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Now for something a little different: Denver Nicks's Hot Sauce Nation: America's Burning Obsession, a delight to read and a serious discussion of all things chili. In what is below, anything in square brackets is Yrs Truly's (a.k.a. Polaris93's) handiwork.

Philosophers have often looked for the defining feature of humans -- language [ravens and cats have language], rationality [hah!], culture [birds, rats (ask me sometime about rat priests, I dare you), dogs, cats, other primates, even Tyrannosaurus rex had and have it], and so on. I'd stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce. [Right. My literary partner in crime, Rich Ransdell, has informed me that there are bears that like the incendiary stuff].
-- Dr. Paul Bloom, [as quoted on page ix of the book]

Actually, this may go some way to explaining that humans are the only animal life-forms to have tamed fire. Not to mention setting fires for the sheer, ecstatic joy of it. Or is that the other way around?

Be that as it may and howsomever, while Tabasco sauce is by no means the hottest of hot sauces, those who have not been exposed to chilies and chili sauces before tasting Tabasco sauce will, upon ingesting it, look wildly around for the nearest fire extinguisher, water-tap, gallon of ice cream, or anything else capable of putting out that conflagration that has suddenly erupted in their mouths and take it in as fast as they can. (Ice cream works, due to its fat content. Don't use the fire extinguisher for this -- it will simultaneously freeze your mouth solid and poison you. A word to the wise.) In fact, however, that terrible burning is a mere illusion, set off by contact of nerve-ends in your mouth with capsaicin, the active ingredient in chilies and chili sauce that makes your mouth feel as if you'd just ingested yellow-hot lava. There is no actual injury to your mouth and tongue, even though for a while it sure feels like it. But once the "burn" calms down, your eyes stop watering, and your sinuses are cleared out by the experience, you actually begin to feel rather good, and then gradually become awash in a euphoric high some say is better than the afterglow of sex, due to the endorphins in your system set off by that initial blast of that terrible PAIN. The taste of the food on which you use the sauce tastes much better for it. Thus, fans of red-hot chili peppers all over the world who delight in the possibly perverse pleasure of ingesting the stuff..

The pungency of a chili pepper -- its concentration of capsaicin -- is traditionally measured in Scoville heat units (SHU), named for the American pharmacist Wilbur Lincoln Scoville, who devised the Scoville Organoleptic Test at a Detroit-based pharmaceutical company in 1912. The test measures the degree to which a chili pepper solution must be diluted before capsaicin is no longer detectable to a professional taster. Nowadays a less subjective test, High-Performance liquid Chromatography, is used to analyze capsaicin content, but heat is still generally described in SHU. With the bell pepper weighing in at 0 SCU*, Cholula hot sauce achieves 1,000 SHU, Tabasco Pepper Sauce reaches 5,000 SCU, Grinders Death Nectar out of Kansas City burns at a hearty 337,000 SCU, and it goes up from there. Pure capsaicin tops out the Scoville scale at 16,000,000 SCU. (*Data as provided by the author of this book. Frankly, IMHO in this one case he's dead wrong. Try eating the seeds in a bell pepper by themselves and you'll find out what I mean. This reviewer accepts no responsibility for the results, especially not the expense, embarrassment, and chaos due to calling the fire department to put out what is actually an illusionary fire.)

That said, this book is a treasure, delving into history, culture, immigration patterns, and the sciences of spice and pain. Containing color plates of the chilies themselves, dishes made from the chilies, restaurateurs and restaurateuses who have perfected the use of chili peppers to create their culinary delights, dishes made using peppers of varying strengths, weird people who have based their lives on the Joys of Peppers, and those tiny little bottles containing the culinary equivalent of the nuclear option as well as 10 chapters all about this infernal subject as well as an introduction, a selected bibliography, and a very useful index, this little books is a lot of fun. Whether you are a cook, a devoted chilihead, an average American looking to try something new, an anthropologist wanting to learn more about the crazy cultural phenomena of our very strange country, an historian who wants to know how the hell did these little bundles of culinary U235 become part of American culture, or just someone bored out of his mind who is looking for something interesting, amusing, and new, this book is right up your alley.

But I must here give a cautionary tale for those have little or no experience with chilies:

Notes From An Inexperienced Chili Tester Named FRANK, who was visiting Texas from the East Coast: "Recently, I was honored to be selected as a judge at a chili cook-off. The original person called in sick at the last moment and I happened to be standing there at the judge's table asking directions to the beer wagon when the call came. I was assured by the other two judges (Native Texans) that the chili wouldn't be all that spicy, and besides, they told me I could have free beer during the tasting, So I accepted."**

Here are the scorecards from the event:

* * * * *


JUDGE ONE: A little too heavy on tomato. Amusing kick.

JUDGE TWO: Nice, smooth tomato flavor. Very mild.

FRANK: Holy shit, what the hell is this stuff? You could remove dried paint from your driveway with it! Took me two beers to put the flames out. I hope that's the worst one. These Texans are crazy.


JUDGE ONE: Smokey, with a hint of pork. Slight Jalapeno tang.

JUDGE TWO: Exciting BBQ flavor, needs more peppers to be taken seriously.

FRANK: Keep this out of the reach of children – I'm not sure what I am supposed to taste besides pain! I had to wave off two people who wanted to give me the Heimlich maneuver. They had to rush in more beer when they saw the look on my face.


JUDGE ONE: Excellent firehouse chili! Great kick. Needs more beans.

JUDGE TWO: A beanless chili, a bit salty, good use of peppers.

FRANK: Call the EPA, I've located a uranium spill. My nose feels like I’ve been snorting Drano! Everyone knows the routine by now – get me more beer before I ignite! Barmaid pounded me on the back; now my backbone is in the front part of my chest! I'm getting shit-faced from all that beer.


JUDGE ONE: Black bean chili with almost no spice. Disappointing.

JUDGE TWO: Hint of lime in the black beans. Good side dish for fish or other mild foods, not much of a chili.

FRANK: I felt something scraping across my tongue, but was unable to taste it, is it possible to burn out taste buds? Sally, the barmaid, was standing behind me with fresh refills; that 300-lb. bitch is starting to look HOT just like this nuclear waste I'm eating. Is chili an aphrodisiac?


JUDGE ONE: Meaty, strong chili. Cayenne peppers freshly ground, adding considerable kick. Very impressive.

JUDGE TWO: Chili using shredded beef, could use more tomato. Must admit the cayenne peppers make a strong statement.

FRANK: My ears are ringing, sweat is pouring off my forehead, and I can no longer focus my eyes. I farted and four people behind me needed paramedics. The contestant seemed offended when I told her that her chili had given me brain damage. Sally saved my tongue from bleeding by pouring beer directly on it from a pitcher. I wonder if I'm burning my lips off? It really pisses me off that the other judges asked me to stop screaming. Screw those rednecks!


JUDGE ONE: Thin yet bold vegetarian variety chili. Good balance of spice and peppers.

JUDGE TWO: The best yet. Aggressive use of peppers, onions, and garlic. Superb.

FRANK: My intestines are now a straight pipe filled with gaseous, sulfuric flames. I shit myself when I farted and I'm worried it will eat through the chair. No one seems inclined to stand behind me except Sally. Can't feel my lips anymore. I need to wipe my ass with a snow cone made of dry ice!


JUDGE ONE: A mediocre chili with too much reliance on canned peppers.

JUDGE TWO: Ho hum, tastes as if the chef literally threw in a can of chili peppers at the last moment. I should take note that I am worried about Judge Number 3, he appears to be in a bit of distress, as he is cursing uncontrollably.

FRANK: You could put a grenade in my mouth, pull the pin, and I wouldn't feel a damn thing. I've lost sight in one eye, and the world sounds like it’s made of rushing water. My shirt is covered with chili, which slid unnoticed out of my mouth. My pants are full of lava-like shit to match my damn shirt. At least during the autopsy they'll know what killed me. I've decided to stop breathing, it's too painful. Screw it, I'm not getting any oxygen anyway. If I need air, I'll just suck it in through the 4-inch hole in my stomach.

Note: Paramedics have been called for Judge Number 3 . . .

**From Dragon Drive: A Comedia Mundana, Volume 1 Book 1, Catastrophe, Endnotes Part 5, pp. 274-277. As the pseudonymous Wayne Dwight Richards, I wrote it my ownself, y'all.

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