Slow Burn

Photo Credit: Facundo Gastiazoro

Slow Burn

🕔Dec 03, 2018

by Allison Smith

The recipe called for 500 grams of arbol chilis. That’s a lot of chilis. That’s what the clerk said when we bought them.

I eat meat. But I don’t hunt and I don’t particularly like skinning or butchering. I prefer the tail end of processing: making sausage, salami, or even just vacuum packing.

This past February, after a successful deer hunt on Haida Gwaii with a group of friends, I volunteered to prep a harissa deer sausage recipe, starting with the mundane task of deseeding the chilis—all 500 grams of them.

It was a Sunday morning in Sandspit and we assumed our roles. I sat down at the kitchen table with two large stainless steel mixing bowls. One full of chilis soaking in warm water, and the other waiting for the deseeded chili skins. I had one glove.

I didn’t come with just one glove; my gloves were commandeered by the upfront processors doing the butchering. All that was left was one little glove. In hindsight, I definitely could have found more gloves somewhere—in the kitchen or out in the shop. But at the time, I thought one would do.

“Make sure you wear gloves,” my partner Joe said as I settled into my role and he made his way to the shop to butcher.

“Oh, I know,” I responded. Typical.

I snapped the lonely glove onto my right hand and got to work: Slicing open a chili, running my thumb up the middle to detach the ferocious seeds, dipping it in the water bath, and finally placing it in the second bowl. I did this again and again and again. One at a time. A meditative task. As the chili seeds started to accumulate, the water warmed and smelled of spice. Over time I got sloppy. I chatted about Netflix and Joe’s weird obsession with the Interstellar soundtrack. I was distracted. My left hand wanted to help out and the warm water felt so nice. I didn’t see what all the fuss was about—neither of my hands were burning. Maybe these chilis were different?

I had to head home earlier than the rest of the group. Since we were on Moresby Island, I caught the last ferry back. I finished two-thirds of the chili deseeding task, and felt pretty good about my progress. I was looking forward to a quiet night catching up on chores, and walking my dog. I snapped off my glove, hopped in my car, and made my way to the terminal. As I waited for the ferry to arrive my left hand started to tingle. It was nearly 5:30 p.m.

By 6:30, the slow tingle is a distracting burn. I tried folding laundry and washing dishes, but I couldn’t focus.

At 7 the burn sharpened and was gnawing at the back of my eyes. I try to distract myself with TV,   knees bouncing, and teeth clenched. I could barely handle it.


I began googling with my precious right hand. Thank god for the one glove. I searched “how to stop chili burns”. The list of options was long. I was so thankful for the other know-it-alls who processed chilis without gloves and were letting me learn from our collective mistakes. I clicked on a forum where people from all over the world shared their home remedies. I was saved.

I started with Paul’s recommendation of olive oil. I poured it over my hand. It felt nice. Cooling. It pulled the heat right out of my skin. I sat back down with my greasy, cool hand and continued to distract myself on my computer. But relief was only temporary. The oil warmed and dripped onto the counter. The burn persevered, and somehow it was getting worse.

Back to the forum. I tried Kim’s recommendation of baking soda. I wiped off my hand with a dishcloth and in a panic, poured baking soda from my fingertips to my wrist. It spilled onto the counter and stuck to the pools of oil. This had no effect. No cooling or temporary relief. I was just making a mess. Thanks a lot, Kim.

Next: cold water. The pain floated away, and twirled down the sink. I held my hand under the tap for as long as I could. But every time I took it away, the burn returned. Soothing, but it wasn’t sustainable.

At this point it’s after 8 p.m. and I’m desperate. My jaw was permanently clenched, the f-word  sitting on the tip of my tongue ready to be screamed, and nothing in the stupid forum was working. I tried everything else Google had to offer: rubbing alcohol, vinegar, gin, dish soap, more baking soda, more olive oil, then baking soda again. I used a scrub brush to remove a layer of skin under cold water. Then another. And another. The kitchen was a disaster and the smell of alcohol was making me sick. Nothing worked. 9:30 comes...and goes.

Milk had come up in a few different blog posts as a relief, not a cure. Joe drinks milk and there was a nearly-full carton in the fridge. I no longer cared if it was wasted—I could buy another. I poured a bowlful and submerged my now-raw hand into it. My back relaxed, the hint of a smile crept onto my face. A lone tear fell from my eye. Cured. I took the bowl of glorious milk and sat down to watch TV. The five minute mark passed and my hand felt fine.

Fifteen minutes later the milk was warm. And as it warmed it lost its medicinal effects. No problem, I had this: just refill and relax. I repeated for about an hour until the carton was empty and bowls of spicy milk were scattered around the kitchen among the pools of oil and baking soda and vinegar.

I was tired. Very tired. I had to work in the morning and it was almost 11. I was manic at this point. I tried everything again. I even raided our camping first aid kit for after burn gel that did nothing for chili burns. Nothing. Then I remembered the giant tub of yogurt at the back of the fridge. Yogurt wasn’t on any of the blogs.  I droped the scrub brush in the sink, grabbed the tub, ripped off the lid, and plunged my hand into the heavy, thick bath of the best-darn-yogurt I ever had. A pool on a hot summer day, sex after abstinence, the holy light at the end of the tunnel. Thank god Joe is not lactose intolerant. Bring on the fat!

I crawled into bed with my yogurt container. Normally this would seem like a sad Bridget Jones moment, but it was the best decision I made all day. I put it on the floor with my hand dangling into the container, and then moved it to the middle of the bed so I could lay on my back. If I stayed just still enough, the yogurt wouldn’t spill and I could sleep.

But it was all a lie. That fatty yogurt wasn’t at all what I thought it was. It worked longer than the milk...but it was like all the rest of the remedies. False hope.  Was I going to have to go to the hospital and explain this to my nurse friends? Do I run water over my hand all night and not sleep? What was I to do? I needed something, anything.

Ice cubes. I filled a ziploc bag and put my hand directly on it until it went numb. Yes I was risking frost bite but it let me drift away into a frozen sleep. It let me numb the pain.

At about 2 a.m. I woke up in a puddle of water and soaked sheets, with a burning hand. I refilled the ice, laid down a towel, and went back to sleep—until 4. And then again at 6. By 8 the burning had finally ended.

I crawled out of bed with a vulnerability hangover. I went into the kitchen to find bowls of warm milk, after burn gel, and a bottle of Bombay gin, cap strewn carelessly on the counter. I pulled the wet sheets off the bed and threw them in the wash. I put the yogurt container in the recycling, wrote “milk” on the grocery list stuck to the fridge, and returned the scrub brush to its home under the sink, next to the full box of latex gloves.