AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There are people in much of the U.S. right now who are cranky with winter - too much snow, too much cold. And it's OK because for all of you out there, we have some hot stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Hot stuff.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Hot.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Sizzling.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Muy caliente.
CORNISH: See? Happier already - each week this month we consider stuff that's not cold, not wintry - stuff that's - yes, hot. Today, it's a taste of 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.
CORNISH: NPR's Allison Aubrey first brought us this story on hot sauce three years ago, and we followed it with a taste test. Well, guess what? We're going to hear it all again because it's good, and it's hot. And it starts with the people who love the liquid heat.
AUBREY: 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: 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 concoctions of hot sauce.
HARD: I used to put out fires. Now I start them.
AUBREY: 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 is the Trinidad moruga scorpion. I'm going to try a sauce here that we call "Moruga Madness."
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 (ph) puts a bit of this super-hot moruga madness on a cracker and tries it.
AUBREY: This is what it's all about.
ALLEN: My eyes are itching, and 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?
ALLEN: It's not necessarily a good feeling. You eat the hot sauce, and then you get that burn, and then, you know, you get kind of like this calm. Like, the storm is over - just like, ahh. (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 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're plunging to their death, and they know they're OK.
AUBREY: 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 were 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 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: 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 kind of heat that they bring to them.
AUBREY: Moore says it's 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 buddy 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 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 healing 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. The place - Rocklands Barbeque, the Arlington, Va., location. Our guide - owner John Snedden and his cabinet full of tempting little bottles.
JOHN SNEDDEN: 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. It's just a caution sign.
AUBREY: 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 has laid out our gauntlet run of sauces. Armed with cornbread and toothpicks, we start on the sweet side of pain, Rocklands' own original barbeque 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 I'm - so far, so good.
CORNISH: There's not really any kick here, Allison.
AUBREY: You'll let me know when we get to that part?
CORNISH: I'll help you out there, yeah. (Laughter).
We sail through the next two...
AUBREY: I'm still OK.
CORNISH: ...Before hitting "Cajun Sunshine..."
SNEDDEN: ...Which is made with a cayenne pepper.
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 - dairy products like that. Also vegetable oil, but also bread. Water does not work.
AUBREY: I'm already feeling the burn.
CORNISH: Oh, really?
CORNISH: That's so cute.
SNEDDEN: And you're getting some color, too.
CORNISH: Allison stays in a full blush through the three medium hot sauces before we edge into the super-hots. It's "Lottie's Original Barbados Red Hot Sauce" that brings tears to her eyes.
Oh, man. Allison, are you OK?
AUBREY: I think I'm finished. This is really intense for me.
CORNISH: It is spicy.
SNEDDEN: 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."
Oh, here it is.
AUBREY: All right - back of the throat.
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? All right. Here we go. We're finally at this point of a little perspiration.
SNEDDEN: Misting - misting.
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 'cause 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.
CORNISH: (Laughter) Welcome to the fold.
AUBREY: All right, thanks.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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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