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by D a v i d K a r p
*See this month's cover article and much more in the April issue of Chile Pepper Magazine!
The concrete canyons of New York seem far from the fiery sun and spirit of classic chile-growing regions, so who would imagine that a stand at the city's Union Square Greenmarket has America's most spectacular selection of fresh hot peppers, over 130 varieties at last count, all grown on the Blew family farm in New Jersey?
It's 7:30 on a warm August morning, and Ted Blew perspires as he rushes to set up the day's display of some two dozen varieties of peppers. New Yorkers are so avid for this cornucopia of Capsicums that impatient customers root through bins stacked by Ted's truck, hoping to grab the scarce pods. They hurry with good reason: It's still early in the season for habaneros, and a buyer for Parioli Romanissimo, a tony Italian restaurant, scoops up half of the limited supply.
From midsummer to December, such is the scene each Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday at the Greenmarket, where local vendors sell only their own produce. Shoppers carrying bags of peaches and pears stroll over and marvel at the Blews' bright peppers cascading from wicker baskets, and read the signs bearing names, potency, and prices.
Then they gasp at those prices: $6.00 a pound for jalapeños and Anaheims, $8.00 for cayennes and serranos, and a whopping $10.00 for habaneros--several times what local markets charge. Outrageous? Perhaps, but no one matches the Blews' choice of organically grown, freshly picked, and picture-perfect peppers. Even the jalapeños are extra ripe and meaty--and where else can you find a fresh East African pili-pili, a yellow Aji Puca-Uchu from Peru, or a giant Conquistador?
"People say, `I don't know why you charge more than other growers,' but we're the only ones who offer all these chiles year after year," explains Ted, an amiable and bearlike man of 48. "We have to cover our costs and make a little money to keep on experimenting."
Peter Hoffman, the chef and owner of Savoy, an innovative SoHo restaurant, is one of the Blews' most enthusiastic customers. "I wouldn't be able to do half of what I do with peppers without them," he remarks, picking out pungent Surefire chiles, which he serves in roasted strips with striped bass, as well as gleaming poblanos for Catalonian romescu sauce.
Another chef who likes to play with fire, Tom Colicchio of the very popular Gramercy Tavern a few blocks north of Union Square, once got into trouble using Hawaiian habaneros. "It was an accident," he recalls. "We roasted a batch with other peppers, and mixed them in the mashed potatoes. People were screaming!"
Home-kitchen shoppers are equally as loyal. "These peppers are addictive," smiles Iris, a regular customer buying a bag of brilliant red cascabels to pickle for Christmas.
Valentine Amartey, a West Indian from England who is Ted's assistant, sees it all: "I get to meet all the local eccentrics, and every pepper freak in town," he observes, while wrapping a potted black olive pepper plant, one of several varieties sold at the stand. The Blew family farm also produces sweet peppers, heirloom tomatoes, herbs, grains, muskmelons and pork.
A few days after visiting the stand, I drive fifty miles west from Manhattan to the rolling hills near Pittstown, New Jersey, past barns and horse pastures, down a driveway lined with maples. The Oak Grove Plantation is a 160-acre farm where Ted and Susan Blew live in an 1860 Federal-style home with their four children aged 5 to 17, and many mewling cats. As she feeds breakfast to her kids and kittens, Susan, wearing a yellow shirt festooned with red chiles, relates how they came to grow so many chiles.
She says she grew up in Hopewell to the south, and always lived on a farm; Ted grew up in Pennsylvania, and went to agronomy college, but his family's farm was sold before he and Susan married in 1973. Four years later they bought Oak Grove, which dates back to a land grant from the English crown in 1703. When they started selling at the Greenmarket in 1980, hot peppers were a small sideline, but customers begged for more, and the chile garden gradually expanded to cover two acres.
above right: Susan Blew inspects the current chile crop on the Blew family farm, where she and her husband cultivate both popular and exotic chile varieties.
The K.C. Bull Sheet, a newspaper devoted exclusively to barbecue, runs a motto across the top of every issue: "Barbecue ... it's not just for breakfast anymore!" That's a joke. What happened to me before sunrise in Columbus, Georgia, wasn't.
As the co-author of a new barbecue cookbook, I was scheduled to appear last summer on Rise-N-Shine, a 6 o'clock morning show on the NBC affiliate in Columbus. The host, Calvin Floyd, is a folksy outdoorsman who's been known to interview his dog if a guest didn't show up. Calvin was poochless when I arrived, but that didn't stop him from throwing me a screwball.
After we chatted a few minutes, he surprised me by asking whether any restaurants out there in TV land would be willing to serve us barbecue for breakfast. The lines lit up. "C'mon by, Calvin, we'll set you up," the first caller promised. And Calvin took him up on it; show over, we piled into his Safari station wagon and hit three barbecue joints before 9 a.m. At each place, a proud pitmaster would bring mounds of chopped pork and vinegary coleslaw and hover over us wanting to know what else we needed. The barbecue was great, but after a while the only thing I really wanted at that godawful hour was Maalox. Most Americans like barbecue. Only a carnivorous few Americans like barbecue so much that they'd trade their morning cornflakes for it. I don't have any statistics to prove this, but a lifetime of observation has convinced me that the majority of barbecue-for-breakfast nuts live below the Mason-Dixon line. I know. Kansas City probably has a wider array of barbecue styles than any other city. And Chicago virtually invented the rib shack (although it was expatriate Mississippians who did most of the inventing). But only in the South does the slow cooking of meat over the smoke of hardwood embers assume a level of ritual and tradition usually associated with Masonic orders. John Shelton Reed, a professional Dixieologist at the University of North Carolina, put it well when he suggested that since the Rebel flag had become too controversial, we replace it with a symbol all Southerners could support: a neon pig.
I can think of at least five cities below the Ohio River that fancy themselves the barbecue capital of the world: Lexington, North Carolina, with the nation's highest pit-to-people ratio (17 for a population of 17,000); Wilson, North Carolina, a mecca for eastern Carolina-style barbecue; Owensboro, Kentucky, where the preferred meat is mutton; Tyler, Texas, which holds a huge barbecue cookoff each year; and Memphis, Tennessee, which stages the largest contest of all and probably leads the world in fusion 'cue dishes like barbecue spaghetti and barbecue pizza (Elvis's favorite). And that doesn't count Louisville, Kentucky and Little Rock, Arkansas, both of which rank among the top barbecue-sauce-consuming cities, according to Information Resources, a market research firm.
Their claims all have validity. When it comes to barbecue, the South is like Europe; there's room for several world-class cities.
My hometown, Atlanta, makes no such claims to barbecultural supremacy. But the planners of the 1996 Olympics-realizing that barbecue is as important to Southerners as olive oil is to Greeks-did commission the first official barbecue sauce in the 100-year history of the Summer Games. There was just one problem: which sauce?
The Olympic food service staff could have taken their inspiration from the spiced vinegar that invigorates chopped pork in North Carolina. Or the pungent mustard sauce they baptize barbecue sandwiches with in South Carolina. Or the thin black dip that comes with mutton in Kentucky. Or the gooey red sauce people slather on beef in parts of Texas. Or any of another dozen styles.
Faced with this crazy quilt of choices, the Olympic tastemeisters seemingly borrowed a little of each. One early version of the sauce included peach preserves, mint, molasses, lemon, apple cider vinegar, Coca-Cola and more. "Sounds like everything clashes," said Atlanta barbecue man Bennett Brown III when a reporter asked what he thought. Bennett was too polite to say what I was thinking: that it looked less like a recipe than a cart collision down at the Piggly Wiggly. Wisely, the Olympians sent the sauce back to the test kitchen.
I can understand why a sauce meant to represent the South would light out in so many directions. In a fast-food world of increasing homogenization, barbecue is one of the few things that has kept its regional distinctions. Barbecue lovers celebrate them, debate them, kid each other over them. To a true barbecue connoisseur, local color colors the taste.
No place has more conflicting barbecue customs than the Carolinas. Charles Kovacik, a geography professor at the University of South Carolina, was so intrigued by local food ways that he set out to document the pit factions by eating at more than one hundred restaurants throughout South Carolina. This difficult research led to a map in which he delineated three barbecue regions in the state, and a paper titled "South Carolina: Epicenter of Southern Barbecue."
"I get a lot of hecklers from North Carolina," he says.
Before you flunk the professor for academic boosterism, remember: South Carolina is the state that actually passed a Truth-in-Barbecue law allowing right-thinking restaurants to display a label advertising that they cook with hardwood, not gas. The bill was introduced by a legislator named John "Bubber" (naturally) Snow. And some people wonder what government is good for.
With all this barbecue balkanization, what exactly do Southern 'cue aficionados agree on?
Well, I'm a barbecue lover-a fifth-generation Georgian whose grandfather was skilled enough at the pit to be written up in the Saturday Evening Post-so I guess I'm as qualified as a couple of million other Southern experts. Above all, we aficionados agree that barbecue is not grilling. What you do in the backyard to burgers and wieners in 15 minutes is grilling; proper barbecuing takes a lot longer than that. It's about smoke, not fire.
Second, we agree that the optimum barbecue meat is pork. Sure, Texans love beef and Kentuckians play with mutton and everyone scorches a little chicken from time to time. But real Southern barbecue is pork-ribs, hams, butts, whole hogs-and it has been from the time George Washington was attending pig-pickin's in Virginia to the time Newt Gingrich was cooking hogs for his students at West Georgia College.
There the agreement stops. Should ribs be basted with sauce or dusted with a dry rub? Should coleslaw come on the sandwich or the side? What sort of marinades, rubs and finishing sauces should be used, and how?
The question of sauces is particularly contentious. Americans tend to think of barbecue sauce as a tangy type of ketchup that comes in shades of red. In the South, it also comes in yellow, orange, brown, black and white (yes, white-a peppery mayonnaise-based sauce that north Alabamians eat with barbecued chicken and on potato chips).
Despite all the pancake syrup ingredients in that Olympic sauce, Southern barbecue dressings aren't usually very sweet. They tend to be peppery or mildly spicy or tangy, like the sauce at the Dreamland rib shack in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which cold sufferers have been known to drink to open up their sinuses. And though they're not as hot as sauces in the Southwest or Caribbean, traditional Southern barbecue sauces are spicier than you might think.
The original American barbecue sauce, peppered vinegar, is a vestige of the multicultural roots of Southern cooking. Food historians believe that barbecue was brought to the Carolinas in the 1600s by slaves who had picked up the art from Caribbean tribes. By the early 1700s, North Carolinians were so fond of pork in all its forms that Virginia planter William Byrd wrote that they grunted rather than spoke. The sauce they were grunting over had vinegar and no tomatoes, like most English condiments of the day.
You can still find that sauce at almost any barbecue joint in eastern North Carolina. Its crimson tint comes from cayenne. While someone accustomed to Scotch bonnets wouldn't consider it scorching, the sauce does have enough kick to have figured in one of the oddest episodes in barbecue lore.
Some years ago, the story goes, police were called to investigate a burglary at Scott's Barbecue in Goldsboro, North Carolina. They found their man hiding in a vat half full of Scott's hot sauce ("the best ye ever tasted"). The cops locked him up and refused him a shower, and by daybreak the poor marinated suspect looked as pink as a newborn piglet.
Spiced vinegar sauces remained the standard in the South for many decades. Martha McCulloch-Williams, a Tennessean who attended many a barbecue in the mid-1800s, remembered the flavors of her youth in a cookbook published years later, Dishes and Beverages of the Old South. One of her most vivid memories was of her daddy's sauce, which had herbs, vinegar, black pepper and a pint of fiery red peppers. "Hot! After eating it one wanted to lie down at the spring-side and let the water of it flow down the mouth," she wrote, recommending cold watermelon as the perfect dessert (and antidote) for barbecue.
Southern sauces didn't grow appreciably sweeter until commercially bottled versions hit the market after World War II. Kraft and its bland supermarket cousins soon ruled. By the time I was growing up in Atlanta during the 1960s, the drive-in barbecue joints we frequented generally offered two sauce choices: "mild," which could have sweetened the tea, and "hot," which was so mild we could have used it for ointment.
Fortunately, that's all changed in recent years. As elsewhere in the United States, we in the South have developed a taste for hot stuff-whether it's discovering fiery flavors from outside the region or rediscovering piquant native traditions we had let lapse. In researching my barbecue book, I found spicy barbecue sauces with mustard (South Carolina), horseradish (Florida), hot pepper sauces (Louisiana), Caribbean peppers (Georgia), red pepper flakes (North Carolina) and cayenne-tons of cayenne. In fact, one of the hottest sauces I've ever tasted-so fiery I figured it had habaneros-comes from Georgia and relies solely on cayenne for its heat.
Atlanta Burning, it's called. Bob Witt, its creator, has been serving it for years with the ribs he cooks on hayrides. He started bottling it recently with a label that shows a cannon and explains that General Sherman really invaded Georgia because he had heard about this great barbecue sauce in Atlanta. When I put it out for sampling at a food festival last summer at Stone Mountain, a boy took a big slurp of it before I could warn him. He sounded like the next James Brown as he ran off trying to find water.
Mercifully, Calvin Floyd didn't let anything that incendiary happen to my tender morning tummy during the barbecue odyssey we took after his TV show in Columbus. He did continue to amaze me with his passion for barbecue, though.
As we got ready to leave the last restaurant, Calvin ordered smoked pork loin sandwiches all around and handed me a bottle of Yellow Jacket sauce, a cayenne-and-mustard number bottled right there on the banks of the Chattahoochee.
"Here's something for the road," he said, smiling, probably because he could see that I was about to bust a chitlin. No matter. I guess he figured that if three barbecue meals in a day are good, four are better.
Jim Auchmutey, a reporter for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, co-wrote The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook (Longstreet Press, 800-980-1488). He is also author of The South: The Beautiful Cookbook, published this year by HarperCollins.
All except one of the following recipes are taken from The Ultimate Barbecue Sauce Cookbook by Jim Auchmutey and Susan Puckett.
Carolina Pulled Pork
If you really want to get authentic about Southern barbecue, dig a trench in your yard and smoke a shoat (young pig) overnight. Don't want to go that far? The most practical alternative is to cook a pork shoulder or butt in a water smoker.
1 5-to 6-pound pork shoulder or butt, fat trimmed
Pig-Pickin' Sauce (see following recipe)
12-16 hamburger buns
Bring the meat to room temperature. Cook in a water smoker at medium heat (around 200 degrees) for about 6 hours.
Chop the meat finely, mixing the crispy outside with the juicy inside. Douse with Pig-Pickin' Sauce and coleslaw and serve on the buns.
Serves: 12 to 16
Heat Scale: Mild
1 quart cider vinegar
1¦4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
3 teaspoons salt, or to taste
11¦2 teaspoons ground cayenne
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
Combine in a large container and let stand for at least 4 hours. Store indefinitely in a cool, dark place.
Yield: 1 quart
Heat Scale: Medium
NOTE: This recipe requires advance preparation.
Carolina Mustard Sauce
The above pulled pork takes a mustard sauce in central South Carolina.
3¦4 cup yellow mustard
3¦4 cup red wine vinegar
1¦4 cup sugar
11¦2 tablespoons butter or margarine
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
11¦4 teaspoons ground black pepper
1¦2 teaspoon Tabasco or other Louisiana hot sauce
Combine all the ingredients, stirring to blend, and simmer over a low heat for 30 minutes. Let stand at room temperature 1 hour before using.
Refrigerate unused sauce for up to a week.
Yield: 13¦4 cups
Heat Scale: Mild
I was in a barbecue joint once that had a drawing of Elvis with a cartoon balloon saying, "Ribs is the answer." For many barbecue lovers, ribs are the answer when they go out. But many people are intimidated cooking them at home. Again, I use a water smoker.
3 to 4 pounds pork spareribs
Ole Hawg's Breath Rub (see following recipe)
Wheat Street Finishing Sauce (see following recipe)
Cut and remove the membrane from the bottom of a slab of pork spareribs. Do not parboil the ribs; the fat gives them flavor, and most of it will cook out anyway. Pat Ole Hawg's Breath Rub onto the meat and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
Let the meat come to room temperature. Cook bone side down in the water smoker at medium temperature (about 200 degrees) for 3 1/2 hours.
Brush with Wheat Street Finishing Sauce and let smoke another 30 minutes. When done, there should be a pink smoke ring just inside the meat.
Serves: 3 to 4
Heat Scale: Mild
NOTE: This recipe requires advance preparation.
Ole Hawg's Breath Rub
Ole Hawg's Breath is one of the many colorfully named cookoff teams that compete at the Memphis in May barbecue contest.
3 tablespoons sugar
3 tablespoons lemon pepper
3 tablespoons ground paprika
3 tablespoons dry barbecue seasoning
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon ground cayenne
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1¦2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
Yield: 1 cup
Heat Scale: Medium
Wheat Street Finishing Sauce
The deacons serve this sauce at barbecues at Atlanta's Wheat Street Baptist Church.
1¦4 cup chopped onion
1¦4 cup butter or margarine
1 28-ounce can whole tomatoes with juice
1 cup Worcestershire sauce
1 cup cider vinegar
2 teaspoons sugar
1¦2 teaspoon ground paprika
1¦2 teaspoon dry mustard
1¦4 teaspoon ground black pepper
1¦4 teaspoon salt
1¦8 teaspoon ground red pepper
1¦3 cup tomato paste
Sauté the onion in the butter until soft. Add all remaining ingredients, except the lemon and tomato paste, and bring to a boil.
Squeeze the juice from the lemon half into the sauce, then drop in the lemon. Reduce the heat and simmer for 30 minutes.
Remove the lemon, let it cool, then squeeze it again and discard.
Strain the solids and return the sauce to the pan.
Stir in the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes.
Refrigerate unused sauce up to several weeks.
Yield: 31¦2 cups
Heat Scale: Mild
Texas Beef Barbecue
The first commercial barbecue pits are thought to have appeared in Texas around the turn of the century when meat markets started smoking and selling one of their toughest cuts: beef brisket. It's still the Lone Star State's standard barbecue meat.
1 5-to 8-pound beef brisket
Texas Sol Brisket Rub (see following recipe)
1 12-ounce can of beer
Trim the excess fat from the brisket, sprinkle with Texas Sol Brisket Rub and leave in the refrigerator overnight.
Let the meat come to room temperature and drizzle half a can of beer over the top. Place the brisket fat side up in the water smoker and cook at medium temperature (about 200 degrees) for 31¦2 hours.
Place the brisket on aluminum foil, sprinkle with more dry rub, and drizzle the other half a can of beer over the meat. Loosely tent the foil over the brisket and return it to the smoker for an additional 31¦2 hours.
Serves: 12 to 16
Heat Scale: Medium
Note: This recipe requires advance preparation.
Texas Sol Brisket Rub
Obie Obermark of Dallas, a familiar figure on the Texas barbecue circuit, makes this rub, which can be as hot as you like.
5 tablespoons ground paprika
21¦2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons garlic powder
2 tablespoons onion powder
4 teaspoons ground black pepper
4 teaspoons dried parsley
2 teaspoons ground cayenne
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1¦4 teaspoon (or a whole lot more, to taste) powdered jalapeño
Combine all the ingredients and mix well.
Yield: 1 cup
Heat Scale: Medium
Jim's Sassy Sauce Picks
These are some of the best spicy bottled barbecue sauces I've tasted in the South:
A very hot (to me, anyway) cayenne rib sauce. 770-253-8100.
-Country's Back Fire.
An odd mixture of Carolina-style mustard and Caribbean peppers out of Columbus, Ga. 706-324-5859.
-Maurice's Carolina Gold.
The best-known mustard sauce comes in sweeter and hotter versions. Out of Maurice's Piggie Park, a restaurant in West Columbia, S.C. 800-628-7423.
The thin red, mildly hot sauce President Clinton grew up on in Hot Springs, Ark. 501-767-4063.
They serve it hot and vinegary, with a lot of celery seed, at this restaurant in Birmingham, Ala. 205-324-9485.
The tomatoless North Carolina vinegar sauce that had the burglar howling. 800-734-7282.
-Southern Ray's Three Pepper Sauce.
A symphony of peppers from Miami Beach. 305-531-0973.
In addition, you might want to check out these catalogs, which specialize in Southern barbecue:
Sauces, products and freeze-packed Carolina pork from Charlotte, North Carolina. 800-948-1009.
-Great Southern Sauce Company.
A hundred condiments from a shop in Little Rock, Ark. 800-437-2823