Revealing my sauces
By Terry Joseph
April 08, 2005
Always a hot topic, pepper sauce has lost none of the mystique it held since my childhood, not least of which is the apparently infinite variety of recipes, each claiming superior rank, lovers of the sear measuring merit by degree of gastronomic discomfort, as if it were the universally agreed gourmet standard.
I have seen them sniffle with delight, cascading tears mixing with recently generated sweat, sliding spectacles chucked back into the nose-bridge detente by a middle finger deliberately kept sterile for such purposes. They "ooh" and "aah", celebrating the scorch from first registration, praise only escalating as burning intensifies.
Dining with a friend who underestimated the restaurant's house blend, I properly appreciated the battle. The condiment was evidently aggressive but he heaped it on the food until, in the wake of downing a morsel, was forced to snatch the vase from centre-table, whip out its dying flowers and gulp the stagnant water. "Dat is real pepper," he said by way of explaining this extraordinary sequence of events.
Frankly, the pepper looked better suited to whitening teeth but he went for more, eyes now bulging, he desperately needing to tidy nasal output and with sustained serpentine hissing interrupting every phrase. "It's good for the blood," he said between gasps, after experiencing involuntary flatulence that, un-amplified, must have been heard clear across the room.
Coming from someone whose experience with hot sauces stayed for years at the level of Larjochow and Tabasco (brands local "pepperati" would not even audition), this column is clearly not intended as a treatise on the merits of peppers. In any event, that is Keith Smith's domain and with expert analysis available from legendary heat seekers like Senator Roy Augustus, Trevor Boopsingh and Ainsworth Mohammed; I keep my mouth out of that.
But the recent gift of a bottle of pepper sauce from Harvard Club secretary George Sebro, a palatable mix of sting and flavour, renewed my fascination with the apparent joy experienced by such fearless gladiators. I remembered too the huge bottle of "Hot-O-Hot" that, for months, stood atop the roof of the Nandalal home in Central Trinidad as part of the curing process. What was to me ominous, served others as a promise of wonderful times ahead.
Nandalal became part of the pepper sauce lexicon, joining highly versatile words used to communicate degree of scalding. Only an alien would think ordering: "A doubles with slight" is a request for a barra and channa sandwich with pompous predisposition. Oyster-cocktail vendors developed their own parlance, given the rack and range of fierce sauces available.
But for all the chat and char of local brands, Trini pepper sauce is low on the totem when it comes to marketing ingested heat and its consequences. For those of us who still believe pepper sauce is supposed to be a spicy additive and not a side dish, the labelling of a number of American brands advertised on the Internet drives the point home.
Marketed by Trinidad Traders of Jacksonville, Florida, "Pyro Diablo Infernally Hot Sauce", for instance, attaches a pipette "to control the agony within," indicating a need for apothecary-like dispensing. Even so, the Trini thrust is relatively fluffy, compared with Blair's "After Death" sauce, out of New Jersey, each bottle sold with dangling-skull key-chain.
"Ultimate Insanity" a Costa Rican product is quite upfront with its warning:
"Not for people with heart or respiratory problems," an admonition echoed by the Pennsylvanian brand "Heine Hurtin", which goes one step further, quoting a testimonial from Joe Holm of Damascus, Maryland, who asks: "Why should dragons have all the fun?"
Ohio offers "You Can't Handle This", far less foreboding than "Ashes," "Firestarter", "Lenny's Suicide Sauce", "Pure Poison", "Toxic Waste" and a Delaware brand whose name cannot be published in a family newspaper but which is sold with toilet-key chain and flavoured lip-gloss that, it says, "has innumerable applications." The brand that takes the cake for labelling, though, is boldly called "So.Sue Me!"
US pepper sauce manufacturers have developed their own "Scovie" awards, a nationally circulated magazine called Fiery Foods, a TV network that schedules time weekly for pepper-related issues and several websites. At www.peppers.com you can purchase a gift certificate by dialling up 1-800-998-FIRE. There are specials for Christmas like "Reindeer's Revenge", "Hearts Afire" is available as a Valentine's Day gift and for St Patrick's Day there is "Bailey's Irish Scream".
So whatever the heat-quotient of local brands, there is little chance of them penetrating markets already accustomed to labelling that virtually dares the purchaser. No one is going to feel threatened by a smiling Mabel, anonymous Matouk's or cuddly rubric like "Patsy" except, of course, her last name is "Babash."
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