A pepper primer

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Besides “be careful where you scratch” anecdotes about handling chile peppers — then handling yourself — the funniest hot sauce story I’ve heard came from John Jonna, an owner of the recently closed Merchant of Vino store in downtown Royal Oak.

Jonna grabbed hold of the hot sauce rage just as it really took off a few years ago, and had stocked one side of a long aisle with outrageous brands from around the world. I was looking them over one day and stopped Jonna to chat. He’d just returned from a foods expo, where many new hot sauces were shown, and was very excited.

“I’ve gotta tell you about this one,” he said, eyes wide. “I put one drop on a chip, chewed, swallowed, and thought it wasn’t so bad. But then I fell down. And cried. Truth! That’s what happened when it hit.”

The brand was Dave’s Insanity, packed in a little “coffin” and wrapped, if I remember correctly, in yellow police crime-scene tape. A year or so later, my sons — good guys who aren’t above helping Dad set his own head on fire — gave me some as a gift. One scant drop from the tip of a toothpick paralyzed my vocal chords for almost a minute, left me deeply flushed, nose gushing, face cascading sweat and wanting to cry just a little.

I won’t waste time or space here explaining why chileheads freely step to the fore to hurt themselves with increasingly hotter concoctions. We’re nuts, and a little addicted to the rush. Let’s leave it at that.

But I draw the line after the habanero, the hottest pepper used in hot sauces and cooking, but with a very pleasant fruit flavor that complements all sorts of foods. Trouble is, you have to invest a great deal of time — years, in my case — developing a tolerance to increasingly hotter chiles before you can detect any of their flavors through the flames.

Funny that we should only now be discovering hot foods nearly 400 years into America’s history — which is to say, since high-white European tightasses with a hatred for sensuality and a taste for the bland landed on the East Coast, plundered at will and set the stage for today’s neo-conservatives.

Most other world cultures have enjoyed eating hot stuff since many centuries before the American upstart came to be. We’re late to the table, but loving it.

Yet many of us still don’t speak the language of chile peppers, and it all can be confusing. First, how is the word itself spelled? Take your pick of a surprising number of variations, but here we choose to use “chile” for the pepper, and “chili” for the cowboy dish.

For those who still think of the jalapeno as the extreme standard against which all other chiles are measured, you ain’t tasted nothin’ yet. And there’s a nice, now common, quasi-scientific way to determine the heat of chile peppers without ever taking a bite.

The jalapeno isn’t even mid-range hot, whether eaten green or fully ripened to red. On the Scoville scale, created specifically to measure the heat in chile peppers, it comes in at a maximum 6,000 units, compared to 0 for bell pepper; only about 500 for the pepperoncini that has been served pickled on relish trays and in Greek salads for as long as most of us can remember; 1,000 for Anaheim (or New Mexico); and 1,500 for ancho, the most widely used dried chile in Mexico, made from the poblano, which many of us first encounter in chile rellenos (although green Anaheims are also often used). But the little serrano, the “sport pepper” that must be on a true Chicago-style hot dog, measures 23,000 Scovies, and there are many more up the scale to the habanero at 300,000 units or more.

A company called Original Juan recently released something it calls “The Source,” containing hardcore levels of capsaicin, the stinging substance in both chiles and police pepper spray, measuring more than 7 million Scovies and of no practical use but to hurt yourself or others. It also retails for as much as $99 an ounce, so get real. (For the record, pure capsaicin claims 16 million Scoville units, and, almost certainly, the occasional life.)

Pharamacist Wilber L. Scoville came up with his scale in 1912 by adding one part chile extract to sweetened water until its heat was barely tasted on the human tongue — one part of pure capsaicin can still be tasted in 16 million parts sugar water, and so on.

Chromatography is more scientific and objective than the Scoville scale, but everything’s subject to the vagaries of soil, climate, the part of the pepper tasted, the growing season and more, so to one degree or another, the heat in a given chile is variable and up for grabs. And for all practical, comparative purposes, Scoville’s close enough.

I very highly recommend trying some of those mysterious dried chiles that are showing up in ever-wider varieties in groceries. There’s plenty of info and recipes online to help, and you’ll be rewarded. Promise.

Then the day will come when that little red-capped, green-necked bottle of Tabasco (cayenne, around 8,000 SU) no longer sits undisturbed and fading from the color of blood to watery pink. It’ll become as common to you as salt and black pepper. You’ll find yourself using, and wanting, more.

Then you’re a chilehead. May the gods keep you safe.

Ric Bohy is editor of Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]
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