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Fire It Up!

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Fire It Up!
Photos by Jonathan Boncek

At some point in our lives, we have each experienced the infernal heat of a chile pepper. Maybe it was a spicy Bloody Mary or a bottle of sauce mistaken for a milder condiment or the result of a childhood dare. Sometimes the heat creeps up on you, a slow crescendo of warmth bringing excitement, angst, or agony. Maybe it’s brazenly direct, a blistering bullet through the tongue ricocheting through the roof of your mouth and out of your ears. You beg for water—wrong move! Water is a conduit that actually helps the chile oils spread, exacerbating the heat. Now your esophagus is on fire and your throbbing tongue makes speech impossible. Meanwhile, your friends are laughing hysterically (humor is, after all, always at someone else’s expense). Yet somehow, as the pain peaks and begins its merciful decline, you feel… good. How can this be? Simple really: endorphins—the body’s flood of euphoric pain-numbing hormones in response to the “threat” of culinary heat. “That was fun,” you think. And you do it again.

Heat is personal. What might be painfully unpleasant for me is another person’s definition of wimp sauce. I learned this the hard way years ago while traveling in Malaysia with my college boyfriend Danny. We decided to grab a quick lunch in an innocuous strip mall in Kuala Lumpur. Under the hum of blue fluorescent lights, with Malaysian “Muzak” piping through the speakers, and among a sea of cheap plastic chairs and tables, this wasn’t a place where I might have expected to have my tonsils incinerated. The curry chicken soup sounded like a safe bet. But within seconds of that first spoonful, my taste buds sounded an alarm. A few bites more and the heat was on full assault. Five minutes in, I was a teary-eyed, pore-sweating, sniveling, hiccupping mess. What was merely an everyday lunchtime soup for local Malays had kicked my western ass. I learned to fear heat on that day. And to respect it. It was not until decades later that I learned to love it.

Flavor Over Flame 

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Learn to Hone the Heat in Your Own Kitchen. Photo by Jonathan Boncek

Six months ago, my Charleston neighbor, Smith Anderson, handed me a bottle of hot sauce. The sauce was green and smelled of fresh cilantro and lime—enticingly aromatic. “You made this?” I asked quizzically.

“Sure,” he responded. “It’s part of a line of new sauces I’ve created with my business partner in Panama. We met on a plane and somehow got talking about our love for the South and for food and for hot sauce. His family is in the food business [making high-quality natural vinegars], and of course Panama has a perfect climate for growing all sorts of peppers and produce, so we hatched a plan to develop some fresh gourmet sauces using ingredients that we grow about a mile from the Panama Canal.”

The label read 9°80°—the geographical coordinates of Panama, which coincidentally shares the same longitude as Charleston. Against my better judgment (which seems to be a running theme for hot sauce eaters), I tried some, dabbing a few drops on the tip of my finger, bracing myself for the unknown. The heat was forward but not overpowering, the flavor delightful, vegetal, herbal. I could imagine dashing this on seafood, fish tacos, crab cakes, even salads. I looked at the ingredients: all natural and everything sourced from within a hundred miles of the factory, essentially farm-to-bottle. But it wasn’t labeled “hot sauce,” rather “gourmet sauce.”

“We didn’t want to scare off people who might think they don’t like hot sauce, like my mother,” explained Anderson. “I believe in flavor before fire. We’re not the big Texas guys that want to blow smoke out of your ears. A lot of sauces that advertise hottest this or hottest that don’t even use real peppers—they use pepper extract, which is basically like spraying your tongue with pepper spray. What’s the point of that? It obliterates the taste of whatever you’re eating. So we’re creating a whole different category. I think we’re onto something with our sauces because people have been stealing bottles off the table at local restaurants.”

Ring of Fire
The South’s Must-Haves Hot Sauces

I was sold. And I was curious. After all, if my own neighbor could launch a hot sauce product, then who else was doing this sort of thing? My own knowledge was limited to the dusty bottle of Tabasco sitting stoically and patiently in my spice cupboard.

The Spark that Ignited the Fire

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A Peppery Mix. Photo by Jonathan Boncek

Tabasco, the granddaddy of Southern hot sauces. Its story is pretty much emblematic of the way that most hot sauces get launched: guy tinkers in his kitchen, guy tweaks recipe for a hot sauce that he likes a lot, guy shares it with friends, friends say, “You gotta market this,” and the rest is history, then guy quits his day job (or maybe he quit his day job first and thus the free time for tinkering in his kitchen). For Tabasco founder Edmund McIlhenny, this tinkering started after the Civil War down on Louisiana’s Avery Island. A banker by trade, McIlhenny also had a love for gardening, and for peppers. He had all of Tabasco’s key ingredients at his disposal right there on the island: salt from an ancient salt dome, Tabasco pepper plants that a friend had given him, and cane vinegar from his cane sugar plantation. He experimented with fermenting his pepper mash with salt, then added vinegar, and bottled his creation in repurposed cologne bottles with sprinkler fitments to control the flow, sharing them with friends. The sauce came to be known as “that famous sauce McIlhenny makes.” Thus birthed a family business venture now in its fifth generation and going strong. Tabasco cranks out over 720,000 bottles per day and ships to over 165 countries and territories. It is still aged and bottled on Avery Island, though the peppers are now sourced from different growers in Mexico and Central America. You really can’t fault them for outsourcing the peppers. There’s no way they could grow that many on Avery Island without upsetting the ecological balance and the conservational victories the family has worked so hard to achieve there.

For ages, McIlhenny Co. Tabasco sauce was really the only game in town. Their marketing was savvy. If competitors or knock-offs arose, the McIlhenny’s could buy them out. But hot sauce has a mind of its own. It is too willful to belong to one company alone. And there’s a wide world of pepper varieties out there begging to be harnessed, blended, and bottled. Sometime around Tabasco’s one-hundredth anniversary, America’s hot sauce tastes went viral, spawning new brands, hot sauce competitions, and festivals. Now there are restaurants with extensive hot sauce bars, their own fiery product lines, and even hot sauce sommeliers. If I walk up the street to get a healthy smoothie, it comes with a kick of cayenne. Our street-side popsicle vendor, King of Pops, uses jalapenos and habaneros in some of his treats. We are a nation catching on to the virtues of heat.

What’s in a Name?

Photos by Jonathan Boncek
Ring of Fire. Photo by Jonathan Boncek

Southern hot sauce stores are popping up all over. Here in Charleston we have Pepper Palace on Market Street, which lures ambling tourists and maritime travelers into its lair with the boast “Hottest Sauce in the Universe.” You need to be eighteen and sign a waiver to try it. A gimmick? Not really. Each batch is made with forty pounds of ghost peppers, the common name for the Bhut Jolokia, until recently thought to be the world’s hottest pepper, a title now held by the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. If you handle either pepper without gloves, your fingers can experience numbness for days.

Not wanting to end up in the emergency room, I bypassed the Hottest Sauce in the Universe and instead perused the seemingly endless shelves of hot sauces, chuckling at the audacity of the labels.

Sudden Death. Devil’s Brew. Fire Ant Juice. Temporary Insanity. Delicious Suffering. Extinction. Salvation. Brain Damage. Smack My Ass and Call Me Sally. Scorned Woman. Liquid Lucifer. Liquid Lucifer’s Lover (hotter than Liquid Lucifer, of course).

Hot Sauce Harry’s in Florida packages one of its sauces in a tube of dynamite. Another comes packaged in a miniature coffin equipped with a death certificate to be filled in by the recipient. Then there is gastronomical humor, which either elicits guffaws, nervous giggles, or grunts of disgust (Sir Fartalot, Colon Cleaner, Weapons of Ass Destruction, you get the picture).

Clever, yes, but which ones are good? I started by identifying the Scovie Award winners—the most coveted award of the fiery food industry. Entries are blind tasted, so the outrageous labels don’t matter here. I also checked out the winners of Austin’s annual Hot Sauce Festival and North Carolina’s Hot Sauce Contest. Chefs spoke freely about their favorite brands and volunteered their own recipes as well.

Ring of Fire
The South’s Must-Haves Hot Sauces

Honing in On the Heat
The South’s Must-Haves Hot Sauces

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Learn to Hone the Heat in Your Own Kitchen. Photo by Jonathan Boncek