Some Like It Hot

Chile is the colorful fruit (it is technically not a vegetable) of the Capsicumplant, also called a pepper (that’s a jalapeños above). This is not at all the same as black pepper, which is usually a powder made by grinding peppercorns, the fruit of the Piperaceae plant.

Tabasco, South Louisiana’s long-time bad boy of fermented hot sauces, and Panola, once North Louisiana’s relative newcomer, have been joined in a burgeoning marketplace with dozens, or perhaps hundreds, of other peppery products in recent decades. In some ways, this diffuse range of offerings underscores Louisiana’s role as compass rose to all things hot and splashable on food. Indeed, often enough recipes simply call for a particular brand of Louisiana hot sauce. Other times food authors just direct consumers to anyLouisiana hot sauce. In fact, screen writer Peter Viertel recalls Hemingway describing success in the culinary arts, “First,” he’d say, “you take Tabasco sauce . . .” 

Dozens of new pepper sauce brands are on or are entering the market. Boutique bottlers fill, it can be said, every available niche between outrageously fiery to craftily subtle. Some progressive brands acknowledge the edgy echo bouncing about pepper products by offering risqué, witty or campy-naughty labels.

Later, a generation ago now, grunts all over the balmy landscape of Southeast Asia slipped the beloved little brick-red bottles bearing the familiar McIlhenny diamond label into their Alice packs. The good black .223 rifles, and their buddies, struggled to keep them alive. But a dash, dash, dash of hot sauce on the MREs (meals, ready to eat) helped make the drudgery bearable. Sometimes, it was the only bright spot on a relentlessly dreary meal in a Soviet InTourist restaurant. Other times, the bow on the box. We recall it sitting on the starched white tablecloths on our elegant steam train’s dining car, cutting smoothly across the veldt in Southern Africa – the iconic red bottle reminding us of home while we gazed out at curious beasts and strange, flat, dry landscape. 

Traditional providers, such as Bruce’s Foods (“as one of America’s largest privately owned food manufacturers, Bruce Foods has been producing quality food products since 1928 . . ..”), long offered such favorites as Red Rooster, a perennial. McIlhenny which continues to pump up the volume with its Tabasco-Habanero and related saucesand so on, sets standards. All of this activity is to the great benefit of the consumer. 

McIlhenny, for example, absorbed its traditional rival, Trappey’s, and continues to produce that line. Perhaps thirty or so years ago a great renaissance of hot peppers swept the nation, helped along by the Clinton/Lewinsky affair, which provided opportunity to market novelty labels having little to do with the bottle’s contents. Still, the fad exposed millions to what had been a slowly simmering niche segment of culinary food ways. Dozens of brands bloomed. None the less, probably only McIlhenny’s Tabasco has come close to being internationally available.  We have seen the immediately recognizable bottles almost everywhere, worldwide.

“Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacologist, invented the Scoville scale in 1912 to measure the pungency of peppers and chillies, generally related to their capsaicin content. To establish a chilli pepper’s rating, Scoville would prepare it in a solution, which was then tested by five people. He increased its dilution until the sensation of heat disappeared. The score on the scale represents the level of dilution required for the sensation of heat to disappear completely . . . “

Pepper’s current deep-silo fad in the US, now a generation or more old, merely extends and recalls the great historic struggle which helped people the globe with voyaging Europeans. Scurrying into every nook and cranny, and literally fired up by lust for spice, adventurers of the savage Age of Exploration begged, borrowed, and often enough stole the world’s flavors for sale in European bazaars. 

The Spice Route of Old Days

Just as professional sports today provide an economic incentive for fast developing video technology, flavor-crazy Europeans supported the explosive growth of trade back then. During the fifteenth century, Venice alone carted in 2,500 tons of pepper–black–and ginger annually, and almost as much of other savoring herbs, food additives, and spices. It was all a deadly serious business with the hope of displacing Arab middlemen springing eternally in the breasts of Christian commodity speculators. 

As long as Christians held the trade routes east/west things were hunky-dory. However, after the Ottoman capture of the Constantinople in 1453 and the security, and of course easy trade that came with it, economic activity slowly revived in the now Istanbul and regions of what were now Turkish possessions. Black Sea trade crashed as the Ottoman Empire predictably started a monopoly, the Fall of Constantinople severely necking off commerce in the European region. 

 “The Silk Road was a network of trade routes connecting China and the Far East with the Middle East and Europe. Established when the Han Dynasty in China officially opened trade with the West in 130 B.C., the Silk Road routes remained in use until 1453 A.D., when the Ottoman Empire boycotted trade with China and closed them . . . “

Ottoman conquest affected what had been highly lucrative Italian trade and gradually reduced activity throughout the region, providing impulse for exploration of alternate routes. With the Ottomans hold of what had been the Byzantine Empire, all other nation’s trade in that region were at their mercy, not the “Christians.” Stymied, the Italians invested in Spain and Portugal, instead of the former Byzantine area; resulting conquests in the New World brought profit to the Italians, if suffering to Africa. Meanwhile, the Ottoman realm and the portions of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea controlled by them prospered through trade over long distances. Overall the Fall of Constantinople was economically beneficial to the Ottomans but not to the former trade partners of the Byzantine Empire.

Hot Food for a Cool Nation

The trade grew. Following Columbus’ travels, the Pope sought peace in the volatile spice trade by arbitrarily drawing a line through the Atlantic: unmapped territories to the west went to Spain, to the east, Portugal. Portugal’s holdings in Brazil and coincidentally in Africa virtually guaranteed the twinning of sugar and slave trades. Much of today’s racial unrest is thus rooted in the soil of historic desire for more and more spice (and, of course, profit.)  

Curiously, the United States includes regions traditionally considered to be averse to spicy foods: Mary Tyler Moore’s sitcom once got a laugh when the character’s neighbor said she wanted to borrow “spices” but it turned out she just meant salt. But bland cuisine is a fact hard to figure when keeping in mind the vast consumption of spice by the Dutch, English, French, and German and Central European nations. Columbus, and perhaps Vikings before him, bumped ashore on the wildest beaches hoping to have found a fast way to spices – nutmeg, and cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, and peppers. 

Subtlety was not a feature of European cuisine of that period. Partly because of the prevailing fashion, partly because of a general excess of zeal common to that day (public flaying and impalement constituted entertainments), and partly because food preservation was yet imperfect, fantastic amounts of spice were consumed. So, trudging about sunny Mexico, Spanish interlopers were delighted to find capsicum peppers.

All Liked It Hot

The discovery of peppers in the New World may not have had the impact of some other foodstuffs. Maize, for instance, and potatoes, introduced into the Old World, helps set the stage for population expansion of appalling scope – though tobacco would help reduce it. But finding the estimated forty or more Mexican varieties of flavorful peppers put the breath of heaven in Old World sails. Compared to black pepper’s mellow flavor and slight heat, these plants were full of zest.

Current estimates by food historian Ready Tannahill of these fiery pods claim a “hotness” or scoville figure of ninety-two or so. Au contraire, mon petit chou,opines (in effect) Louisiana State University’s Carl “Dr. Pepper” Motsenbocker. Motsenbocker, who does field research from Thailand to South America, and points in between, is an acknowledged expert and obviously enjoys discussing the nature of his work.

According to the good doctor, “Capsicums, or peppers, offer about twenty variants. Peppers tend to be chock filled with vitamin C and exhibit a range of flavor and hotness. Some are mild while others are “oh-my-God-hot.”  Professor Motsenbocker knows a very great deal about the little vegetables. All that peering at peppers in Thailand, pawing through picked pecks in South America, and all weather work with experimental plots in New Iberia shows up in the thoroughness of Dr. Motsenbocker’s responses. 

Whatever the number of basic plants tumbling from nature’s cornucopia, most are a windfall for the palette. Flavors run, as Motsenbocker notes, from mildly inflammatory to blistering. In fact, Tabasco’s chime in at 60-t0-80 thousand “scoville units,” on the hotness scale, habaneros at 215-to-350 thousand. You could bisque-fire green ware with that last juice, or draw the temper of your favorite handcrafted knife. Meanwhile, rocotos are merely described by present day Peruvians as “hot enough to kill a gringo.” The flaming buds were among the gifts given to Pizarro and his thugs, but unfortunately, they didn’t do the trick.             

Thus New World peppers lend themselves, like daubs on a color wheel, to blending essentially infinite taste tones and values. This heat filled, savory complexity, and great variety helped establish the association of peppers and other appetites. Ironically, the wild plant, or cultivar, features proudly vivid fruit: small, pointed, bright red. The natural pod seeks the attention of birds who, after dining on the fleshy fruit, scatters the hard to digest seeds hither and yon for next year’s germination. Human intervention, seeking to avoid wildlife predation in cultivated fields, bred less arrogant fruit, pendentive and coyly hid among the broad leaves.

Good Taste, Good Breeding

In a world dominated by commercial erotic images, women are hot, and spicy, and sensational. Men, in the meantime, demonstrate virility and masculinity by consuming fiery food, black coffee, and maybe a hand rolled cigar or two. Some theorists claim that it is the very repellence of these robust flavors which constitutes the attraction. Wild peppers tried to gain protection from mammal consumption, which, unlike twig dwellers, were likely to leave seeds in sunless burrows, by filling the fruit with capsicum. 

Thus, human consumers, unlike birds (perhaps Aristotle could have described us as the pepper eating bipeds), must learn to like an explicitly aversive stimulus to enjoy peppers, much as we must do so to enjoy ripe cheese, distilled spirits, tobacco, and related vices. It may be that the defining difference between human beings and animals is not the use of tools, or the possession of language, but the likelihood that we will splash Tabasco on live oysters, then cap off the meal with a thumb thick cheroot and a leggy finger of spirits, calling the whole good living.         

Everything Old is New Again

 Dozens of new pepper sauce brands are on or are entering the market. Boutique bottlers fill, it can be said, every available niche between outrageously fiery to craftily subtle. Some progressive brands acknowledge the edgy echo bouncing about pepper products by offering risqué, witty or campy-naughty labels. Indeed, because many of these “new” brands are produced by one or the other of a handful of manufacturers, it’s often the wildly baroque and rococo over-the-top labels which first attract new consumers.

For example, Peppers, a hot stuff boutique based in Delaware, maintains a collection of more than 3,000 sauces and offers many hundreds for sale, including its own Georgia Peach, Ultimate Burn,Hot Bitch at the Beach, and, not to be sexist,Hot Buns at the Beach. Pepper Girl Brand, whose motto is “Our Sauces Arouse More Than Taste buds,” offers Fifi’s Nasty Little Secret(pineapple jalapeno), Bad Girls in Heat(Papaya Pumpkin Habanero), Kitten’s Big Banana, and others.       

Oysters on the half-shell. Hot sauce on the side.

As could be predicted, some new entries to the field approach the marketing problem by hitching their wagons to regional themes: Cajun this, Cajun that, Cajun the other—Cajun being the nickname for French immigrants famous for their regional cuisine. One such is Breaux Bridge, Louisiana’s, excellentPee Wee’s Cajun Cayenne Juice, a mild offering. Or the makers go about creating ridiculous, whimsical, and humorous names and label designs, not necessarily sexy but still designed to be memorable. 

Few would seriously contest the assumption that McIlhenney’s Tabasco and Panola brand sauces are alphas in the pack. Some even claim that the wash of European spice desire bubbled back over those shores when, in mid-century, GIs brought the tiny clanking bottle of Tabasco overseas. Extended, this doggerel history credits oilmen from Louisiana and Texas with reintroducing peppery sauce into the Arab diet, five hundred years after they were the spice kings of the Old World. No doubt a tall tale, such narratives hint to the importance some folks put on their sauce.Capsicum has the capacity to irritate but usually not destroy tissue, explaining the warm to burning sensation. After peppers have been seasoned, fermented, aged, otherwise prepared, and the sauce squeezed from the pulp, this residue is still valuable. A popular by-product use is in personal defense aerosols.  

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