Archive for ‘Trail of Flame’

May 21, 2012

On the Trail in Delaware

Tattoos…bikers…great flavor…questionable clothes…all in the name of Heat.

I spent the weekeend in Rehobeth Beach, Delaware, at the Peppers at the Beach Tailgate Party, the brainchild of Luther and Chip Hearn.  Thirty years ago, looking for a way to draw in customers year-round, they opened a Bloody Mary bar at a local beachside restaurant, featuring 48 hot sauces customers could shake into their drinks.  People went nuts; by 1999 they had over 600 hot sauces to dress up Bloody Marys.  The Hearns started selling the sauces, too – first they bought a shed at Sears and stuck it behind the restaurant, but outgrew it in a few months.  They got a bigger shed…and a bigger one…until they eventually ditched the restaurant and opened Peppers, arguably the largest hot sauce shop in the world.

The store is inspiring.  Although there’s a bit of chile pepper ephemera – plastic chile lights and porcelain dip trays and the occasional raunchy apron – it’s the sauce that draws the crowds. Thousands of hot sauces line the walls (there’s even a ‘collector’s corner’ with sauces I haven’t seen in 20 years –Miss Anna’s, or the second label version of Tejas Tears).  A mecca for chileheads, these guys can distinguish Scorned Woman from Dave’s Insanity, or Inner Beauty from Capital Punishment; Luther’s personal hot sauce collection exceeds 9,000 bottles.

The weekend before Memorial Day, the Hearns put on a festival that’s a good-time wing-eating contest (the guys in the photo, sporting some of the attire seen at the Festival, are distinguished gentlemen in the industry).  There was even a scorpion ghost pepper eating contest, and some guy that the crowd called “the Machine” set a Guiness world record – I kid you not – when he ate eight of the world’s hottest peppers (49 grams, folks) in less than a minute.  The crowd, which had been chanting “U-S-A!” in a nod to the fact that the previous world record holder was German, went wild.

Never a dull moment on the trail of flame.

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March 25, 2012

I Have Seen Armageddon

As a tenth generation Yankee, raised on boiled dinners and pot roast, when I first became interested in spicy foods, I bought into the assumption that there’s no hot food in the Northeast, and set out on my own personal trail of flame.  My Fed Ex man – a hot sauce guy himself – told me of a bar deep in the Adirondacks, only accessible by snowmobile in the winter, that may be Ground Zero.  It turned out to be a seemingly innocuous place – a casual camp-style bar where dogs are welcome and the bartender sells everything from roses to cheap cigars and whole milk (that should have been a dead giveaway).  As I walked in, the owner’s dog was howling at Ted Klamm to give him some beef jerky.  “He just loves his roadkill,” Klamm explained by way of hello.  The only hint of heat were the chile lights above the bar and a biohazard label posted in front of the homemade hot sauces sold at the bar.

A former Navy Sea Dog, Ted loved hot – he ate jalapenos every day – and made an extraordinary line of incendiary sauces starting with Sweet Revenge, ramping up to Red Dog Revenge, Death Wish, and Nuclear Waste, and culminating in Armageddon (“the end of the world,” according to Ted).  If you could eat a dozen wings marinated in Armageddon, he’d put your name on the wall behind the bar, next to the live tarantula.  Only a dozen names were listed.

Joe and I thought we knew hot, and started by nibbling on wings marinated in Sweet Revenge.  I should have sensed what lay ahead when an old timer at the bar decided to stick around.  “The sauces give people the hiccups,” he offered helpfully.

Nursing our slightly bruised tongues with Saranac lager, we continued on to wings marinated in Nuclear Waste, made palatable with honey.  Habaneros were evident.  Next I tried Armageddon; I took a tiny bite (the size of a pea) and my lips numbed and were seized with a paralysis that crept from my tongue down my throat.  For about ten minutes I thought I’d faint.  Joe pressed me for details: “Come on, Jen, tell me what it’s like. It can’t be that bad.”  I pushed the plate in his direction.  Being a guy, he took a bigger bite (maybe the size of a cherry tomato) and within minutes sweat started up his scalp, soaking two thirds of his head.  His lips actually quivered.  He hoarsely asked the bartender for milk (no charge, thank you).  By the time he recovered, I was enjoying an invigorating (and addictive) pickle soaked in horseradish, which charges through your sinus cavity like a freight train.

Ted was such a kindly gentleman, playing with his 4-year old granddaughter at the bar on a Sunday afternoon, that it was hard to believe he caused such enflamed reactions.  He explained that camp counselors from Buffalo kept demanding hotter wings, and he developed Armageddon (which is gratuitously hot) to shut ‘em up.  But he also loved hot, and chatted about spicy food easily at the bar.  As we said goodbye, I told him the visit was memorable.

“You’re gonna remember me tomorrow, too,” he said.

You bet.