Buffalo wings are now a staple American dish; bottles of tabasco and sriracha sit nestled between salt and pepper on countless restaurant tables across the country; and barbecue sauce seemingly gets hotter by the year. Our love affair with capsaicin, the chemical compound that makes peppers hot, is obviously growing, but how did it all begin and what's fueling its meteoric rise?
Hot Sauce Nation: America's Burning Obsession, written by Denver Hicks and released just several months ago, provides an in-depth examination of how something that causes so much pain is loved by so many of us.
Hicks traces the likely history of the chili pepper from its origins in a small area in Bolivia to its introduction to Europe and the rest of the world by way of Christopher Columbus. Before Columbus set sail for India in 1492, oriental food wasn’t spicy and the Hungarians didn't have their prized paprika.
“The Indians got chilies through European colonialism. The slave trade helped bring spicy foods into the United States. Even in Mexico, where chilies have been a key mole ingredient for millennia, it originally came from Asia,” Hicks says. “If this didn't happen, the world would certainly be a blander place.”
Hicks's accounts also serve as a meditative travelogue with his on-site visits to the Land of the Seven Moles aka Oaxaca, Mexico; Houston, epicenter of hot-sauce laden Tex-Mex food; and Avery Island, Louisiana, the home of tabasco sauce producer Mcllhenney Company. Vicariously visit and experience the chipotle-infused hot chocolate at Annie Rupani’s Cacao & Cardamom chocolate shop in Houston, and the “Spice Cream” from Bonfatto’s in Bellefonte, Pennsylvania.
Although crediting sriracha with igniting today's artisanal hot sauce boom, Hicks is quick to point out its heavy sugar content in comparison to the more mainstream tabasco sauce that's simply made with chilies, salt, and vinegar. “Right now, the two hottest peppers used in sauces are the Carolina Reaper and Ghost Peppers," he says.
Philosophy and scientific inquiry also figure prominently in Nick's narrative exploring hot sauce’s appeal. In addition to the technical side of endorphin-heavy neurochemical reactions, the philosophy of Nietzsche guides the plausibility of why eating a 3.3 million Scoville unit scorpion pepper (about 650 times hotter than tabasco) in any way approaches a pleasurable experience.
Coverage resulting from reading a complimentary review copy