Hot Stuff: It’s a Little Spicy

 

People get reputations. Sometimes they work to create a certain reputation. Sometimes it just happens. When I was growing up, I was exposed to spicy food often. One of my daddy’s favorite phrases was, “It’s not hot until it makes your hair sweat.” And he meant hair, not just your scalp. Hair doesn’t have sweat pores? Then up the heat until they grow some. Looking back, this was certainly an example of his trying to create a reputation for himself of being tough and manly. He had been in the U. S. Army. Later, he was a railroad detective and then a municipal policeman. He was surrounded through most of his adult life in an atmosphere of what some now call “toxic masculinity.” Were I to try to analyze him, I would guess that having had polio as a boy might have been a driving factor for him to be tough and do manly things, to overcome physical limitations. But whatever his motivations, it meant that I grew up learning that real men do not use the mild salsa, but go for the hot sauce. I became inured to the heat. I expected the heat. Mild Mexican food? Who would bother to eat that?

As I got out on my own and was cooking for myself, I was always interested in new peppers. Back in the early 1990s, the hottest pepper known in the US was the Habanero. It had some Cod-awful level of heat that was up to 350,000 Scovilles. The Scoville scale is a measure of how hot something is as measured through dilution. They start out by diluting a bit of pureed pepper with water, such as at a million to one ratio, to see if someone can still detect the spiciness. If not, they cut back on the dilution until the spiciness is detected. In the case of the Habanero, it can be detected at a dilution of between 350,000:1 and at the mild end at about 100,000:1. To give some scale for a normal human, a Jalapeño runs between a mild 3,500:1 to a hot Jalapeño at 8,000:1. Thus a Habanero is between about twelve and a hundred times as spicy as your average Jalapeño. Cayenne pepper runs between 30,000 and 50,000 Scovilles for another comparison. Since the 1990s, more peppers have become known or developed that are over a million Scovilles, such as the Carolina Reaper at 1,569,300 Scovilles, but even up to 1999, Guinness was recording Habaneros as the hottest pepper cultivar in the world.

One thing about being inured to spice is that one can actually taste the peppers. I found that I did not like the Habanero much. It was too sour, like the Jalapeño. I much preferred the Serrano pepper, which only runs between 10,000 and 23,000 Scovilles. Only a tenth as hot as the Habanero, but still about three times as hot as the Jalapeño, it actually tastes fresh, more like Bell peppers.

I took to making my own salsas and hot sauces, since what was available in restaurants and stores was either too mild or too sour and vinegary. I usually used the Serrano, since I liked the taste. After reading about and experiencing the Habanero, I decided to make some sauce for my father. If a good hot sauce made from the hottest pepper in the world couldn’t satisfy him and make his hair sweat, what would?

Making a good hot sauce takes time. The makers of Tabasco Sauce® age their pepper mash in oak barrels for at least three years, going on up to fifteen years for special sauces. (They also do things like straining out the seeds, which are often the hottest part of the pepper, which is part of why their sauces are so wimpy. Even their Habanero variety is only a bit north of 7,000 Scovilles.) As the lady said, “Ain’t nobody got time for that!” Or at least I didn’t have time for that. Still, it’s good to age the pepper mash for a bit. Unlike Colonel Brown, I didn’t even know one could buy barrels to age various types of mash in, so I had to make do with other techniques. I aged it for about two weeks, added some other ingredients to improve the overall flavor, pureed the result, and it was good to go. I made about a half gallon of it, by the way, because who wouldn’t go through that hot sauce fairly quickly, right? Even with the other ingredients, I doubt it had been diluted to below 100,000 Scovilles.

I sent half of it off to my father. His report came on our next phone call, “Well, I tried some yesterday. My hair is still sweating.” That was the seal of approval.

But I had a lot of sauce left, sauce that I didn’t really like the taste of because of the sourness of the peppers. I decided to take some into work with me with some corn chips. At the time, I was working for an information technology (IT) company at a client site. The client happened to be a school, and our IT center had at one time been faculty housing. The kitchen fixtures had been removed, leaving one large room that was tiled and where we kept the network admins. Since they had gutted the kitchen, we had a break room in the basement where we had a small fridge and a microwave. Because the campus was somewhat isolated from fast food, many of our team would bring lunches. Several of us were down in the basement break room the day I brought a container of the hot sauce.

“I’ve got some hot sauce and chips. Anyone want to try it?” I asked.

“Is it hot?” our resident ditsy blonde asked.

I loaded up a chip with a big glob of sauce and crunched into it, “Well, it is made with peppers. They’re a little on the sour side for my taste. But, it’s a little spicy.”

Despite being a ditsy blonde, she was smart enough or clued in enough by my nonchalance and understatement to be cautious. She took a chip, and I swear that she only waved it over the sauce, not actually making contact, and then she put that chip in her mouth, “Oh my God! That is sooo hot!” And off she went to get water or yogurt or some such. Like the various occupations my father had been part of, IT tends to be a very male-dominated field. Unlike being in the army, being a code toad does not lend itself to masculine he-man feats-of-strength credibility. So, when an opportunity comes along for IT guys to prove their masculine credentials, they tend to jump on it hard.

“Yeah, I think I’d like to try that,” Bill said. Bill came from a culture where mamas eat enough peppers that their breast milk probably runs 10,000 Scovilles. (His birth name was also not “Bill,” of course, but he used that since he figured nobody could pronounce his real name.) He loaded up a chip, stuffed it in his mouth, and began to chew. He turned a bit red and broke out in a sweat. After a bit, he swallowed and said. “Not bad. Maybe a bit bland. Has a slight bite, though.”

While women may not appreciate the subtleties of male culture and one-upmanship, every male would recognize in that a challenge, “If you can’t handle this sauce with aplomb, you should just put on a dress right now.”

My boss who had been a jock who had gone through college on a double athletic scholarship had to try it. He was half-Irish and half-Polish, neither culture being known for spicy foods. He was also in that peak time of proving one still has machismo as he approached his thirtieth birthday. He managed not to cough or choke as he got the chip down. He turned bright red, but said in a voice that was unusually high and squeaky for him, “I was expecting something hotter.”

I loaded up another chip and casually downed it, looking at the other guys at the table. They were all young, under thirty, and still stupid enough with testosterone that they couldn’t resist the challenge. All of them dug into that concoction. Each had to crank up the understatement on the next, and then they had to all go another round and then another.

None of them went into respiratory distress, although I suspect most of them regretted their adventure in manly hot sauce consumption within a few days as the pepper processed out of the far end of the alimentary canal.

And that is how I got rid of the rest of a sauce that I didn’t particularly like. It’s also part of how I got a reputation for being able to handle spicy foods.

Published in Group Writing
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There are 67 comments.

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  1. Stad Thatcher

    I remember in high school, we read a short story about a man challenged to eat a hot pepper. The descriptions of the agony he went through were so vivid, many of us squirmed in our seats as we read.

    Fast forward to today, and I’m a big fan of hotness in food. However, the trick is to make it deliciously hot, not hot for heat’s sake. Anyone can dump a jar of cayenne into a pot and make whatever’s cooking hot.

    BTW, South Carolina is home to a record setting pepper:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carolina_Reaper

    However, there are new challengers which have probably surpassed it enough to be classified as WMD . . .

    • #1
    • June 12, 2019, at 5:58 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  2. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Stad (View Comment):
    BTW, South Carolina is home to a record setting pepper:

    I mentioned it and its rating at the end of the second paragraph. I’m always looking out for the Carolinas. 😉

    • #2
    • June 12, 2019, at 6:01 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Stad (View Comment):
    I remember in high school, we read a short story about a man challenged to eat a hot pepper. The descriptions of the agony he went through were so vivid, many of us squirmed in our seats as we read.

    Language warning:

    • #3
    • June 12, 2019, at 6:02 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  4. Stad Thatcher

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Stad (View Comment):
    BTW, South Carolina is home to a record setting pepper:

    I mentioned it and its rating at the end of the second paragraph. I’m always looking out for the Carolinas. 😉

    Yep, thought I’d add a little background on the Reaper and its competitors. The link to the Reaper guy’s company:

    https://puckerbuttpeppercompany.com/

    Order a bottle of Reaper Sauce if you dare!

    • #4
    • June 12, 2019, at 6:19 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  5. Hoyacon Member

    As a fan of Caribbean cooking, I’ll put in a word here for the Scotch Bonnet pepper, so named because of it’s alleged resemblance to a tam-o-shanter hat. It’s a relative of the habanero with a Scoville rating of 80,000-400,000. It’s sweeter, frequently used in jerk preparations, and is distinguishable from a number of peppers in actually having taste (sweet) apart from heat. It’s also been around for a good long while in nature and the art of cooking, and is distinguishable from peppers such as the Reaper and other recent concoctions that are simply bred to be hot in some type of arms race.

    • #5
    • June 12, 2019, at 6:33 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  6. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    …and is distinguishable from peppers such as the Reaper and other recent concoctions that are simply bred to be hot in some type of arms race.

    As Stad said above, WMD.

    • #6
    • June 12, 2019, at 6:34 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  7. Hoyacon Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    …and is distinguishable from peppers such as the Reaper and other recent concoctions that are simply bred to be hot in some type of arms race.

    As Stad said above, WMD.

    And he’s right. I’m not impressed. By the peppers, not Stad.

     

    • #7
    • June 12, 2019, at 6:36 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  8. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    Puckerbutt is a great name. That’s what peppers that are super hot do the next day….

    I like that they sell seeds, but some of those plants won’t produce well in the more northern states. Like AOC complained of people not growing jicama in their community garden plots, you can plant them but they’ll just sit there. Some of it is day length, some of it is soil. If your soil pH is too low (i.e., if you can grow blueberries and rhododendrons sprout like weeds), you won’t get much. You can allegedly buy authentic Tabasco seeds, but good luck growing them.

    A good variety of serrano peppers for northern climates is called Hot Rod.

    • #8
    • June 12, 2019, at 8:38 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Hang On Member

    And this carries over into Texas A&M Corps of Cadets. I ran across this guys blog a while ago and there was a challenge to the commandant for a chili pepper eating contest. Hilarious.

    @arahant I like spicy food, but I’m probably a wuss compared to you and freely admit it. (I also like having a lining on my stomach.)

    • #9
    • June 12, 2019, at 9:10 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. Percival Thatcher

    Arahant: Mild Mexican food? Who would bother to eat that?

    Mild Mexicans?

    • #10
    • June 12, 2019, at 9:31 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Hang On (View Comment):
    I like spicy food, but I’m probably a wuss compared to you and freely admit it.

    Not any more. This story is from more than a quarter of a century ago. Then I went and met this girl who didn’t like spice at all. Since I cook for both of us, it meant taking it easy on spices. I am no longer inured to the heat.

    • #11
    • June 12, 2019, at 9:42 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant: Mild Mexican food? Who would bother to eat that?

    Mild Mexicans?

    Never knew any of those.

    • #12
    • June 12, 2019, at 9:42 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. Joshua Bissey Coolidge

    Arahant: One thing about being inured to spice is that one can actually taste the peppers. I found that I did not like the Habanero much. It was too sour…

    Yo tambien.

    I must say, though, Tabasco did a pretty good job with their Habanero sauce. It’s pretty good. Not as good as the Chipotle sauce, but not at all bad.

    • #13
    • June 12, 2019, at 10:15 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  14. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Joshua Bissey (View Comment):
    Tabasco did a pretty good job with their Habanero sauce.

    Never actually tried it. I suspect it came out after I had already experienced as much Habanero as I ever wanted since the sourness was inherent within the pepper as with the Jalapeño. Of course, they might be mellowing out the sourness in those oaken barrels.

    • #14
    • June 12, 2019, at 10:23 AM PDT
    • Like
  15. dnewlander Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hoyacon (View Comment):
    …and is distinguishable from peppers such as the Reaper and other recent concoctions that are simply bred to be hot in some type of arms race.

    As Stad said above, WMD.

    The Indian Army makes pepper spray from ghost peppers, so it has been weaponized.

    • #15
    • June 12, 2019, at 10:48 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  16. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    dnewlander (View Comment):
    The Indian Army makes pepper spray from ghost peppers, so it has been weaponized.

    Just eating them is weaponized enough.

    • #16
    • June 12, 2019, at 10:50 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  17. The Great Adventure! Member

    I like spicy – I’ve always said if it doesn’t raise a bead of sweat on your forehead, it’s not worth eating. I don’t think I’d be terribly interested in my hair sweating, however.

    My rule of thumb has always been – if it is so hot you can’t taste anything else, it’s too hot.

    • #17
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:06 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  18. Hartmann von Aue Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):
    The Indian Army makes pepper spray from ghost peppers, so it has been weaponized.

    Just eating them is weaponized enough.

    And you never, never, never want to get the oil from one on a contact lens you are wearing. Ask someone to drop an anvil on your foot first. It will hurt much, much less. 

    • #18
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:13 AM PDT
    • 10 likes
  19. Boss Mongo Member

    Arahant: He had been in the U. S. Army. Later, he was a railroad detective and then a municipal policeman.

    Dunno. Sounds plenty tough to me.

    We just did a round as you described when someone came back from Trinidad & Tobago with some Bertie’s Scorpion Pepper Sauce. I like hot and spicy, but this was insane. I get the maxed out “5 star” heat level at my Thai place, and they know to go ahead and just bring the spice wheel to table so I can kick it up. Bertie’s was a tough job. It was hot enough that the retired, battle-hardened Command Sergeant Major that sits next to me actually muttered, “Man, Ima tell you what.”

    I also always get a kick out of some of the hotter offerings from Belizean Marie Sharpe’s sauces, which has on the back label, “Warning: Extremely Hot! Do not use this sauce to play jokes on the old or the sick.”

    • #19
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:24 AM PDT
    • 7 likes
  20. dnewlander Member

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    dnewlander (View Comment):
    The Indian Army makes pepper spray from ghost peppers, so it has been weaponized.

    Just eating them is weaponized enough.

    And you never, never, never want to get the oil from one on a contact lens you are wearing. Ask someone to drop an anvil on your foot first. It will hurt much, much less.

    Agreed. I made a raspberry-habanero sauce once, and I seeded and sliced the peppers by hand. While doing so, my nose was itching, so i rubbed it with the backside of my hand.

    I had to take a shower immediately to get my eyes to stop watering. Even though I hadn’t come close to touching them.

    • #20
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:28 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  21. Joshua Bissey Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Joshua Bissey (View Comment):
    Tabasco did a pretty good job with their Habanero sauce.

    Never actually tried it. I suspect it came out after I had already experienced as much Habanero as I ever wanted since the sourness was inherent within the pepper as with the Jalapeño. Of course, they might be mellowing out the sourness in those oaken barrels.

    They add sugar and a whole lot of fruit. Banana, tamarind, mango, and a few others I forget.

    • #21
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:36 AM PDT
    • Like
  22. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    And you never, never, never want to get the oil from one on a contact lens you are wearing. Ask someone to drop an anvil on your foot first. It will hurt much, much less. 

    That hurts just thinking about it.

    • #22
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:50 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):
    It was hot enough that the retired, battle-hardened Command Sergeant Major that sits next to me actually muttered, “Man, Ima tell you what.”

    Always a sign of something.

    Boss Mongo (View Comment):
    I also always get a kick out of some of the hotter offerings from Belizean Marie Sharpe’s sauces, which has on the back label, “Warning: Extremely Hot! Do not use this sauce to play jokes on the old or the sick.”

    I like that. Thanks for sharing it.

    • #23
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:54 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Joshua Bissey (View Comment):
    They add sugar and a whole lot of fruit. Banana, tamarind, mango, and a few others I forget.

    No wonder it’s measured at only about 7,000 Scovilles. 😉

    • #24
    • June 12, 2019, at 11:56 AM PDT
    • 1 like
  25. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    And you never, never, never want to get the oil from one on a contact lens you are wearing. Ask someone to drop an anvil on your foot first. It will hurt much, much less. 

    Aw gee I did that in college, but it wasn’t a super hot pepper. I used to have a townie drinking pal in college. There was a hangout that had decent pizza, cheap beer, a jukebox, the usual. If you ordered a pizza other students would decend on you like a swarm, asking to share. Matthew and I always said, sure, we’ll share! “What’s on your pizza?” they asked. Our reply, “Double Hot peppers.” They all walked sadly away. We ordered that deliberately to keep the moochers away. It was probably only the Hungarian Hot Wax peppers that you get anywhere. I had to keep soaking and cleaning the contact lenses for days before I could use them again.

    • #25
    • June 12, 2019, at 1:54 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  26. Annefy Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Hartmann von Aue (View Comment):
    And you never, never, never want to get the oil from one on a contact lens you are wearing. Ask someone to drop an anvil on your foot first. It will hurt much, much less.

    That hurts just thinking about it.

    Happened to a friend of mine (don’t know what kind of pepper). Her boyfriend called the local Mexican restaurant to get advice – they recommended rinsing her eye out with lots and lots of milk.

    It worked.

    • #26
    • June 12, 2019, at 2:08 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  27. Annefy Member

    I don’t know much about peppers, but I love your description of everyone trying to out-man each other. 

    I have always loved spicey food (probably thanks to my mother’s boring cooking – anything with flavor and a bit of kick was sought after and appreciated). But when I was pregnant, I was off the hook. I remember takeout meals my husband would bring home for me and my lips would still be on fire the next morning. Which probably accounts for my four kids and their taste buds and appreciation for HOT.

    My daughter roasts the peppers, makes the salsa and she and her brother all sit around in 100-degree+ weather commenting that it’s “not as hot as last time, but okay”. While trying to not obviously cough or choke or down too many beers.

    • #27
    • June 12, 2019, at 2:14 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  28. The Great Adventure! Member

    Annefy (View Comment):

    I don’t know much about peppers, but I love your description of everyone trying to out-man each other.

    I have always loved spicey food (probably thanks to my mother’s boring cooking – anything with flavor and a bit of kick was sought after and appreciated). But when I was pregnant, I was off the hook. I remember takeout meals my husband would bring home for me and my lips would still be on fire the next morning. Which probably accounts for my four kids and their taste buds and appreciation for HOT.

    My daughter roasts the peppers, makes the salsa and she and her brother all sit around in 100-degree+ weather commenting that it’s “not as hot as last time, but okay”. While trying to not obviously cough or choke or down too many beers.

    I still don’t understand how our son doesn’t have black hair and an olive complexion. The ONLY thing my wife would eat when she was pregnant with him was Mexican.

    • #28
    • June 12, 2019, at 2:20 PM PDT
    • 4 likes
  29. Arahant Member
    Arahant Post author

    Annefy (View Comment):
    they recommended rinsing her eye out with lots and lots of milk.

    Yeah. Cold water just makes the fires angrier.

    • #29
    • June 12, 2019, at 3:01 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  30. Annefy Member

    The Great Adventure! (View Comment):

    Annefy (View Comment):

    I don’t know much about peppers, but I love your description of everyone trying to out-man each other.

    I have always loved spicey food (probably thanks to my mother’s boring cooking – anything with flavor and a bit of kick was sought after and appreciated). But when I was pregnant, I was off the hook. I remember takeout meals my husband would bring home for me and my lips would still be on fire the next morning. Which probably accounts for my four kids and their taste buds and appreciation for HOT.

    My daughter roasts the peppers, makes the salsa and she and her brother all sit around in 100-degree+ weather commenting that it’s “not as hot as last time, but okay”. While trying to not obviously cough or choke or down too many beers.

    I still don’t understand how our son doesn’t have black hair and an olive complexion. The ONLY thing my wife would eat when she was pregnant with him was Mexican.

    LOTS of Mexican food for me, although I remember an Indian and Thai phase as well. When I was pregnant with son #1 my work/travel partner was Indian and I ate Indian food all over the country. So much so when I went to the doctor as I hadn’t felt right in a few weeks, and he told me I was pregnant, my response was “are you sure it wasn’t that Indian food in Fresno?”

    • #30
    • June 12, 2019, at 3:03 PM PDT
    • 6 likes
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