The Long Hot Winter

Growing first-class peppers in the city that never gets chilly

It's a beautiful word to say, capsaicin. A beautiful thing, too, the oil in hot peppers that makes them hot. Say it: cap-say-ih-sin. Cures arthritis, gives life to an impossibly scrumptious seafood soup, makes the world go round.

Or, actually, the world going round makes the capsaicin: dirt, water, air, and sun nurturing seed, sprout, plant, blossom, fruit. Hot peppers piqued the nation's west coast and its southwestern heatscape some time ago. (Like corn, peppers are New World flora.) The New Mexico-Arizona-California triumvirate has long dominated the national capsaicin scene.

From sunny South Florida, I say let those left-coast losers eat cake. Many varieties of the genus capsicum -- and there are countless varieties -- are tropical. Right in my front yard I've got a six-foot-tall habanero plant that spews forth the prettiest, hottest, orangest things either side of the Mississippi. Make a grown man cry, they will. Habaneros come mostly from the sweaty Yucatan, but a guy at the bar swears they were born and bred in the capital of Cuba; habanero means "from Havana." I guess that would make mine habaneros pequenos -- from Little Havana.

Soon to replace garlic as the Miracle Produce of Tabloid Headlines, capsicum plants were cultivated and harvested by the Incas and Aztecs as far back as 8000 years, according to anthropologist/restaurateur Mark Miller, who lives, damn him, in New Mexico. The Mayans grew some 30 species. Once the white man invaded and pillaged, hot peppers spread around the world A from Europe (try the Hungarian cherry pepper, a round, red dynamo with thick flesh and a sweet bite) to Asia (the Thai pepper is just one way to flavor curry).

And all these millennia later, modern America is discovering the power and versatility of capsaicin. "There's a niche, and it just keeps getting bigger," says Dave DeWitt, editor of Chile Pepper magazine, based in Albuquerque. "I really, truly believe that capsaicin is a miracle drug, and the fact is there are currently 400 scientific studies taking place. And capsaicin can be found in no other plant, or anywhere else, than the hot pepper. We're talking about something that can bring down a criminal [a reference to pepper sprays, a favorite law enforcement toy], treat migraine cluster headaches [the latest medical application under study], and enhance a delicious salsa."

In the food industry alone, DeWitt says, hot peppers generate between one and three billion dollars in commerce per year. Them's a lot of peppers.

DeWitt was a "pepper person" and free-lance writer when he founded Chile Pepper in 1987, about three years after the modern Hot Pepper Movement began. "There seems to be a trendiness to it," he observes. "Ten years ago, for example, you couldn't find books about peppers. Now there's a bunch of them" (including Peppers of the World: A Guide to Field Identification, which DeWitt is working on for publication this fall).

"What we do is, we look at every indicator that we can find to see how the hot and spicy movement is going," DeWitt explains of his bimonthly magazine, which boasts a circulation of 80,000. "Imports continue to go up. Hot sauce and salsa sales are growing ten percent per year. Retail businesses are springing up, restaurants -- there's no end in sight. If this were just a fad, it would have been long gone. Tabasco has been a staple for 125 years. And it's about time they had some competition." Not that the McIlhenny company, which makes Tabasco brand hot sauce in Louisiana, is being left behind: The firm debuted a jalapeno version a few years ago and will soon introduce a habanero flavor.

Where is South Florida's place in all this? "Florida has the datil pepper up north, around St. Augustine," DeWitt notes. "I remember eight years ago finding Scotch bonnets [a close cousin of the habanero and a Jamaican favorite] in Key West, and just going, `Wow!' I'd say Florida is ripe for further exploitation."

He laughs. I smile.
Most of the peppers available from retailers are not grown in South Florida. Yet. Says Roma Drillick of Laurenzo's Farmers Market in North Miami Beach: "We do get a lot of peppers from Florida, but we still have to get a lot from California and the islands." According to Drillick, Laurenzo's sells between two and three cases of fresh peppers each week, plus several ristras, dried peppers strung together, often into a ring.

"Yes, the peppers are getting popular," agrees Noel Wilding, produce manager and buyer for Miami Beach's Epicure Market. "We carry most of them, for Asian cooking and Mexican and Latin. Price doesn't mean anything; it's what they're going to be used for. You have to have the right one, and there are hundreds of varieties."

In The Great Chile Book, published in 1991, Mark Miller noted that 150 to 200 species of peppers had been positively identified. Magazine editor DeWitt says his current research reveals between 2000 and 3000 varieties within those species. They're a rainbow of reds and yellows, oranges and greens, types with thin skins and others with thick ones, some as big as small bananas and others as tiny as a wood screw. Well-known California heaters such as ancho and Fresno, tiny but scorching Asian varieties, Caribbean burners that include the closely related Scotch bonnets of Jamaica and habaneros of Mexico.

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