The Long Hot Winter

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.

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.

Local musician Chris DeAngelis has been growing hot peppers in his South Miami back-yard garden for five years. "Because I like to eat them," he says with a smile. Thanks to study and effort, DeAngelis is happy not to have to buy from grocery stores or even gourmet produce markets. "There's that certain satisfaction, knowing exactly where the food came from, watching it progress, the absolute satisfaction of watching it grow and prosper," says DeAngelis, who uses no nonnatural fertilizers or pesticides in his garden. "I know chemicals are necessary for the commercial guys, and that's okay," he explains. "But when you do it yourself, you have control."

DeAngelis started with a long red pepper, similar to a Thai, then moved up to Scotch bonnets and habaneros. These days he's especially proud of his "bird peppers," as he calls them. "I was in a Mexican grocery in Arcadia, Florida, and I had never seen these, sort of a Tabasco type, maybe a cross. They're tiny things, but killer."

My garden partner and I also grow organic -- no stinking chemicals, no pesticides, no bullshit. (Cow manure, however . . . )

The world goes round smoother with the organic method, in which garbage is turned microbially into the stuff of life: compost (a rotting mix of leaves, grass clippings from lawns that are never sprayed with insecticides, and vegetable matter from the kitchen). We mix our soil by hand from a dozen ingredients, a 'barrowful at a time, with love. Beyond passion, it's worth noting that sales of organic food generally in the U.S. have increased nearly 25 percent each year for the past five years; last year sales totaled $2.2 billion, according to the New York Times.

But it took my father, a hurricane, and a Beast to put that six-footer in my front yard. Thirty years ago, long before it was cool, my dad built a platform organic garden in our back yard in southwest Dade, off Bird Road. He used to trick my brothers into tilling the garden. Told them that if they were going fishing, okay, they could dig for earthworms.

My dad's side of the family, Grandma Palmer and Aunt Pat and Uncle Calvin, et cetera, had wildly productive and lovely-to-look-at platform gardens (made by framing an area with wood or concrete blocks, then filling in with soil, to provide a rich growing medium and better drainage in this sandy, sea-level neck of the world). But for the past decade, I've lived in a house with a yard short of unfoliaged space and umbrellaed by big trees, making gardening impractical.

Andrew cleared the coverage, and I began dabbling in tomatoes, having always resented paying $1.89 a pound for mealy 'maters of such flat taste and texture you figure 'em for Burger King outcasts. Taste the real thing, the fresh, undrugged magic of homegrown, and it becomes difficult not to garden.

Meantime, my friend Stephen Alvin (a fellow Miami native known to many as the Beast), had taken flight post-Andrew. His home destroyed by the storm, he spent time in California, the Southwest -- places of great pepperage. Everywhere he went, he collected seeds from the finest, most unusual specimens he came across.

Upon his return to Miami, the Beast contacted me, and we soon discovered our mutual interest in organic gardening. Then he laid the heavy stuff on me: Try this, it's called a habanero. And this one is el diablo, a purple plant whose purple pepper turns red and hot as the devil. Then came the African yellow, Thai, tiger, cayenne, jalapeno . . .

For those of us undertaking the effort to grow stuff beyond the pale offerings of the local grocer, summer is the season of preparation. That's what we told ourselves, anyway.

First we tore up the Beast's South Miami yard. Blessed with full sun, the space was covered with a blanket of thick, healthy grass, which we ripped out with pickaxes and our bare hands. (It would have been easier to drop a piece of plywood on the ground and wait a few days for the grass underneath to die, but it's amazing how fat blisters and blackened nails soothe the impatient soul.)

Once we cleared three five-by-nine-foot rectangles, we carefully bordered the bald patches with cement blocks. We bought a truckload of soil, obtained a pile of sand, purchased the manure and soil supplements we needed. Then we stood out there in the ripping summer heat: Fill the wheelbarrow halfway with soil, then three shovels of sand, dried chicken manure, fresh horse manure -- bagged from the stables of the Miami police equestrian unit -- peat, plus handfuls of bloodmeal and bonemeal and compost. Soon the bald patches were gardens.

During summer, many local organic growers rotate crops; some have lately switched to sunflowers, which they sell in bunches at local markets. If you're lucky, you can also persuade squash and okra to endure the unfriendly climate. That's what we did. And our squash, okra, and sunflower plants all grew big -- until the rains came.

As times go, we'd chosen about the worst to dive headlong into our attempt to grow the finest hot peppers to be found in Miami. At first our effort was not unlike attempting ice sculpture in the desert. Summer is to South Florida growers what winters are to corn and tomato farmers in the Midwest. Pepper bushes usually refuse to set fruit unless and until daytime temperatures drop below 89 degrees. And while they like a consistent supply of water, peppers do not take to it in abundance, being moderate drinkers.

Peppers are time-intensive, fragile, dependent, like children. Though the plants are annuals, well-maintained specimens can survive for years, and most gardeners grow them as perennials. Pepper life begins, naturally, with the seeds. The better the seed, the better the chances for pod success. One rainy day the Beast and I went indoors with our starter mix and planting trays. He pulled out a huge bag, which was filled with smaller bags, which were filled with the seeds of exotic peppers. We had bought a special mix of peat and finely ground vermiculite, which we scooped into small cups and trays. We carefully planted the tiny pepper seeds, and kept them constantly moist A but not too wet. After maybe ten days, certain varieties began to poke themselves out of the starter mix, and three weeks later most of the seeds had sprouted. For the next couple of weeks, until the plants formed two sets of leaves, we kept them sheltered from rain and wind. Then we transplanted them into four-inch pots and waited for the rains to abate.

There we were, our platform gardens built, filled handful by handful with a mix of soil and compost and peat and sand and manure and perlite and potash and bloodmeal and bonemeal, our seedlings begging for unpotted freedom, and the storms kept coming, raging straight through October and leaving our peppers all grown up with no place to go. Ten inches of rain fell in October -- double the average.

"Don't worry, you'll see," the Beast kept saying as we tore the rotted squash plants from our garden. "As soon as this rain stops, we'll have peppers coming out our ears."

When the rain did finally stop, the transplanting sessions came, and by early November the small hobby garden at my house and the three big platforms in the Beast's yard were rowed with pepper plants -- tiger, firecracker, el diablo, cayenne, banana, Cubanelle, African yellow, habanero. The cold fronts of late December and early January rattled us a bit, their chilly winds burning the leaves and putting many plants into a state of virtual hibernation. Though the recent bout of overcast days hasn't helped much, either, most of our plants have begun setting fruit. We've started to harvest the scattered ripe peppers, and by the end of this month we'll have more peppers than we know what to do with.

One of my brothers drew a picture of a big ape holding a pitchfork, tomato and pepper plants twining around. Guerrilla gardeners. That would be us: We cleared this land, we conquered it, and now we're going to monkey around in it.

Our only war is with pests. Aphids, leaf miners, caterpillars. Some fight them with big doses of poison, but not us. We go out and kill the suckers with our dirty hands. We plant marigolds to attract predator bugs to eat the bad bugs. We make an insecticide from -- you guessed it -- capsaicin. We work within the ecosystem because we respect it. It's what gives us our peppers, the dirt and air and sun and water nurturing our babies, our leafy little children.

And then we eat them.


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