Hot for hot sauce
First, some science: The heat in chile peppers is caused by chemical compounds called capsaicinoids, of which more than 22 are known. The major ones, capsaicin and dihydrocapsaicin, generally are present in the highest concentrations, according to Chile Pepper Institute researchers at New Mexico State University.
As for gauging the heat of a chile pepper, the most common method is the Scoville Organoleptic Test. As defined by university researchers, it is a “systematic approach that was the first laboratory test used to measure heat in chile peppers. In the test, human subjects taste a series of prepared chile samples to determine the heat level. The samples are diluted in the laboratory until heat can no longer be detected by the tasters. A single unit of dilution is called a Scoville Heat Unit.”
So, jalapeno peppers average 3,500 to 8,000 SHUs and the hottest known chile, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, is 1.2 million SHUs (though some in the extremely fractious community of pepper enthusiasts claim that Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper pepper is hotter; Guinness and the Chile Pepper Institute have yet to weigh in).
Which brings us to Satan’s Blood.
Maj. Dan Wilson of The Salvation Army has a bottle of the pepper extract in his small office refrigerator, and don’t think he doesn’t rue the irony. He’s a little sheepish about it, a little reticent to give the devil his due, but suffice it to say, this stuff is hot.
In fact, for the men in the Grand Junction Salvation Army’s substance abuse treatment program, it’s become a rite of passage: Wilson is persuaded to bring down the ol’ Satan’s Blood and newbies put the tiniest of tastes on a toothpick and gingerly drop it on their tongue.
The fire is immediate and consuming, 800,000 SHUs of agony — gobble all the ice, drink all the milk agony. It is hot beyond hot, but through the fire is vividness and clarity. Nerve endings leap and sing the hymn of “Wow! That Was Amazing.”
In that respect, then, it’s a little easier to see the appeal and understand what has become a gentle obsession. Because anybody who knows him knows that Wilson loves hot sauce. The walls of his office are rimmed with shelves and shelves of what he calls a “working collection”: bottles of hot sauce full, empty and somewhere in between.
There are about 800 of them from around the country and around the world, sauces that range from face-meltingly hot to glorified tomato sauce (that was the Betty Boop-themed “hot” sauce, and it wasn’t very good, he admitted). There are bottles festooned with skulls and one with a pink brain on top. Perhaps to indicate that the eater’s gray matter will be set on fire.
“Food tastes kind of boring without it now,” he said.
And to think this is a man from Wichita, Kan., who, before this whole thing started, thought the chili sauce from Wendy’s was pretty hot.
“My mom’s Scottish,” Wilson explained, “so we did not have spicy food in our house growing up.”
His grandfather lived in Cedaredge, though, so every summer the family visited and Wilson got a nibble of green chiles or Mexican food. Back at home, when he and his family ate at one of the few Mexican restaurants in Wichita, he and his two brothers dared each other to eat hot things:
“I’ll give you 5 cents if you eat this jalapeno.”
“I’ll give you 5 cents if you eat this spoonful of hot sauce.”
But that was as far as it ever went. There was the odd packet of chili sauce at Wendy’s, but nothing to hint at what would become a passion. Then, one day at the mall in Minnesota in 1995, he passed a kiosk selling Dave’s Gourmet hot sauce. “Why not?” he thought, indulging in a moment of curiosity.
Man, it was hot. Tongue-on-fire hot, don’t-touch-your-eyes hot. But it was fascinating, too. It made the food more interesting, and the blend of flavors in the hot sauce itself was rich and complex.
His interest was piqued. When he and his wife, Terry, also an officer in The Salvation Army, were transferred from Minnesota to Harbor Light in Denver, he met an assistant cook at Great Scotts Eatery who showed Wilson his collection of about 80 bottles of hot sauce.
“What does this taste like?” Wilson asked.
“I don’t know,” the man replied. “If I really want to taste it, I buy two bottles.”
Wilson pondered the point of having an edible collection and not even knowing what it tasted like. Then, after a transfer to west Adams County, Wilson began eating breakfast on Tuesday mornings with a group of men, some of whom brought their own hot sauce. The restaurant had Cholula and Tobasco, “but Tobasco’s not really for breakfast or Mexican food,” Wilson said.
So, he started bringing a bottle of Dave’s Insanity with him when he ate out. He’d mix it with A-1 and eat it on steaks, which was delicious.
“Pretty soon, I was picking up some bottles at other places and people started bringing them for me when they went on vacation,” he explained. “When we traveled, I’d go to the hot sauce section of the store. That’s what I want for my souvenir.”
On the shelves of his working collection are El Yucateco from Mexico, one of his favorites, and Blair’s Death by Insanity. There’s Zakee from Jordan — it was OK — and Radical Heat by Krakatoa. His “Wall of Flame” T-shirt hangs in his office next to his “Witness for Jesus” banner.
His palate has acclimated and become refined enough that he can power through the heat to taste the nuances of Scotch Bonnet-based sauce, say, or habanero sauce. He’s willing to try most anything: He spiked a recent bowl of chili at lunch with a few jalapenos and papaya hot sauce that he and his wife got on a trip to St. Maarten.
(His wife humors his passion but isn’t particularly into hot sauce herself, and neither are their children.)
And as for the question most people ask, is there anything too hot to eat?
Well, Wilson pondered, he’s not going to go around drinking the Satan’s Blood pepper extract.
Also, does he eat hot sauce on everything?
“No, not everything,” he clarified. “On pizzas and spaghetti, I’ll just sprinkle on some red pepper, and I won’t put hot sauce on Thanksgiving dinner.
“But I do like to put a lot of black pepper on turkey.”
Hot sauce just makes life more interesting. Food seems to have more depth, and searching for unexpected hot sauce gems has taken on the air of a treasure hunt.
Plus, with his tolerance and pain threshold, he will always win the dares.