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Playing with Fire

Her trail of flame led to Armageddon. Also Nuclear Waste.

On a crisp February morning, I pulled up to the Albuquerque Convention Center behind a Honda Civic from Connecticut with a homemade bumper sticker proclaiming the car—or was it the driver?—to be a “Heat-Seeking Missile.” I, too, sought heat. I had come to the National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show to fuel my obsession for scorching cuisine.

Inside the crowded hall, I quickly sensed why the event was billed as “the hottest show on earth.” A balding man standing next to me began hiccupping uncontrollably, tears streaming down his cheeks, as he dipped a blue corn chip into a bowl of red sauce labeled Religious Experience. At the booth next to him, a woman was both laughing and crying as she begged for Capital Punishment, which, the vendor quipped, was legal in all 50 states. Across the aisle, a guy named Dave, bound in a straightjacket, urged visitors to try his Insanity sauce.

This particular show started 20 years ago in El Paso, where, according to one vendor, “you could have rolled a bowling ball down the middle of the convention floor at noon and not hit a soul.” Now, thanks to a “culture of hot” that is sweeping the United States, it is a three-day event that draws upwards of 10,000 visitors.

North America is cottoning on to what most of the world has known for centuries: chilies not only add zip to basic foods like rice, beans, and grains, but are also good for you. Contrary to popular belief, chili peppers originated in the Americas, not Asia or China. Ancient cave dwellings in Mexico contained chili seeds dating as far back as 7,000 B.C. Birds probably transported the seeds throughout the Caribbean littoral—which explains how Arawak Indians in the Caribbean were using chili pepper juices for seasoning and food preservation in pre-Columbian times. By the time the Conquistadors invaded Mexico in the late 1400s, they found Montezuma’s men consuming 50 jugs of chili-laced hot chocolate daily, presumably to help the warriors prepare for battle. It wasn’t until after Columbus landed in the Caribbean in 1492 that the chili pepper made its way from South and Central America to the rest of the world.

Throughout history, piquant sauces have found favor in modest households where grains, legumes, and breads constituted the staple diet. Indeed, the world’s most intense sauces—the curry pastes of India, chili-soy mixtures of China, pepper sauces from Peru—are all designed to season carbohydrates, which both absorb and dilute the sauce. The cutting edge of North American cuisine is returning to what is essentially peasant food.

My own conversion took place shortly after I graduated from Tufts. Trying not to worry about the fact that I had no job and hadn’t considered law or medical school, I headed Down East to Mount Desert Island, where I hitched a ride as crew on the delivery of several Bermuda 40 sailboats from the Hinckley yard in Southwest Harbor to the British Virgin Islands. Halfway into our first delivery, a broken mast stay forced us to land on the tiny island of San Salvador—the very spot where Columbus had landed on October 12, 1492. The island had fresh showers, one pay phone, and a dirt-floor bar with a jukebox featuring reggae and every Rolling Stones song known to man. We were in heaven.

On each table in the bar stood an enormous unmarked ketchup bottle containing a pretty, yellow homemade sauce flecked with red. When my rum punch and conch fritters arrived, I doused the fritters with the potion and took a ravenous bite. A simple coarse sauce with habaneros, vinegar, papaya, mustard, and garlic, it ricocheted off my tongue and hit the back of my throat, where I was seized with an intense, sensation-stopping pain that set off tears. My companions—who had definitely sailed these waters before—howled. Minutes later, though, I found myself going back for more. The sauce had actually tasted rather good, a sweet heat that billowed with the fruity flavor of papaya.

I finished out the season and moved to Manhattan with a duffel bag full of hot sauces. After a stint at Simon & Schuster, I wrote a book about nuclear power, all the while continuing my personal quest for critical mass. As I collected sauces and encountered others who shared my hobby, I marveled at how deep the passion for hot sauce can run. I met a couple who papered their living room with hot sauce labels. I ran into a guy from Oslo who takes only hot sauce vacations—to Avery Island (home of Tabasco), New Orleans, and Bermuda (for Outerbridge’s Sherry Pepper Sauce).

I began writing and speaking about hot sauces—I even took Charlie Gibson “mouth surfing” on Good Morning America—and discovered that people love the outrageous sauce names and labels, which are unparalleled elsewhere in the food world. Can you imagine a pasta called Capital Punishment? A bean dip called Ultimate Burn? An olive oil called I Am On Fire Ready to Die? Microbrews come close with their evocative labels, but are otherwise tame as a black Lab. There is nothing tame about hot sauce.

In the course of my research—which eventually turned into two books and four hot sauce posters—my FedEx carrier (a hot sauce man himself) told me of a bar he frequented that, he guaranteed, would be ground zero for my trail of flame. The Red Dog Tavern was lodged in the woolly Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York, where moose outnumber people, and was accessible in the winter only by snowmobile. At first blush, it was an innocuous place: a casual camp-style bar where babies and dogs were welcome and the bartender sold roses, cheap cigars, and—strangely, it seemed—milk. A photo of the original red dog, Sundance, hung on the wall, and as I entered, Sundance #4 was howling at the owner, Ted Klamm, for some beef jerky. “He just loves his road kill,” Ted explained by way of introduction. The only hint of heat was the biohazard label on the counter.

A former Navy Seal, Ted was a guy who loved hot—he ate jalapeños every day—and made a line of incendiary sauces starting with Sweet Revenge, continuing on with Death Wish and Nuclear Waste, and culminating in Armageddon—“the end of the world,” according to Ted. If you could eat a dozen wings marinated in Armageddon, he’d add your name to the Wall of Flame behind the bar, next to the live tarantula. Only 12 souls had achieved that distinction when I visited.

Thinking I knew hot, I rose to the challenge. First my husband and I sampled Sweet Revenge. I should have known what was coming when an old-timer at the bar, hearing that two suckers had arrived to take the dare, decided to stick around. “These sauces give people the hiccups,” he observed mildly. Sweet Revenge brought tears to my eyes. I graduated to wings marinated in Death Wish, made (barely) palatable with honey; the habanero chilies were evident. In between I tried an invigorating pickle soaked in horseradish, which produces an immediate sweet/hot sensation that charges through your sinus cavity like a freight train.

By then I thought I was ready for the Armageddon wings. I took a baby bite, the size of a pea. In no time, my mouth was seized with a paralysis that crept from my lips to my tongue and down my throat. For at least five minutes, I thought I would faint from the hammering inside my mouth. My husband, Joe, who was nursing a Saranac, pressed me to describe my experience. “It couldn’t be that bad,” he insisted. “You barely touched it.” I pushed the plate towards him. He took a slightly bigger bite—maybe the size of a shriveled Kalamata olive—and within minutes sweat crept up his scalp, soaking two-thirds of his head. His lips quivered. He hoarsely asked the bartender for milk (it’s free, thank you).

Joe still wasn’t talking when we left 20 minutes later. As I said goodbye to Ted, who was playing with his four-year-old granddaughter at the bar, I told him visiting was a memorable experience. “You’re gonna remember me tomorrow, too,” he said. You bet.

Winter is a special time at the Red Dog. Last year they had 18 feet of snow, and even then people stood three-deep at the bar, clamoring for Dragon’s Breath Chili, jalapeño poppers, and Crazy Horse Beer. Certainly Armageddon Sauce is gratuitously hot, and Ted Klamm confessed on the day I visited that he introduced it to stifle the toughies who would swagger in saying “nothin’s too hot for me.” But there was something about the bar that was eminently sincere: Klamm loved hot food, and so did his customers.

As I’ve traveled the country speaking about hot foods, people—especially Texans—have scoffed that a Yankee could eat the heat and know something about it. Yet Boston, I discovered, has some great spicy restaurants, including East Coast Grill, Elephant Walk, and Green Street Grill, to name a few. When Green Street Grill opened, Jimmy Fahey, the original owner, wrote down his 10 favorite recipes, and they were all hot. He tried to call his joint the Tabasco Grill, but Tabasco’s maker threatened to sue. “You’d never know I had a Harvard law professor as a lawyer,” he joshed.

Today, more than a quarter of the world’s population eats chilies, according to Amal Naj, author of Peppers. The trend is global, and it’s certainly warming. “Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked,” Tim Eidson once told me, a roundabout way of explaining why he founded the first hot foods mail order outlet, aptly named Mo Hotta Mo Betta. “It’s not as though you say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll go back to bland foods now.’ ”

Indeed. Heat is the source of hot sauce’s magic, but once you get beyond the heat, you discover an aromatic world rich in flavors, strongly influenced by the choice of peppers and the particular blend of fruit or spices. Though I’ve come to appreciate the searing blister of a good sauce, the more subtle strength of this versatile condiment lies in the range of flavors that are manifested under, over, and after the heat. I don’t leave home without it.

JENNIFER TRAINER THOMPSON, J77, dubbed “The Queen of Hot” by the Associated Press, is at the forefront of the spicy foods movement for her cookbooks and hot sauce posters (one of which has sold more than 60,000 copies). In her day job, she is director of development at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art.

  © 2008 Tufts University Tufts Publications, 80 George St., Medford, MA 02155