It’s getting cold out there, and I’m about to make my esophagus searing chili. I call it “Dante’s Nine Circles of Smoking Hell”. People sometimes ask why I voluntarily put myself through tear-inducing misery of first and secondary degree burns to the salivary glands. It’s not just a male ritual thing, like opening beer bottles with our teeth, you’d be surprised how many women love spice in more than just their romance novels.
Historically, spices were used to disguise the funk of “past-its-prime” foods. Cultures around the world found pepper spice added an extra zing to moldered foods, some believing it killed bacteria. Aside from pockets of ethnic neighborhoods and those who lived near the southern border, early American cuisine didn’t cater much to seasoning outside of salt. When I grew up, peppers were green or red, and meant to garnish salads. Cayenne pepper was as exotic as you got. Now the produce department displays hybrid varieties of habaneras, scorpion, and ghost peppers, next to traditional jalapenos and serranos. Condiment shelves bulge with a kaleidoscope of evil-sounding hot sauces like Redneck Ass Whoopin, Colon Cleaner, Burning Bush, Megasoerass, Devil’s Hemorrhoids, Bubba’s Butt Blaster, and Hot Biker Bitch. You’ll find boring old Tabasco in the baby food section.
What’s behind the insanity of hot stuff? It’s all in the capsaicin, a purported super food that releases pleasure chemicals called endorphins, if you can handle the pain it comes with. Think of it as culinary masochism. As for me, if I’m not hurting, I’m not having fun. My daughters can’t understand how my tongue hasn’t been cauterized to a senseless lump of flesh. They’re just jealous.
The hot pepper craze started sometime in the late eighties, when mail order places like Mo Hotta Mo Betta, opened up a whole new world of hybrid peppers and boutique hot sauces. Before then, few knew of the Scoville Organoleptic Test for measuring the heat level in chili peppers, named for pharmacist, Wilbur Scoville, who invented it in 1912. The higher the index, the hotter the chili. It’s become a never-ending contest to see who can cook up the hottest offering.
As you can see from the chart, our tissue-scorching psychosis has reached new levels since the paltry jalapeño. The chart is already outdated. It doesn’t list the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T pepper at 1.4 million Scoville units, bred by an Australian seed grower, who allegedly uses worm-poop enriched soil. The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion claims to have the same strength as police-grade pepper spray. Whatever it is, Trinidad and scorpions seem to be a key factors. A New Jersey man owns the current world record with a sauce called “Blair’s 16 Million Reserve”, which is akin to popping a hot charcoal in your mouth. I’ll stick to the Cool Million pictured above, available from MoHotta.
Today, chili pepper festivals are as numerous as an old-fashioned county fair, and local farmers markets often have at least one pepper sauce vendor in attendance. I go to one every year in September, where thousands descend on the tiny hamlet of Bower, Pa to sample sauces and chili guaranteed to sear going in and coming out. This year, I had a grilled habanera burger that had me weeping for joy. Afterwards, we took a short walk to the Meadowview Farm, which grows hundreds of pepper varieties and heirloom tomatoes for specialty markets. It’s the one time of year where you can pick-your-own peppers. Just remember to wear gloves.
Food in science fiction and fantasy can paint a vivid cultural perspective when world building. I think it’s time I came up with a story in which hot peppers define a population, with fiery personalities to boot.
How about you? What kicks the spice into your life besides 50 Shades of Grey?