Captain Capsaicin

Pepper Guru Dave Dewitt Gets Fired Up For The National Fiery Foods And Barbecue Show's 20 Th Anniversary

Laura Marrich
13 min read
Captain Capsaicin
El Muerto and Dave DeWitt.
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The hot and spicy business is smokin’. This year’s National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show—held at the Sandia Resort and Casino Ballroom this weekend—is expected to draw 14,000 people. That’s in contrast to 20 years ago, when the first Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show made a profit of just $100. But it was a profit nonetheless, and the number of people in attendance has increased every year since. "The one thing about people who like hot and spicy," says the show’s organizer, Dave DeWitt, "is they don’t suddenly wake up and say, Oh, I used to like it hot and spicy, but now I’m going back to bland. They just don’t do that." The New Mexico author and figurehead for all things hot sat down with the Alibi to figure out why.

The Fiery Foods Show attracts a pretty wild bunch of vendors.

Somebody, his or her name lost to history, referred to fiery foods as culinary bungee jumping, and that’s the way I think of a lot of the people in the business. Dave from Dave’s Insanity Sauce used to dress up in a straight jacket, and that was his trademark. He never caught any colds because he wasn’t shaking hands with anyone (laughs). So it’s outgoing personalities trying to have a clever name with a clever personality, something to set their products apart from all the others, since there are so many being made.

It’s not just New Mexicans presenting. Who else is selling at the show?

We depend on exhibitors outside the state make up the bulk of our exhibitors. Probably 3/4 are outside the state. We continue to have an international group of exhibitors and attended. A lot of Caribbean people come—Trinidad and Tobago, Barbados has a booth. We have exhibitors coming from People’s Republic of China, India and Canada, the Virgin Islands, Bermuda. I haven’t counted the number of states of the other exhibitors but Texas is extremely well-represented, Arizona, Colorado, California, a lot of Western states. But also, a lot of exhibitors from Ohio. For some reason, I don’t know why it is, but Ohio’s a little hotbed of hot and spicy up there.

Talk about the Scovie Awards.

The idea of companies competing, everybody seems to like that. We had 783 entries into the 2008 Scovies, up nearly 100 from the previous year, and it continues to grow in size as people want to see how their product competes. We have about 80 to 85 judges, mostly food professionals and media people, who do our judging, and it all takes place in one day. It’s a pretty hectic day.

What are you looking for when you judge foods?

We judge on the basis of appearance, aroma and flavor is the major part of it. The heat in it, we’re not saying the hottest, we’re just seeing if the use of spices and heat is appropriate for that particular product. Nobody knows what they’re tasting. They may know it’s a hot sauce, or a snack or a chip, but they’re put in little anonymous containers so people don’t know what brand it is.

Who won big at the Scovies this year?

A company called Lillie Belle Farms won the grand prize with a little chocolate with a hot and spicy caramel filling. About half the time something with a sweet heat will win the Scovie Awards. I think the judges, by the time they’ve tasted 50 or 55 different products, lean toward the sweeter stuff.

What else is hot this year?

Manufactures are starting to realize that they don’t need to use [capsaicin] extracts because of this chile pepper out of India called the Bhut Jolokia [Dave pronounces it "boot jal-OH-keeya"].

The "Ghost Pepper."

Yeah, the Ghost Pepper. It’s so unbelievably hot that it’s as hot as some extracts are.

Have you tasted it?

No, I have not tasted it. I have tasted extremely hot habaneros and they just burn me up. And this is gonna burn ya up even more. Of course, you can adjust the heat by adding other ingredients, but the manufactures quickly seize on any marketing opportunity they see. They see the hottest chile pepper in the world, and it’s bound to attract attention.

Are you relieved that capsaicin extracts might be on the way out?

I’ve always objected to the extract sauces. At one time I did ban Dave’s Insanity Sauce after some unpleasant incidents at the show when we didn’t have any regulation on how they could be tasted. People were putting large amounts on a chip and giving it to people. We had a fainting incident and a vomiting incident. I finally banned Dave’s Insanity Sauce, thinking I would make an enemy forever. But Dave Hirschkop, who makes it, turned around and said, Only sauce ever banned at the Fiery Foods Show! And he was taking off with great sales, so he turned what could have been a negative thing into a positive thing and we’ve stayed great friends the entire time.

Is it possible to actually injure yourself from a hot food?

Yes, it is. But I’m talking about the really extreme super-hot stuff—99.9 percent of the products out there won’t hurt you, but based on the fainting that we’ve seen, people have different ways to tolerate things and some people are very, very sensitive. People who have more capsaicin receptors in their mouth and tongue are extremely sensitive to it. The analogy I use is that there are people who can take poison ivy, rub it on their hands and never break out. And in the same way there are people who have virtually no capsaicin receptors and can eat the hottest stuff you can possibly imagine without blinking.

To grow and handle something like the Bhut Jolokia, do you have to wear special protective gear?

Not really, it’s just that with any chile pepper, when you’re cutting it up or processing it in any way, you should wear protective gloves. Your hands might burn, but worse than that is touching some sensitive part of your body which has the capsaicin on it. And capsaicin is not easy to get rid of. It doesn’t mix with water. So you have to have a surfactant like a soap, or an alcohol, or another oil to dissolve the capsaicin.

What’s the best thing you’ve found?

Dairy products. They have a protein called casein which strips the capsaicin molecules from the capsaicin receptors. The thicker, the heavier the dairy product, the better. Wash your hands in whipping cream, or if your mouth is burning, eat yogurt or heavy cream.

What chile pepper products do you personally enjoy?

I think the advent of products with chipotle has been a very positive thing. Chipotles are not killer hot, they’re merely red jalapeños that are smoked and dried. They have a smoky, unique flavor, and they have been, along with the habanero, the most significant chile peppers for making new products. We had 41 habanero sauces in the Scovie Awards, for example. There’s even a restaurant chain called Chipotle Grill that’s sprung up. When the McIlhenny Company [makers of Tabasco brand hot sauce] comes out with a chipotle hot sauce, you know it’s reached mainstream mid-America.

Is the rest of America turning on to spicy foods?

This whole thing is invading middle America like crazy. It’s been a fundamental paradigm shift in the way people are eating, and it’s not connected to region, ethnicity, gender or age: It’s all over the place.

Why do you think that is?

It’s had a lot to do with the surge in education through books, magazines, websites, television shows. When you get Emeril on TV cooking with chipotles, it tells people, Oh, that’s OK! It’s not going to kill me! Twenty years ago, people thought chile peppers only came in one heat level and one flavor and could only burn you out—except, of course, people in New Mexico and the Southwest and Louisiana knew better, but that was about it. But in the past couple of decades, it’s really switched around and I think the Web was responsible for a lot of that.

What are your favorite places to eat in Albuquerque?

My favorite restaurant was Ambrozia until they closed. I think Sam Etheridge is the best chef in Albuquerque, in my humble opinion. So I’m glad he’s opening up in Nob Hill. As far as New Mexican food, I like the red chile ribs at El Pinto, I like the enchiladas at El Patio. I think India Kitchen is the best Indian in town. The hottest thing I’ve had in Albuquerque is probably the vindaloo at India Kitchen—it’s pretty darn spicy. For barbecue, the barbecued prime ribs at Powdrell’s out on Central are the best in town.

You’ve traveled the world. Are there other places that are comparable to the chile culture we have here?

Yes. Australia is going nuts over hot and spicy, as is Germany and England. And so is Italy, they have the Peperoncino Festival that’s down in Calabria. There’s an Australian company called the Disaster Bay Chile Company and they make a chile wine. I’m not talking about just adding chile peppers to an existing wine, they actually ferment the chile peppers and make a wine out of it. It’s a dessert wine and it’s delicious.

You’ve tried it?

Yes! We brought three bottles home (laughs).

I’m glad your head’s wrapped around the business side of things, but you also take pleasure in the gustatory aspects of spicy foods, too.

Well, yeah, I do. I’m a foodie and a book person, so I’ve written more than 30 books on chile peppers and fiery foods. But I love to cook and I love to try new stuff.

Can I ask you how you got the moniker of The Pope of Peppers?

That was created by one of my friends at Ten Speed Press. I’d done several books with them and he started referring to me as that in all the Ten Speed Press publicity, and then the media got a hold of it and it was my name from then on. But I don’t really use it that much, but the media does. I sort of like it.

What if we start calling you the Captain of Capsaicin? Would that be OK?

(Laughs) Well, back in the early days, I had a show on KOAT, a late-night hosted science-fiction show called “Captain Space.” In fact, you guys have written about it in the Alibi. (Laughs) So, I’ve been called “Captain” before.

You have so much experience in so many areas!

Well, I’m a media guy. I came from a background that was half academics and half media because when I was in college at the University of Virginia I was vice president of the student radio station, WUVA, and then I went on to work in radio, television, magazines, books and the whole thing, and now I own a media company that has a magazine, have a show, a contest, a big website, but it’s all about hot and spicy. But I like other things too, and I’m always writing something.

I have a botanical question. What’s the evolutionary purpose of having heat in a pepper?

There’s a good reason for that. If mammals consume chile pods they digest the seeds and so capsaicin evolved to prevent mammals from eating the pods. It’s like skunks evolved with their spray so they wouldn’t be eaten.

But other fruits have evolved to be sweet and palatable so animals would eat them, and then take its seed somewhere else and deposit it when they’re done.

That’s why the original chile peppers, called chiltepines, are little berries. They’re very attractive to birds. When birds eat these, they do not digest the seeds, and the seeds pass through encased in the perfect natural fertilizer and that’s how chile peppers spread all over south America, central America and parts of north America. Mammals’ digestive juices render the seeds useless, but birds don’t.

Another botanical question: How is it that after all this time, they’re still finding peppers that are hotter than ever before?

That’s an excellent question. Peppers, when they’re grown in the same environment year after year after year after year, centuries maybe, become, like the Chimayo chile, it’s a land race—grown in the same geographical area again and again and again and it evolves into a certain form. They think that happened happened with these ghost peppers in India. They probably came from the Caribbean originally. The population of Trinidad and Tobago, for example is about 40 percent East Indian, and they have an extremely hot pepper called the Congo Pepper. And maybe 100 years ago these peppers were taken to India, where after generations and generations and generations they evolved into this terrific heat level. We do not know exactly why that happened. We just know that there are certain peppers that are much, much, much hotter than other ones. It wasn’t done through any kind of intentional breeding of chile peppers. You can do like my buddy and co-author Dr. Paul Bosland and cross chile peppers; he creates shapes, different flavor profiles, different colors and all this kind of stuff, but so far, nobody’s been doing anything with the heat.

The Ghost Pepper was discovered in 2007?

The word is it’s been around since 2004, but nobody believed it.

What do you mean no one believed it?

Well, the Indians announced that they had the hottest chile pepper in the world. But the articles published in their scientific journals would not pass muster with the horticulturists in the United States—with Dr. Paul Bosland, for example. And so Paul and I kept publishing information about it and urging the Indians to send us the seeds so we could test them, but they didn’t want to do that. They were afraid if it got out from under their control that everybody would be growing them all over the world and they wouldn’t have a monopoly on it. Well, I’m not going to say how, but Paul go the seeds and he grew ’em out for three years and tested them and finally discovered that, indeed the Indians were correct. The Bhut Jolokia and the Bih Jolokia and the Naga Jolokia, they’re all basically the same thing, were over a million Scoville heat units, and the typical habanero’s a couple hundred thousand. So he published his study in a scientific journal and of course the media went nuts with it. The Chile Pepper Institute sold 5,000 packets of Bhut Jolokia seed last summer (laughs).

Chewing The Fat

Chewing The Fat

The 20 th annual National Fiery Foods and Barbecue Show is Feb. 29 through March 2 at the Sandia Resort and Casino Ballroom (Tramway at I-25, enter on Hummingbird Road). General public hours are: Friday 4-7 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m. On Saturday and Sunday afternoons, there will be cooking demonstrations by guest chefs. General public admission $10; children under 12 free. Parking is free at Sandia Resort and Casino. Advance tickets (plus service fee) available through TicketMaster. Visit the home of fiery foods at
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