Great Bottles Of Fire

For lots of pepper-sauce fans, you just can't beat the heat - even in the sweltering days of summer.

August 11, 2004|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,SUN STAFF

ST. MICHAELS - Pink flamingos, off-color drinking glasses and silly greeting cards lure tourists into a wacky store in a converted gas station here called Flamingo Flats. The kick they get when they see what's inside - 1,000 different kinds of hot pepper sauce - is like the kick some people get the first time they try some of these sauces.

It's not what they expected.

Weekends in St. Michaels, when the heat reaches 100 degrees and strains of Jimmy Buffett escape through an open doorway, some people seek shelter in spoonfuls of salsa so hot they carry warnings. Whether eating this hot stuff cools you down is part of the debate when the tasting bar opens around 11 a.m.

Here at the oldest hot sauce store in the country, which for oddity's sake fills its windows with T-shirts and beach stuff and napkins with cheap messages, people who find their way to the tasting bar in a back corner get a regular course on flavors in hot sauces.

"Come and play," the man behind the bar, Jeff Dow, calls to customers. "Who's in?"

It's not a gamble, exactly, with trained chef Dow ready to rank the heat of hot sauces.

Most people are introduced to hot pepper sauces the wrong way - with a scorcher - and they never come back, Dow says. That puts them in the category of people who don't know what they are missing. Dow, who keeps a bottle of California Chilli hot sauce (5 on his 1-10 heat scale) in his backpack to pour on eggs, wants to fill you in.

When the bar is open, you might taste beer, garlic, spring veggies, avocado, prickly pear cactus, blueberry, banana, even chocolate in the hot sauces sold here. In recent weeks, Dow and store owner Bob Deppe have been hawking their own prized hot sauce, Chesapeake Fire Hot Sauce, for seafood. Their sauce was the "official hot sauce" on the Chessie, the Maryland sailboat that competed in the Whitbread - now Volvo - race around the world.

The first taste when it hits the tip of your tongue is beer - Goose Ale made in Frederick. After that, it's pretty hot - a 7 on Dow's scale - and powerful enough to make customer Katie Guyer cough.

In town for the weekend from Bucks County, Pa., with her family, Guyer stumbled on the store and tasted the Chesapeake Fire Hot Sauce. "It's in my ears," she says.

She likes it, though, and she likes the cream-cheese-and-shrimp dip Dow made with a tablespoon of the hot sauce. She decides to buy a bottle.

While she coughs, her husband, Doug, and son, Brandon, 13, taste Ring of Fire hot sauce. An 8.5 on Dow's scale, it hits the mouth three ways: On the tip of the tongue, the first taste is of black pepper and garden vegetables. In the middle of your mouth, you taste vinegar mixed with lots of garlic. Then, the habaneros bite at your tonsils. Something about it leads the younger Guyer back to the store later to buy a bottle.

Occasionally, somebody asks for the hottest stuff around - stuff so hot a bottle sells for $131. The experts here reject "stupid hot" sauce. Even hot pepper sauce with a name like 95% Pain has flavor, they say, or it wouldn't be on their shelves.

"I don't like real hot. We stress flavor," says Deppe, who opened his store 17 years ago to serve boaters from the Caribbean who spent summers here.

Besides flavor, he says people eat peppers because they make you sweat and cool you off. "Look who eats them," he says, "people in Central America, Caribbean and Mexico."

They may cool down some people, but that probably isn't the reason people in hot climates eat them, one researcher says. Only a fraction of people perspire from peppers, says Cornell University professor Paul Sherman. And in hot countries, people use more of every spice, not just ones that make some perspire. "So there is something else going on," he says.

He thinks it's the preservative quality of spices. People living in hot climates before refrigeration figured out those who used spices lived longer. Then they grew accustomed to the flavor. "It would be very unusual for people to be required to eat something to cool down, for us to have evolved this way. Instead, we do what all mammals who live in hot climates do to cool off: Drink water."

Besides their preservative quality and flavor, there's another reason people eat peppers: They contain a chemical called capsaicin, the ingredient that makes them hot and tends to release endorphins in many people. Endorphins make you feel good.

"A small portion of the population may [eat peppers] for the supposed high that comes with the capsaicin," says Denise Coon, program coordinator of the Chili Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. "A single habanero has enough capsaicin to blister the skin. It can release lots of endorphins," she says. "Even a single jalapeno."

But most people don't know about the endorphin effect, she says. In New Mexico people eat peppers because they've been part of the diet for hundreds of years. "It's a cultural thing," she says. "I enjoy the flavor."

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