Lamentations of a Budding Chilihead

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion my tastebuds are changing somewhat drastically. How so? As it turns out, where once I couldn’t even tolerate medium heat, and Taco Bell Medium sauce packets were the equivalent of agony, now all commonly available hot sauces only impart a mild zip.

Tabasco? Watery vinegar. Frank’s Red Hot? Tomato sauce. Cholula? Ketchup. Sriracha? Garlic ketchup. Insanity, to put it bluntly, and it was becoming a problem. What do I put on my tacos, pizza, and salad when anything I can buy at a supermarket is the equivalent of tepid bathwater?

It just so happens that Pepper Palace is just down Michigan Ave. from the hotel where I regularly stay when I’m in Chicago for work. So I went there for a visit, because they had to have something I could enjoy with a little heat.

Boy did they! I bought a few infamous samples, in order of heat level:

Then I got a couple of Pepper Palace’s branded sauces:

But this isn’t a review. I loved them all, though the Blair’s was rather painful at first. I purchased the Mango Habanero because it’s a great flavor. The Kutbil-Ik is the hottest blend of El Yucateco, and it’s one of my favorites. The Jolokia sauce was smokey and probably my favorite of them all, so much so that I’ve already gone through almost half the bottle. The Iguana goes well in salads and has a standard medium heat, and Blair’s I’ve reserved strictly for burritos or when my tolerance builds a bit more.

Now I’m running into a similar problem as before. The more of these sauces I use because I like their flavors, the less hot they are. A couple weeks ago, I could barely tolerate Iguana Radioactive, and now I can only describe it as a strong medium heat. How is this possible? I have a theory.

Every Saturday in Urbana, they have a farmer’s market that gets dozens of stalls. One in particular had a pretty sad assortment of random peppers in a small cardboard box. Unlike the other vendors, he had things hotter than Jalapeños. I saw some cayenne, which can get up to 50,000 scoville, so I had to grab a couple. What I didn’t expect is that he had a couple peppers that I couldn’t recognize. So what else could I do? I bought them.

One of these mystery peppers was hotter than the cayenne, but not remarkably so. I still don’t know what it was, but I ate the whole thing, and suffered for a half hour with no other ill effects. The other looked like this. It was a jagged, studded, curled up, mean looking bastard. I don’t think it was a genuine Bhut Jolokia, but it was probably a variant of Naga. The vendor only had one of them, and he clearly didn’t know what it was, or he wouldn’t have sold it to me for a quarter.

When it came time to test the second mystery pepper, I nibbled a bit off the end, chewed for a bit, and shrugged. But the heat built. Then it kept building. Then my lips started to burn. About fifteen minutes later, my stomach started to cramp. Just the tiny end of this thing was as hot as the cayenne I tested, and it imparted a more drastic overall effect. It also extremely pungent. I cut it open to investigate, and the entire inside was slick with capsaicin oil. It didn’t have the smokiness often associated with Jolokias, which is why I think it’s only in the Naga family. Still, that’s more than enough!

I was shocked, and left with a single question: How on Earth did a random stand at a farmer’s market get ahold of a fresh pepper related to one of the hottest strains in the world? Was it just growing on one of his plants and he harvested it? Did one of his friends put it in the box as a prank? I have no clue.

But after abusing myself with it, every other thing I’ve tasted since registers at a lower scale. Jalapeños are like bell peppers to me, except they impart a mild warmth. My coveted Jolokia sauce? Smokey, medium spicy ketchup.

From what I’ve heard, there is a limit to this tolerance effect. Eventually I’ll stop acclimating and be able to enjoy a hot sauce without having to step up the heat. Still, I am very much unaccustomed to eating spicy food and finding it mild or bland. I’m not sure I qualify as a chilihead just yet, but I may be by the time I’m done.

Until Tomorrow