Tom Hall eyed the row of hot sauces, searching for a challenge. "That's
sissy right there," he said, pointing to a substance nearly 10 times as hot
as a raw jalapeqo pepper. The dark-brown sauce called Liquid Ax is the
second-hottest sauce made by Harald and Renate Zoschke of Suncoast Peppers. Hall was here for the hottest -- Vicious Viper.
Unlike Liquid Ax, Sir Fartalot and the Zoschkes' other products -- which sat
out in plastic, wide-rimmed faux champagne glasses for sampling -- Vicious
Viper was available only on the tip of a toothpick.
Hall inserted his toothpick into a hole in the bottle's mouth not much
wider than the toothpick itself, and quickly withdrew it, revealing just a
trace of a nuclear-orange liquid. He touched it to his tongue and waited.
Nothing. Over-hyped, he reasoned. "This stuff is an 8-out-of-10 on my
heat scale," he declared. Renate Zoschke took the bottle and poured three
individual drops -- together, not quite the size of a dime -- on a tortilla
chip, and handed the chip to Hall. He popped it in his mouth and waited
again. "OK," he said matter-of-factly, "I can't feel my tongue." His
eyes began to bulge and water, and beads of sweat quickly formed along his
hairline. His face, already flushed from hours of sampling other hot
sauces, reddened to a deep, sun-burned shade of crimson. He began to exhale
forcefully, as if he could somehow blow the burn out of his mouth.
"OK, OK, OK, OK, OK," he continued submissively. Then, like a
younger brother being subjected to noogies, Hall offered the fiery-foods
equivalent of "uncle" to the small crowd who had gathered to watch him.
"It's a 10, it's a 10, it's a 10."
Taking off his jacket as sweat poured down his face, Hall looked like a
defeated man. His attempt to describe the sensation took about three
minutes, with each sentence -- nearly every word -- interrupted with an
"oooohhhh" or an "aaahhhhhhh" or an "oh man."
"Just call me stupid," he said. "That's for sure."
I couldn't call him stupid. I had done the same thing the previous day.
Four beers and a glass of milk later, the burn had still been with me. So I'd done what any self-respecting chilehead would do; I'd walked from booth to booth
at the Fiery Foods Show in Reno, Nev., in search of
something hotter. And I'd found it in Da Bomb Ground Zero, which, depending on
whom you believe, registers a blistering 50 or 300 times as hot as Tabasco
sauce. Unfortunately, as another chilehead concluded a bit too authoritatively, "It
tastes like burnt cat."
Since 1988, the Fiery Foods Show has grown from a tiny trade show with 37
exhibitors and about 100 curious members of the public to a sophisticated
operation boasting some 260 exhibitors and 12,000 heat seekers. Although
fewer members of the public attended this year's show on March 4 and 5 (a scheduling
conflict had moved it to Reno from Albuquerque, N.M.), the show's growth
mirrors the explosion of the hot-foods industry in America. The formerly
insignificant fiery foods niche is now a booming $2.5 billion industry,
according to "The Pope of Peppers," Dave DeWitt, who has written or
co-written more than 30 books and cookbooks on chile peppers and hot sauces.
DeWitt is the editor and publisher of an industry trade publication called
Fiery Foods magazine, and the former editor of Chile Pepper magazine, a
consumer mag with a growing circulation of more than 60,000. An Internet Web ring popularly called the "Ring of
Fire" now boasts more than 400 sites devoted to growing,
selling, cooking, eating and -- as one popular site puts it, worshipping -- the chile pepper.
According to a recent report by the American Spice Trade Association (yes,
there is one), general spice consumption in the United States rose almost 16 percent from
1995 to 1998. "Growth in the hot spice category is largely responsible for
the increases in total spice use," the report concludes.
The Reno show boasted attendees from throughout America and all over the world.
Tom Hall, the Viper victim, flew in with his wife from Bellingham,
Wash. Others came from Trinidad and Tobago, Ecuador and New
Zealand. One woman I spoke to had traveled 36 hours from Botswana. The
Chinese government, hoping to tap the expanding American heat market,
sponsored Wen-Qiam Zhou's trip to represent the Yellow Emperor Pepper Sauce
The singular devotion festival-goers had for the chile pepper gave the show a kind of surreal feeling that I've always imagined a "Star Trek" or Dungeons and Dragons convention might have. The difference, I suppose, is that chileheads get fired up about Scovilles -- the unit of measurement used to determine whether a pepper will simply tickle your tongue or scorch it -- instead of becoming excited about the prime directive or hit-points. Debates rage over capsanoid differentials and testing heat organileptically or with tasting panels.
The mammoth convention hall was a veritable shrine to the pepper. Displays ranged from the obvious -- chile peppers, extracts, hot sauces, cookbooks, grills -- to the unlikely, including pepper lights, pepper clothing and pepper paintings, to the absolutely bizarre, in the form of "antique and heirloom dry edible beans." The tantalizing cookout aromas -- reminiscent of a July 4 barbecue -- seemed strangely out of place in the modern convention hall, just a short walk from the neon frenzy of the Hilton's huge casino.
Many, perhaps most, of the chileheads manning the booths and walking the aisles wore at least one article of pepper clothing. Ivo Pudiak, one of the celebrity chefs, donned a pair of loose-fitting, black and red Chilepepper Zubaz -- the loud, striped pseudo-sweats favored by the most devout fans of NFL teams. One guy wandered from booth to booth sporting a moose hat and, with an odd smile, telling everyone he was "feeling horny." He wasn't wearing pepper clothes.
Bernie Jassman, owner of Hot Flash Distributing, suited up in a full chile pepper costume, hoping to draw customers to his new display of a XXX Hot Sauce line. Jassman proudly showed me such tasty (and tasteless) sauces as Fat Girls in Heat, Hot Bitch at the Beach and Hot 'n Horny. For chileheads still into poopy humor, Jassman offers Red Rectum Revenge, Backfire, Blowout and Squirt.
Funny labels are serious business for the fiery foods industry, and many of the labels are hilarious. Several of the people I met over the course of the weekend were less-than-committed chileheads, but very serious bottle collectors. The Viper's Harald Zoschke often bottles the same exact sauce using two different labels. "Butt Twister outsells Belligerent Blaze 3 to 1," he says. "The same is true for Sir Fartalot's and El's Red Eye."
The producers and distributors know that funny labels move sauce off their shelves, and they use the big Fiery Foods Show, and the local and regional shows that have grown from it, to gauge reactions to their various new offerings. Chatting with their customers face-to-face and observing the customers' reactions to the various labels is a simple and useful way to conduct some unscientific market research. This is especially true for the large and growing number of e-commerce hot shops, whose proprietors don't otherwise have occasion to interact with the chileheads buying their products.
One of the industry's first and best Web sites, firegirl.com, lists and categorizes sauce names for customers:
Religious: Holy Shit! Habaqero, Last Rites, Hellfire & Damnation, Mean Devil Woman, Holy City Heat, Screamin' Demon and Satan's Revenge.
Celebrity: Teddy's (Kennedy) Sauced, Reno's (Janet) "No Problem," Bubba's Best and Hillary's Diet Sauce (made with whitewater).
Sex: Bad Girls in Heat, Pleasure & Pain XXX Hot Sauce, Slap Heard Around the World, Raging Passion, Monica's Down on Your Knees Hot Sauce and Red Hot Mama.
Bodily Function: Rectal Rocket Fuel, Screaming Sphincter, Red Rectum, Poots and Ring of Fire.
There is wide agreement that the simultaneous growth of the fiery foods industry and the Internet was more than a mere coincidence. Dave DeWitt says that hot stuff began growing in popularity about 10 years before the Internet took off. "But the Internet was exactly what we needed at exactly the right time," he says. Because of the proliferation of fiery food Web sites, "Someone who's interested in launching a hot sauce now can do all of this stuff and can do it easily."
And today, chileheads can purchase sauces from many of the sites on the "Ring of Fire." One of the Web ring's most visited sites, firegirl.com, was the brainchild of Mary Going, a bored software developer from Hallowell, Maine.
After tasting some jalapeqo jam on a trip to New Mexico in 1991, Going began to grow peppers as a hobby. She grew peppers on her own for several years and created a Web site in 1995 devoted to growing hot peppers in cold climates. Going was immediately inundated with free bottles of sauce accompanied by requests for a mention on her site. "At that point, I didn't even know what a hot sauce was," Going confessed. "I had so much hot sauce in the fridge that my sweetheart would get mad at me. I got so many I stopped opening them after a while."
For years, firegirl.com was an information-packed but information-only site, as Going continued working her "day job" designing Web sites for other businesses, including other chilehead sites. In October 1999, Going converted firegirl.com to a full-service e-commerce site. After an encouraging start, Going has decided to sell her Web-design business to concentrate full-time on firegirl.com.
Other chileheads have been selling hot sauce on the Web since the early '90s. Ben Arora and David Salas of hothothot.com were selling hot sauce online in 1994, before many of the most recognizable e-commerce sites today, such as Amazon.com, eToys.com, and eBay.com. With hothothot.com now making money and boasting 10 million hits last year, the company plans to go public in four-to-six months.
Although the Internet has been an undeniable boon for the industry, you can't sell something nobody wants simply because you have a Web presence. So the growth of the fiery foods industry invites an obvious question: What accounts for the staggering rise in the number of Americans who enjoy a little pain with breakfast, lunch and dinner?
"It's really a confluence of factors," says Dave Hirschkopf, creator of "Dave's Insanity," one of the most recognizable and incendiary hot sauces on the market. Hirschkopf, who, like Madonna and Cher, seems to prefer a simpler "Dave," points to the burgeoning ethnic populations in America, the ready availability of sauces and peppers and the quasi-addictive qualities of the burn. "Once people start with spicy foods, they don't go back," Dave says.
That's certainly true for Reno native Marianna Wilson, whom I cornered immediately after she bought a bottle of Viper and a black and pink-neon Vicious Viper hat. "I used to have jalapeqo eating contests with my dad's friends when I was 6 or 7, so this show is heaven for me." So what is it about hot foods that has kept her a loyal consumer for 20 years? "The pain," she says without hesitation. "I just love the pain." Wilson's answer was repeated by like-minded attendees throughout the weekend: Many chileheads crave the pain.
Americans not yet swept up in the pepper craze might question the sanity of what Fiery Foods' DeWitt calls "benign masochism." But there is a physiological explanation for the pleasure of the pain. "When you're eating something that pains you, your body releases endorphins to kill that pain," says DeWitt. The result is a mild euphoria or a mini-high as the endorphins go to work, the same feeling marathon runners and triathaletes experience toward the end of their grueling events; so, in a very real sense, people get pleasure from pain.
All of this endorphin stuff notwithstanding, the more likely answer for many chileheads, especially consumers of the intra-industry niche known as the "superhots," doesn't require nearly as much science.
"It's a macho thing," says Harald Zoschke, who left his native Germany and a successful career in software development to create Suncoast Peppers in Florida with his wife, Renate. "It's those same guys who ride around on skateboards and snowboards and watch the X-Games. They have a chronic need for stimulation and excitement. They skate those loops and whatnot. They have that techno music and stuff goin' on. They just get bored easily and have a need to constantly overstimulate their senses."
Extreme is hot (sorry) in America. The Olympics weren't enough -- ESPN had to create the X-Games. Former President Bush couldn't just say he was healthy, he had to prove it by jumping out of an airplane. Rock climbing, rappelling, mountain biking and Mountain Dew all appeal to the collective restlessness of Americans, especially America's youth. Thrill-seekers who think "Doing the Dew" is extreme might want to try Ass in the Tub Special Reserve -- Armageddon or Pain is Good, Batch 114. As more than one media-savvy chilehead told me, "Eating hot food is like bungee-jumping for your tongue."
One extract sauce called "Pure Cap" -- short for pure capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot -- comes in a childproof medicine bottle and is dispensed with an eye-dropper. The bottle contains warnings not to let the substance touch your skin, and many stores require purchasers to sign a liability waiver before they are allowed to purchase the potentially hazardous substance. Some of these waivers are likely done to appeal to the thrill-seeking element, but because so many hot shops, distributors and Web sites are small businesses, the merchants hope the waivers will help them avoid potentially costly litigation.
Accidental entrepreneurs make up the vast majority of these professional chileheads. Stories abound of current hot-shop proprietors who got their start just experimenting in their own kitchens to feed -- or exact some culinary revenge on -- friends or relatives.
Dave's Insanity founder, Dave Hirschkopf, began his food career as the proprietor of Burrito Madness in College Park, Md., a Washington suburb that is home to the University of Maryland. The taqueria quickly gained popularity as a post-bar hang out for inebriated Maryland students, many of whom refused to abide by what must have surely seemed like an unreasonably early closing time of 2:30 a.m. "I just needed to get the drunks out," he explains. "If they were obnoxious, I'd try anything to get them out."
To hurry them along, Dave concocted an early version of his "insanity" sauce to top late-night snacks. When "please leave" didn't work, he'd scorch his most intoxicated customers. "People who were stoned were easy, it was the drunks who were terrible. So I never burned stoned people, just the drunks."
If Dave's "leave-or-get-burned" plan sounds unique, it's not. Blair Lazar, creator of Blair's Death Sauces, did the same thing to get lushes out of his establishment on the Jersey Shore.
Paul Kalenuik, who recently launched the Bison Brands line of sauces, got his start in a much less vindictive way. Kalenuik, a Buffalo, N.Y., native, was transplanted to Florida in the early '80s. "When I first moved to Florida, I couldn't find a good hot sauce anywhere, so I started experimenting with making my own," he says. A novice chef, Kalenuik was surprised at how many friends jokingly told him he should begin bottling his sauce.
"I started making it in my kitchen, just selling it to local gourmet stores. The demand was so high I would come home from my day job and stay up until 2 or 3 a.m. making the stuff." His first commercial sauce, Red Bison, is the same concoction he whipped up in his Florida apartment 20 years ago. A relatively mild but exceptionally flavorful takeoff on traditional Buffalo wing (Bison -- Buffalo ... get it?), the sauce grew so quickly that Kalenuik took on a business partner, fellow Buffalo native Kevin Humphrey, and outsourced its production. Still relatively new to the market, Kalenuik has recently secured a deal with the 90-store Wegman grocery chain in western New York, and is in the final stages of negotiations on several others.
Although Kalenuik was a bit unsure what kind of reception his milder condiment would get at something called the Fiery Foods Show, his mind was quickly eased by the constant line of people waiting to sample the cubed chicken breast and colby cheese samples he drenched in Red Bison.
After having yet another "sample" (in reality, I probably had enough to count as a meal) of the Red Bison chicken on Saturday, I began my routine. Since I had visited every booth and had tasted what had surely been more than 1,000 hot sauces, I abandoned my hit-or-miss random sampling and developed a quick and efficient schedule that enabled me to return several times to each of my favorites. Jimmy O's, right near the front door, offered cut-up flank steak on toothpicks for sampling their sauces. I managed to dip three pieces in his Tangy Teriyaki Mesquite Marinade, which was excellent.
From there I headed to Buddy Taylor's Gator Hammock for another hit of his Lethal Gator. This sauce tastes like a particularly pungent and fuller tasting Tabasco, with a healthy dose of habaqero peppers in addition to the milder cayenne peppers. It's so flavorful, you forget that it falls just short of a "superhot" -- you forget for a minute, anyway.
Nearly everyone on the public side of the displays was sniffling or wiping his eyes, as I continued along my now-familiar path. The quiet buzz of the show was often punctuated by yelps of "Hot! Hot! Aaahhhhh!" or "Holy Shit!" My favorites rotation included a stop at firegirl.com's booth for some PsychoBitch on Fire and at the Mix-A-Lota-Stuff Inc. booth for shredded chicken in Brenda Chinn's Jamaican Jerk Sauce and her much milder Honey BBQ sauce. I followed this path until I was stuffed and on fire. And happy.
On my way to back to the nickel slot machines, I passed by the Suncoast Peppers booth and ran into a convulsing Erick Deliz, who had just sampled Vicious Viper. I smiled at Renate Zoschke. "They sell that stuff?" he asked between coughs. "That could kill you! They shouldn't make that for people. That's not right."
It's a good bet that Deliz walked straight from that painful experience to another booth, in search of something hotter.