let my thumb de-thaw… which caused that searing fire to return and lick under my thumbnail, over thumb, and through my hands.

Clearly, I needed more options to stop the pain…  James recommended aloe vera.  Smart, right?  Didn’t work.  Pain-relief Neosporin to at least numb the affected area?  Nope.  I called Patient First the pain was so intense…  The secretary said I had to — quote — “wash my hands until the oil comes out.”  Helpful, because as she also pointed put, oil and water don’t mix.  (Ps — In my moment of weakness, I did try this and washed my hands more than I have my entire life.  Still the fire remained, stronger.)  Next solution: She suggested using an oil… to attack the oil.  Out came the Baby oil.  Nope again.

As the hours ticked by, James had to go to sleep.  I tried to sleep too (twice) but with the roasting-feeling growing, the only temporary relief I found was the ice water soaking… which, as one can imagine, is not possible while laying in bed.

Three hours past my bedtime at 7:00 p.m., I consulted the person who knew it all — my mom.  Unfortunately, I woke her up from a nap (Pps — Who naps at 7:00 p.m.?!) so helpfulness was not the top priority on her mind.  She suggested soaking my thumb in milk.  “Tried it,” I said, and that was true.  “Doesn’t work.”  My dad then jumped in, overhearing my problem (phone calls in our house are neeever private.  My parents tap calls more often than the government).  His suggestion: vinegar… because it has “medicinal purposes,” according to him.  Vinegar on a burn?  …No.  Maybe it works, but I’d strongly advise against it.  He also thought baking soda would “absorb the oil.”  …There’s something very scary about rubbing baking soda under my thumbnail… on a burn.  Another no for me.  In the end, my parents got so frustrated they ended their help line, instructing me to call my family physician’s emergency number.

Secretary number two.  She said to rub garlic under my nail.  “Garlic has medicinal purposes.  I eat a clove of garlic a day, and it instantly detoxicates me.  Hey!  Maybe try that — Just eat a clove of garlic!  I’d recommend chopping it up in small pieces and swallowing it though… not eating it whole.  That world be rough.”  One, garlic?!  Really?!  Two, if I heard the term ‘medicinal’ again, the next person would have a problem larger than curing my burning thumb.  Three, I didn’t have a need to be detoxified.  I just need my thumb to stop burning.  In the end, I sadly tried all — yes, all… and the garlic shoved under my nails created a whole new burn.

It’s now about five hours before I had to wake up for work.  (And yes, the thought of calling out sick was high in my mind, except I didn’t want to explain why I sounded normal.  The fact was I had a thumb problem.  Despite the seriousness, it was still just a thumb problem.)  So my online research began… I saw where others suggested drinking milk because it ‘calms the tender nerve endings where the chile oil touched.’  I hate milk, but I drank that sucker down.  No relief.  Keep my finger in ice milk because apparently the colder the better.  Ice water though froze my thumb more effectively; cold milk did nothing.  From lemon juice to cucumber slices, it seemed everything possible was suggested to remove capsaicin oil.  And get this — At the end of all recommendations, a little typed note said something like, “Let us know what actually works!”  Dead give-away that these people didn’t have the slightest idea.  Only thing to do in my desperate attempt: keep trying…

Here’s the most crazy steps I came across:
1. Rub salt where the capsaicin oil is dwelling.  Apparently, the rough crystals will raise the oil from my skin.
2. Rinse in milk… which calms the nerve endings.
3. Wash with soap and water to clear the oil from the area.
4. Soak the area in the strongest drinking alcohol available… because that dissolves any remaining oil.

So, at 9:00 p.m., I found myself pouring a shot of Grey Goose vodka.  “Who does this?” was all I could think.  Who coats capsaicin oil under their nails?  Who gives their thumb a bath in Grey Goose?  Who?  And it was about here I felt that slow steady burn creeping back into my thumb again as it soaked in its ritzy bath.  That’s when I knew the vodka, hand-washing, milk, aloe vera, Neosporin — you name it — it didn’t work.

Time to brainstorm: What provided the most relief?  The answer: Ice water… but it was impractical because it froze my thumb.  Plus, there was no way I could keep my thumb in the water to sleep… and sleep was almost the goal now.  Then it hit me — The only ‘solution’ that may have calmed the burn was salt…  I just hadn’t left it on my thumb long enough to experiment if it removed the pain.  It was worth a shot…  Going into the kitchen, I picked up my salt grinder, scattered the crystals in a dish, and rubbed every bit of salt in and on my thumb.  I waited… and waited… and after that… (hold your breath)… nothing.  Well, there still was a dull burning pain, but it was slight.  In my first moment of calm, I took my exhausted self and salt-covered thumb to bed… where I instantly fell asleep with my arm dangled over the bed to reduced the throbbing.

The next thing I knew, it was 1-something in the morning, and my alarm clock was going off for work… and the pain — gone, completely and totally gone.

Now I’m not claiming salt will always defeat capsaicin.  Who knows — Maybe it was all steps combined… or simply my exhaustion that won in the end.  I also want to note that if the salt works, it can only be applied in certain areas.  Let’s use our common sense here — I’d never suggest placing salt in your eye if you had a battle with a chile.  No; I’m simply telling you about my chile mishap so that, if you’re in the same situation (bless your soul) and desperate enough, you’ll know salt has been proven effective on at least one person.  And trust me, knowing one person defeated a chile is more than enough.

In truth, I feel like I was brought back to life after my fierce Serrano pepper war.  I feel like it is now my duty to inform any and everyone of what I learned.  I think that’s why God allowed me to live… so that I can help and teach the world.  Honest.

In the end, this is my first mama hint to you, if you get burned by a vicious chile, salt can remove capsaicin oil.  Oh… and as another mama hint: For goodness grief, avoid this entire issue and always — I repeat — always wear gloves around chiles.  Even if you’re just looking at ‘um.