Tuesday February 11, 2014
Usually I get the call in the beginning of December, which I have come to believe is the culmination of a yearlong obsession. “What seeds do you want? You have to grow the Ghosts. Definitely you need Thai and Chocolate Habs. Wait, did the Fatalis from last year do well? I think I have a few surprise crosses. Do you want them? I’m not sure last year’s Scorpions were as hot as the Ghosts. They have Chocolate Ghosts now!” This may sound strange to most but this is a normal call from my brother Kevin regarding his obsession with producing the hottest chili pepper known to man. He grows about 40 different plants in Littleton Colorado on his deck because he is under constant attack from resident deer and elk that have developed a taste for hot chilies but have not yet learned to climb stairs like a local bear once did. Luckily the bear only wanted the hummingbird nectar. Every year the race is on to produce the hottest pepper with several friends growing them across the country. Kevin has even convinced my parents in Florida to grow these devils and I know they do not even eat peppers.
I’m not sure where my brother discovered his love of heat but I’ve learned that people can build a tolerance over the years. I’m convinced he has already started his kids early in their training. Some people get a strange high from eating hot peppers when their endorphins kick in from the heat and you can watch numerous videos on Youtube of people eating them. It has become an all-out sport.
The Scoville Unit (SHU) scale grades the heat in hot peppers. It is a method of quantifying a substance's 'spiciness', through determining the concentration of the chemical compounds responsible for the sensation, which are named capsaicinoids. To give the common non hot pepper obsessed human an idea of the range of heat, a Jalapeno is about 5,000 Scoville units and the hottest pepper known to man as of 2013 from the Guinness book of records is the Carolina Reaper at about 3000 times that at 1,569,300 Scoville units. You can view a chart online here. www.scufoods.com
Full confession: I do not have the tolerance for the heat these peppers produce. The barely hot Jalapeno, maybe a Serrano is really all I need to spice up my food but I grow these heat demons out of a brotherly respect to Kevin and for bragging rights. I like to win.
The seeds arrive in January and I begin starting them indoors under lamps, using heating pads, next to the warmest windows and other methods that we never disclose to each other. This is a competition after all. The weekly chili pepper phone call inquires begin. “Did they break soil? What types are coming up first? Are you thinning? Fertilizer or no fertilizer?” Thanks to technology I am now required to even video chat to show the progress of the plants. I think my Mom is jealous that the seedlings are getting more face time than she is. Kevin is relentless and dead serious about this annual race.
You would think I have an advantage in California because I get to plant outside earlier but in reality it doesn’t matter for heat. Watering is actually a big factor in heat production of chili. The less water, more strained the plant, the hotter the outcome so I need to be on top of the right amount to administer. Growing conditions make a big difference. A poorly grown Scorpion pepper can lose out to a traditional milder hot pepper like a Ghost on the heat competition.
Months pass, calls keep coming and plants finally set with fruit. Labor Day is usually a good time for the tastings. Chilies are tagged according to type and submitted. Bread, milk, and beer are set out and the great chili competition begins with my brother and his friend Johnny D as judges in a blind test. My sister-in-law Rachel oversees to make sure no cheating occurs. The hottest part of the chili is in the pith so special care is taken to make sure that identical parts are sampled. Each pepper is tasted, allowed to reach its heat in mouth and after the peak is chased with beer, milk or bread of choice. Brow sweat happens, faces redden and plenty of air is expelled hoping to kill the heat. Sometimes laying down occurs and breaks are needed. In the end, a winner is decided, the award phone calls are placed and next year’s planning begins.
Plenty of critique/excuses follow. “Maybe too much water this year. Did the plants get enough sun? The weather was a bit off this year. Are you sure these results are on the up and up?” The competition is a lot of fun but it does leave us with plenty of scorching hot peppers to use. What to do with these heat bombs? My brother has taken to making hot sauce and is even thinking of starting his own line called Boss’s hot sauce, only for the very brave.
I usually give my peppers to my heat loving friends who usually are of either Latin or Indian descent and to a contractor friend who has a heat death wish. This year after growing Scorpion peppers, once considered the hottest pepper in the world, I had a few “No thank yous!” when asked if they wanted more. My friend Devi made the mistake of making tempura with these heat demons. Her mother carefully breaded them in the traditional Indian way and lovingly fried them to a nice golden brown. Usually one cuts a little piece from a pepper and tastes ever so carefully but not this time. There they sat innocently on a paper napkined plate as her unsuspecting father and just as innocent Devi proceeded to swallow them whole. Headaches and two gallons of milk followed with the rest ending up in the garbage can. A very brief discussion was held beforehand if the remaining should be left for the following day but intelligence prevailed.
I have to admit I love my brother Kevin’s ritual even though I hardly ever eat the hot peppers. It has become a family tradition that forces us to talk more, enjoy more and laugh more. Anything that does that, consider me in. Truth be told, I have never won the hottest pepper growing competition and do not even try to enter the eating competition but I figure hey, there is always next year.