Eating Well Article:
Invasion of the Chileheads
In which our author tastes the ultimate pain and pleasure of the pepper
BY MARIALISA CALTA
Dave “Mad Dog” Ashley hunches his 6-foot-1-inch frame over the kitchen table, measuring a minuscule portion of a dark, viscous liquid on the tip of a broken matchstick.
“This is the drug of the ‘90s,” he intones, laughing with a fiendish heh-heh-heh.
I take the matchstick, lick it, and for a moment feel nothing. Then it hits: caustic, biting pain, as though a hot cinder is trapped between my tongue and the roof of my mouth. I reach for a glass of milk, drink, then dangle my tongue in the milk for several minutes. Ashley leans back, heh-heh-hehing. I have just sampled the newly released Inferno edition of his Mad Dog brand of hot sauce, and my agony is taken as a measure of success. If this is the drug of the ‘90s, I think I’ll Just Say No.
But thousands upon thousands of self-described chileheads–the folks who relish seasonings from incendiary to eschatoic, and who celebrate their predilection with clubs and on-line bulletin boards–are saying yes. They are saying yes to more than 1,000 hot sauces that are currently on the market, sauces with names like Capital Punishment (“legal in all 50 states”), Vampfire, 911 and Bat’s Brew–stuff that is so hot that at least one manufacturer doesn’t recommend it for human consumption.
We’ve come a long way from two drops of Tabasco in a Bloody Mary. What’s going on here?
Setting aside the heat issue for just a moment, the virtues of the hot pepper are many. It is rich in vitamins C and A and virtually fat-free. It contains a range of subtle and delicious flavors–even more so when roasted, smoked, pickled or blended–and whole cuisines are monuments to its versatility. Chileheads ascribe therapeutic benefits to the pepper, claiming it can boost the metabolism, excite sexual response, clear the sinuses and kill food-borne bacteria.
But there is no explaining the chilehead until you get to the matter of heat. The source and manifestation of the heat is no great mystery. Barry Green, a researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, has studied capsaicin–the compound that makes hot peppers hot–and describes its effect on the human nervous system: capsaicin activates pain receptors in the tongue, as well as neurons that respond to warmth, thereby giving a sensation of heat. Among the sequelae: watering eyes, running noses, sweaty foreheads, mottled skin. (Apparently, barnacles have pain receptors too. A boat paint called Barnacle Ban contains cayenne.)
Chiles hurt, and they even hurt people accustomed to eating them–it just takes more chiles to hurt them. The hurt is what chileheads are after. “There is a theory that the attraction to hot sauce has to do with a kind of benign masochism,” says Green. “A person wants to experience pain, but not in a harmful way.” The ability of ultra-hot peppers to hurt real good is exactly their appeal; these brews are punishing, hence the names Hell-fire and Damnation, Pure Hell, Devil’s Tingle, Devil Drops, Hell in a Bottle. Fans describe chile eating as “the bungee jumping of the culinary world,” “mouth-surfing,” “gourmet skydiving.”
Which brings us to the endorphin controversy. Chileheads are adamant that hot sauces cause brain cells to release endorphins, the same compounds that give runners a “high.” Green says this theory “does not hold up to scrutiny,” but he is unlikely to convince any childheads: a new ultra-hot sauce is called Endorphin Rush.
Endorphins or no, chileheads speak of their mania in terms of addiction.
“I eat hot stuff every single day,” says Melissa Stock, managing editor of Chile Pepper Magazine in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “When I travel, I bring my seasonings in a little cosmetics bag–my ‘stash.’ My in-laws live in Kansas, and I go through a lot of hot sauce there.” She pauses. “England would kill me.” Stock is no stranger to the dangers of the hot pepper. Once, she says, she wolfed down some salsa she thought to be relatively mild. “I spent the next half hour with my tongue in a glass of milk,” she says. (Chileheads generally recommend milk–never water–as a palate coolant.) Her sister-in-law once chopped some hot peppers and then diapered her baby, “and that was one unhappy little baby,” says Stock.
As for the hottest of the hot sauces, she says, “that’s all just macho stuff. There’s all this one-upmanship that goes on, you know: I can take the heat better than you can.’ It has nothing to do with flavor.”
“It is completely macho,” agrees Dave Ashley, who, at 44, entered the specialty food market four years ago with his Mad Dog Barbecue Sauce, followed by Liquid Fire hot sauce.
“I’d go to these food shows, and I’d give them my Mad Dog Liquid Fire, and these guys would say, ‘You call that hot? Give me something really hot.’ And so I created Inferno.”
Chile heat is measured in Scovilles, which can best be described as units of dilution. A chile that rates one Scoville unit would take one unit of water to negate the heat; for example, it would take 9,000 to 12,000 ounces of water to neutralize one ounce of Tabasco sauce, which has a Scoville rating of 9,000 to 12,000. Dave Ashley’s Liquid Fire has a Scoville rating of 100,000. Inferno–and Ashley is just guessing here–rates about 180,000. Hot, you say? Perhaps, but to hot sauce maker David Hirschkop of San Francisco, it is not hot enough.
Hirschkop claims to have been the first to have seen the market for the ultra-hot hot sauce. About two years ago, he unleashed a product called Dave’s Insanity, which was, at the time, considered the hottest ever made.
How hot is it? Hot enough to be banned at the National Fiery Food Show in Albuquerque, New Mexico, last year. Hot enough to warrant behind-the-counter status at Le Saucier, a Boston sauce emporium. But, for Hirschkop, not hot enough.
Hirschkop, who appears at food shows wearing a modified straitjacket, decided that Dave’s Insanity’s 180,000 Scoville units ( on a par with Ashley’s Inferno) was merely a lambent flame. He has now concocted a Reserve batch, a limited edition of ultra-ultra-hot hot sauce sold in hand-signed, hand-numbered, vintage-dated bottles ($25 for five ounces). The heat comes from a red-pepper extract, and the sauce registers right up there with the hottest peppers on earth, types of Scotch bonnets that rate about 300,000 Scovilles.
Is it responsible to make a sauce this hot? “As long as I’m not making anything hotter than a pepper that’s out there in nature, then I think that’s okay,” says Hirschkop. “But I don’t recommend that anyone actually eat it.” He sees it as a “collector’s item.”
Is it reasonable to call something you shouldn’t even eat a “sauce”? Jennifer Trainer Thompson, author of a hot-sauce cookbook, Hot Licks (Chronicle Books, 1994), says there is some debate in the hot-sauce world about whether sauces made with concentrated extracts qualify as sauces at all. “Most chile people are really concerned with flavor,” she says, not Scoville units. The real distinctions, she says, are culinary. She divides hot sauces into three major categories: Louisiana-style (a salt, vinegar and cayenne- or tabasco-pepper blend), Caribbean-style (a combination of fruits, curries and peppers–usually the habanero or Scotch bonnet pepper) and Mexican-style, which highlights a specific pepper, such as the serrano, pequin or chipotle, and often contain tomatoes.
“People go to great lengths to flavor their sauces; they use carrots and thyme, molasses, oregano, onions, papayas; these can be very subtle blends,” she says.
Ah, the lure of the perfect blend. It casts a spell over chileheads and explains the proliferation of sauces in a market that, to any clear-eyed entrepreneur, would surely seem glutted. “When you try to track down a hot-sauce maker,” Thompson says, “it’s always some guy who works as a stockbroker or something. They all have day jobs.”
Ashley once fit that profile. Until three years ago, he had a variety of day jobs–working in restaurants, in the music industry and, most recently, as a courier– while mixing up his teriyaki and barbecue sauces in his tiny kitchen in Brighton, Massachusetts. Friends kept urging him to sell the stuff (as friends will, rarely imagining the challenges of manufacturing and selling). Financing from credit cards, he and his wife, Mary Ann, started producing Mad Dog products, with labels that looked like they had been designed by R. Crumb. On the advice of someone working in the specialty-food industry, he added a hot sauce, which led him to Liquid Fire and then to Inferno.
“Hot sauce is not my first love,” says Ashley, who eats it only sparingly. And, once making commercial hot sauce, heat was not his first priority. He harassed suppliers for unsulfured Caribbean molasses, and used aged red-wine vinegars. He went through at least 30 variants of Liquid Fire–which, in its final incarnation, wound up with a dozen ingredients including African bird’s-eye chiles, jalapenos and a bit of pepper extract–sending Mary Ann to her job as a sales administrator every morning with a different batch for office chileheads to sample. Then, turning to the Inferno project, he spent six weeks trying to replicate a clove-smelling packet of spices he bought at an Indian market, developing a “secret blend” listed only on Inferno labels as “herbs and spices.” This blend, he says, is the secret to why Inferno is not bitter. “The ultra-hot sauces have a bitterness, a sort of dirty-autumn-leaf taste,” he says.
I have a tiny, unmarked bottle of Inferno and have sampled from it several times since my first encounter. I can’t honestly say if it’s bitter or not. I can’t honestly say I taste any of the dozen ingredients Ashley says it contains. In fact, I’ve found that when one’s tongue is dangling in a glass of milk, it’s hard to say anything at all.
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