By Michael E. Miller
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What all these peppers share is capsaicin, which is not found in the common bell peppers and other "sweet" varieties. Chili pepper intensity is measured on something called the Scoville scale (named for its creator, Wilbur Scoville), in which a number reflects the amount of capsaicin contained in a pepper; the higher the number, the hotter the pepper. The jalape¤o, for example, ranges from 2500 to 5000 Scoville units. The famous New Mexico red chili A as far as looks go, this is pretty much the stereotypical red pepper; the Miami Beach nightspot the Chili Pepper modeled its logo after a New Mexico red A rings in at a mere 500 to 1000 Scovilles. Pepperoncini go about 100 to 500 units. Serrano: 10,000 to 23,000. Cayenne: 32,000 to 50,000. Thai: 50,000 to 100,000. Habanero: 100,000 to 300,000.
And this is how you shut up a loudmouth.
One evening several of us pepper growers were meeting in a South Dade house and exchanging pods -- try my firecracker; let me taste that African yellow; these seeds are from an excellent strain of cayenne; how did you get these jalapenos so hot? -- when a friend of one of the growers walked in. A short guy, he had a way of thrusting out his chest when he spoke, clearly feeling a need to impress everyone. "What's that?" he asked, pointing at a little, bright scarlet number we call el diablo. The diablo is a wonderful plant, difficult to grow to maturity. It looks like most hot pepper plants except it's purple; a deep purple hue tinges the leaves, stripes the stalk, makes the blossoms look bizarre. The fruit itself reaches a lavender color before ripening into red. At one point the pods look just like jelly beans. So little John grabs the diablo and bites off about a centimeter.
No one said a word. John's face began to turn the color of the ripe diablo. Then came the tears, gushing streams racing like greyhounds down his cheeks. Clutching motion, going for his own throat. Pitiful yelps. Nostril snorts. And finally, despite his most valiant efforts at suppression, a scream. Our host, who had discreetly repaired to the kitchen at first bite, returned with a glass of milk, the best relief for capsaicin burn. John lost interest in pepper machismo. This sort of thing happens all the time.
I've always loved Tabasco, and Jamaican Four-in-One Hell Hot concentrate, and ristras of dried cayennes. I like the colors, the flavors, the whole look and feel. Though I'm not much for the macho approach (I warn anyone who eats one of my peppers to be careful), I understand Dave DeWitt when he observes that "the perceived risk keeps people interested, because it's something that's on the edge."
One pepper connoisseur I know says his family has always gulped heartily the hottest of peppers, straight and in sauces and recipes. He says their taste buds have become deadened to the heat. Then he asks if I have any habaneros I can spare.
Peppers are good for you, although making a meal of habaneros probably wouldn't fly. The fruit contains Vitamin A and Vitamin C. I use hot peppers to clear congestion. Capsaicin creams, marketed by over-the-counter brand names such as Capsin and Zostrix, are smeared topically to treat arthritis pain. A taffy made with capsaicin can be used to treat mouth sores, a common side effect of chemotherapy. (Eating hot peppers will take care of those mouth sores just as well. To make your own topical pain rub, mix mashed hot peppers with Vaseline.)
Of course, you have to be careful when you dance in the land of the burners. Simply touching the hotter members of the genus capsicum can be hazardous. I gave one of my prize habaneros to a staffer at a local bar. Next time I saw him, he told me that the stir fry he prepared with it was the best he'd ever eaten. But, he added, "After I cleaned the pepper and washed my hands, I went into the living room to talk to my girlfriend. I got an itch, you know, down there, and I just absent-mindedly scratched it. Oh, man. A minute later, I mean, it went right through my pants and underwear." At which point he stopped relaying the story and simply gripped himself, reliving the scald.
The problem is, the stuff doesn't wash off. I generally scrub my hands with soap and water about eighteen times after preparing a hab. Rubber gloves would be simpler, but I like to feel the peppers.
Another caveat: Because capsaicin is an oil, a glass of water is the absolute worst thing to drink when you hit a hot one. Spreads the oil.
Great party trick.
The grocery chains have jumped on the chili pepper bandwagon, offering several varieties; Winn-Dixie even advertises the suckers on TV. But the habaneros I've purchased there are pale offerings indeed, scraggly little creatures compared to the big orange pods I grow. At least they're trying, I suppose. And I wouldn't even bother with a supermarket jalapeno -- like anything else mainstreamed for mass consumption, they've been cooled by hybridization.