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Chili Pepper Fever, by Susan Hazen-Hammond

Review by Ed Quillen

Food – July 1994 – Colorado Central Magazine

Chili Pepper Fever: Mine’s Hotter than Yours
Text by Susan Hazen-Hammond
Photos by Eduardo Fuss
Published in 1993 by Voyageur Press,
P.O. Box 338, Stillwater MN 55082
ISBN: 0-89658-195-0

CHILI PAPERS come in almost as many varieties as chili peppers, ranging from stapled collections of family recipes to virtual encyclopædias for the supercilious chilihead who deigns to inform us that the familiar Anaheim is really the New Mexico 6-4, and that the hottest pepper on earth is not the wide-spread Jalape$o, not the dreaded Scotch Bonnet, not even the legendary Gringo-Killer of Peru, but the Habanero of Yucatan.

Chili Pepper Fever occupies a pleasant middle in this range, supplying enough new detail to surprise the chili buff, but providing easy and entertaining reading for the merely curious; the pepper, even if you never eat anything spicier than hamburger relish, is a fascinating plant. As for the photos, well, not since Edward Weston have peppers appeared so sensuous, and these are in color.

Imagine an entire issue of National Geographic, with pages twice the usual size, devoted to the chili pepper, and you’ll have a fair idea of this book: Authoritative but engaging first-person exploration combined with top-notch photography.

A NATIVE OF THE NEW WORLD, the chili pepper probably originated in northern Brazil. Tracing its genetic heritage more precisely is almost impossible, since its varieties interbreed so readily that botanists can argue endlessly about how to classify the thousands of pungent berries — technically, peppers are berries, not fruits or vegetables.

The humble bell pepper and the world-class Habanero are essentially the same species; the primary difference is the amount of capsaicin in the plants, and there are several capsaicinoid compounds which affect different parts of the mouth variously — i.e., one will sting the rear of the tongue momentarily, while another will settle down on the lips for some prolonged torture.

However, these chemicals also seem to have an analgesic effect, and the more one reads of chili chemistry, the more one thinks it best to enjoy chili now, before the purity police ban the plant and send federal agents out to uproot gardens.

The chili was among the first plants domesticated by humans in this hemisphere — before corn or squash, the same time as beans — and cultivation had spread into Mexico and the Caribbean by the time Columbus arrived. In 1493, he observed that the natives ate “much ají, which is their pepper, of a kind more valuable than black pepper, and nobody eats without it, because they find it so healthful.”

Within a century, the chili had spread around the world. The hot peppers we associate with Thai, Indian, and Chinese food are all descendants of American chilis.

The Spanish apparently brought the pepper into this part of the world, for there is no evidence that the Anasazi used peppers, and when Baltasar Obregón visited New Mexico in 1582, he wrote that “They have no chili, but the natives were given some seeds to plant.” By 1598, Spanish colonists were also growing peppers.

For most of the next four centuries, the chili remained something of a regional American food, hard to find outside the Southwest. But now they’re grown commercially as far north as Canada, and in 1991 American condiments finally became truly American — that was the year that salsa sales hit $640 million, passing ketchup at $600 million.

Like the howling coyote, the chili is also part of the Santa Fé Style, and it inspires more kitsch: chili-shaped door knockers, ashtrays, ear-rings, ceramic ristras, dinner bells, coffee mugs, cooking contests, Christmas tree lights.

One question the book doesn’t answer: Who invented the propane-fired drum chili roaster? In various Septembers, I’ve bought chilis at half a dozen different stands around Pueblo, and at every one, the guy tells me that his brother-in-law invented the roaster, but the idea got ripped off, and now they’re everywhere.

The roasters are a labor-saving delight, althougu I do miss the annual aroma of roasting chilis that came when I stepped outdoors in September. Like burning leaves in other parts of the world, it convinced you that the arrival of winter isn’t entirely a bad thing.

But that’s about all this book misses, and it contains plenty more, ranging from farm economics to intriguing recipes, including one for oatmeal-chili cookies. The only comparable book I’ve seen is The Whole Chili Pepper Book by Dave DeWitt and Nancy Gerlach, and though it is more detailed, it lacks the gorgeous pictures.

Chili Pepper Fever is suitable for either the kitchen shelf or the coffee table, but wherever you keep it, keep it handy place, because you’ll enjoy going back to it often.

— EQ