On certain summer days, it's so hot you wake up and the first things out of your mouth are lines from Dante's "Inferno": "eternal fire, with ruddy flame illumed, as in this nether hell." But really, what could Dante have known about "nether hell," anyway? He never spent July in Florida.
When the temperature in this nether hell of Orlando approximates Dante's fifth circle (that's where the "wrathful" and "gloomy" are stuck frying like bacon), the last thing you feel like doing is eating anything that's hot or heavy. The solution? You can simply forgo food altogether, lying still like a spent slug and lifting your head only for measly sips of water; or you can pick your foods from one of two major heat-fighting categories: the spicy and the raw.
It's a simple cause and effect: Spicy foods make you sweat, which cools you off. Considering this equation, I suggest starting your day not with coffee or orange juice but with a bloody Mary at Wally's Mills Avenue Liquors (1001 N. Mills Ave.; 407-896-6975), an establishment considerate enough to open its doors at 7:30 a.m. Added bonus: The bar is darker than the Batcave, making any thoughts of the sun's rays drift away like wispy, liquor-infused clouds of smoke. Which is exactly what you'll likely encounter at Wally's. For a measly $2 the bartender will fill a small glass nearly to the rim with vodka, then shake plenty of Tabasco into it, then -- as if in an afterthought -- dribble some bloody Mary mix on top, which seeps slowly down into the vodka. The jolt of Tabasco will kick you out of heat lethargy better than any double latte, and at a Wally's breakfast you won't get a second glance from the other patrons, like the Florida Hospital workers drinking beer next to you in their scrubs. You can occupy your time wondering if they've just gotten off work or are on their way in.
Or you can spend the hours pondering whether chiles make you hot in a different, bothered way: Think about the Jesuit priest José de Acosta, who in 1590 wrote that the chile pepper was "prejudicial to the health of young folks, chiefly to the soul, for it provokes lust." Those Jesuits, they just can't get their minds off lust. Then again, maybe he's right, and after finishing that spicy bloody Mary you'll look across the bar and come to think that surgical scrubs are pretty fetching attire.
If you need something to soak up the morning's vodka, you can follow through with the Inferno theme and drive south to Dante's Grille & Pizzeria (1912 S. Orange Ave.; 407-839-0605). Skip the middling pastas -- who can handle the thought of all that boiling water, anyway? -- and instead order the downright humongous bowl of mussels swimming in a tomato broth that's chock full of mildly spicy peppers. Mmm. Just look at those mussels. Like British tourists, they've passed their lives hidden from the sun, having spent their days napping beneath a lot of water. That image alone should lower your body temperature a few degrees, and if it doesn't, look up. As a friend noticed on a recent visit, Dante's has enough ceiling fans to cool a lake of fire.
For those really hot days, I have two words: cold and raw. Specifically, go for cold fish. Though these words often get associated with people who recoil and get tight-lipped when they hear words like "inner thigh," cold fish actually has a good amount of sensual possibilities. Furthermore, fish never sweat, never get sunburned and never have blithely placed their little shiny fins on a steering wheel that was hotter than a branding iron. Raw fish is just about the pinnacle of hot-weather food: no sun, no heat involved.
The salmon sashimi at Shiki Japanese Restaurant melts in your mouth like warm butter: You barely have to chew, so not even one of your little bodily calories will feel any burn. You can just sit there and sigh extravagantly, and very deeply. Shiki also has a great "Popeye roll" made with spinach and mussels. (Ha! Get it?) Lots of wasabi lets you achieve that sweat-inducing tingle on the top of your head.
Need more cold fish? There's raw oysters, of course, which on the menu of the Orlando Ale House come complete with a health warning. Raw oysters are risky, and they're slippery, making them terribly sexy, in case you've still got with you that Florida Hospital worker in those baggy, come-hither scrubs.
If you want to stick with cold, slippery, wiggly things, the Vietnamese have the desserts for you. In a brilliantly unexpected maneuver, the Vietnamese have rebelled against what the rest of us look for in a dessert -- things like "rich," "creamy," "identifiable." Instead they put gelatinous strips in a glass of crushed ice and plop it down in front of you with a big, victorious smile.
The thàch chè dessert at Vinh's Restaurant (1231 E. Colonial Drive; 407-894-5007) is described as "Vietnamese jelly and sweet mung beans with coconut milk." I won't even address the deep cuisine perversion of putting beans in a dessert; the upshot is that the coconut milk is cool and sweet, and the electric red and orange gummi-grass-looking jelly-sorta things are pleasantly innocuous tasting.
Finish off your hot-weather menu with some fruity, frozen, froufrou drinks at Bahama Breeze. Yeah, it's a chain, and the drinks are fairly weak for their $4.50 price tag, but the layers of pink and peach slush in the "ultimate piña colada" are awfully pretty. The "mojito Cubano" combines spearmint leaves, lime juice, sugar cane and rum, for a Buena Vista Social Club twist on the mint julep. And foodwise, there's "escabeche": mahi-mahi served cold, decorated with peppers the colors of the gelatinous things in the Vinh's dessert.
By the end of this culinary agenda you'll have cooled yourself from the inside-out and can spend the night dreaming of oceans of cold fish, a pleasant mirage in the Sahara-like temperatures of an Orlando summer day.