Taste Testing The Hot Sauce Spectrum

There's hot sauce, and then there's hot sauce. Audie Cornish puts reporter Allison Aubrey to the taste test at Rocklands BBQ in Arlington, Va.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

A recent financial analysis of the top 10 fastest-growing industries in the United States caught the attention of our food correspondent. Sandwiched between social network game development and green building construction, at spot number eight was hot sauce production. Sales have reached a billion dollars a year. And NPR's Allison Aubrey looks at what is fueling our taste for fire.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you find the idea of dousing your scrambled eggs in Tabasco or Texas Pete a little over the top, as I do, then the people I'm about to introduce you to will seem almost crazy. They're hot sauce fanatics, Chili Heads, they call themselves. And if they were a fraternity, John Hard might be president.

JOHN HARD: There's almost an addicting quality to eating hot sauce. It's a passion.

AUBREY: And the number of people in the United States who share this passion seems to be growing.

HARD: Hot sauce has really taken off in sales.

AUBREY: John Hard should know. We caught up with him at the North market in Columbus, Ohio. A little over 15 years ago, he jettisoned his first career selling fire extinguishers and decided to try selling his own concoction of hot sauce.

HARD: I used to put out fires. Now I start them.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: It hasn't been easy. John says the first year he was at it, he didn't make much at all. But now, with over a million dollars in annual sales, his business has moved out of his home and he employs nine people. He's followed a strategy to help his hot sauces stand apart from the rest. He seeks out some of the hottest peppers on the planet.

HARD: The hottest chili pepper in the world currently is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. And I'm going to try a sauce here that we call Moruga Madness, it's one of our newest hot sauces.

AUBREY: Serious chili heads know to find him here on Saturdays. A few have gathered around now.

DANTE ALLEN: I would consider myself definitely a chili head.

AUBREY: Dante Allen puts a bit of the super hot Moruga Madness on a cracker and tries it.

ALLEN: Hot.

AUBREY: This is what it's all about.

ALLEN: My eyes are itching, and it feels like, you know, the canal that connects between your ear and your throat, it feels like it's filling with fire.

AUBREY: And this is supposed to be fun?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

ALLEN: It's not necessarily a good feeling. It's like you eat the hot sauce and then you get that burn. And then, you know, you get kind of like this calm but like, you know what I mean? Like the storm is over. It's like, ah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: It's a bit like a runner's high, and that's quite a ride to get out of a little red bottle. It made me wonder, is there's something about chili heads that makes them different? Turns out, back in the 1980s, a psychology professor at Penn named Paul Rozin discovered in a study with a bunch of undergrads that there was a connection between liking roller coasters and liking spicy food.

PAUL ROZIN: People enjoy the fact that their heart is pounding, that their body thinks they are plunging to their death and they know they're OK.

AUBREY: It's benign thrill-seeking, he says. It feels dangerous but people know it's really not. Fast forward 30 years, and there's now new evidence that perhaps personality is a significant player in this lust for heat or spice in our food. Researchers at Penn State measured people's inclinations toward sensation-seeking and their food preferences too. They found that those who are most inclined to enjoy action movies or exploring were about six times more likely to enjoy the burn of a spicy meal. Researcher John Hayes says the findings were quite a surprise.

JOHN HAYES: Oh, I was absolutely stunned that the relationship was as a strong as we found.

AUBREY: Given that food preferences are an incredibly complex mix of everything from genetics to culture...

HAYES: To what mom and dad fed us as children. So the idea that we could link a personality measure to preference for spicy food and find such a strong relationship was very exciting.

AUBREY: So how does this explain the huge growth in the popularity of hot sauce? It's not as if we suddenly became a nation of sensation-seekers. Not at all says Peter Moore, editor of Men's Health magazine. He says big demographic shifts have been the driver here. As Hispanic and Asian populations grow, the influence of their culinary traditions does too.

PETER MOORE: What I would say is that because heat is so much a part of cuisines from around the world, as we respect the integrity of those cuisines, we also seek out the kinds of heat that they bring to them.

AUBREY: Moore says its men leading the way on this one. For lots of guys, it's about the competition.

MOORE: Guys are into that. How much pain can I bear? And can I show my buddies that I can stand it worse than he can? So that competitive nature between men absolutely kicks in, especially when it's a realm of cuisine that they kind of feel like they own.

AUBREY: But as the hot sauce craze continues to grow, the question is, will that claim last?

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

CORNISH: So after hearing all of this talk about peppers, spice, heat and hot sauce, how can you not want to try some? Allow me to be your proxy.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: The place, Rocklands Barbecue, the Arlington, Virginia, location. Our guide, owner John Snedden and his cabinet full of tempting little bottles.

JOHN SNEDDEN: We're looking at our wall of fire. We have about a hundred hot sauces that we rotate, up to 120 on any given day.

CORNISH: One of these just says caution. It doesn't have anything else on the label.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SNEDDEN: Right. Right.

AUBREY: It's just a caution sign. Something about those little red bottles that are intimidating to me.

CORNISH: Who will cry uncle first? Allison Aubrey, the hot sauce ingenue? Me, the daughter of heat-loving West Indians? Or John Snedden, the seasoned chili head who's laid out our gauntlet run of sauces? Armed with cornbread and toothpicks, we start on the sweet side of pain, Rocklands' own original barbecue sauce.

SNEDDEN: Tomato-based sauce, so that's where a lot of the sugar comes from. We add molasses and a little bit of brown sugar.

AUBREY: OK, there's a little kick but my mouth is not on fire. So far so good.

CORNISH: There's not really any cake here, Allison.

AUBREY: OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: But I'll...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: ...help you out there. Yeah.

AUBREY: You'll let me know when we get to that part?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CORNISH: We sail through the next two...

AUBREY: I'm still OK.

CORNISH: ...before hitting Cajun Sunshine.

SNEDDEN: Which is made with the cayenne pepper. And again, it's just a little step up in the heat, nothing to fear.

AUBREY: Okey-doke.

CORNISH: Now, you're feeding us this with cornbread, which makes me wonder what are the things you use to kind of calm the heat?

SNEDDEN: Right. So, milk, buttermilk, dairy products like that work very well. Also, vegetable oil. But also bread and rice, we find that it helps people. Water does not work because it...

AUBREY: Because it moves the heat around, I imagine.

SNEDDEN: Right.

AUBREY: I have to say I'm already feeling the burn.

CORNISH: Oh, really?

AUBREY: Yeah...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: That's so cute.

SNEDDEN: And you're getting some color too.

CORNISH: Allison stays in full blush through the three medium hot sauces before we edge into the super hot. It's Lottie's Original Barbados Red Hot Sauce that brings tears to her eyes.

Oh. man. Allison, are you OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: I think I'm finished. This is really intense for me.

CORNISH: It is spicy.

SNEDDEN: And no, you can't stop now. So this is when you go to the toothpick and you just do a little fleck.

CORNISH: Seriously, a teeny little drop barely coating the toothpick before hitting the tongue. At this level, let's be real, it's no longer about accenting your food. It's about how much heat you can take. And those last three bottles are ominous. Their labels are black and say things like: Wanza's Wicked Temptation, Da Bomb and Dave's Insanity.

SNEDDEN: Oh, here it is.

AUBREY: All right.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

AUBREY: Back to the thrill.

CORNISH: I put it on the tip of my tongue and now the tip of my tongue is - I'm worried for it. Wait, I think - wait. Am I sweating, finally?

SNEDDEN: You're sweating, yeah.

CORNISH: All right, here we go. We're finally at the point of a little perspiration.

SNEDDEN: Mystic. Mystic.

AUBREY: Wow.

SNEDDEN: So you can imagine people that pour it, you know, splash it on a sandwich and then take a big bite not knowing. And then they get, you know, you see this look of panic come over them because it takes about 20, 30 minutes to peak.

CORNISH: So, Allison, now that you've had the taste test, what do you think?

AUBREY: Well, you know, I started this piece, Audie, by saying that I am not a chili head. And I think maybe I'll revise my statement here. Maybe I'm becoming a chili head.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: Welcome to the fold.

AUBREY: All right. Thanks.

CORNISH: If you want to discover the thrills of hot sauce for yourself, Allison Aubrey has put together a list of tips for the timid on NPR's food blog, The Salt.

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