As we all know, New Mexico has been a state for a full century as of this year. But that's not the only hundred year birthday we should be celebrating. In a coincidence that's altogether too perfect for our green chile obsessed region, 2012 also marks the 100th anniversary of the Scoville scale.
The Scoville scale, as anyone with a taste for the caliente should realize, is the more-or-less standardized method for determining how hot a chile pepper is. The scale ranges from 0 for a heatless bell pepper, to 16 million for pure capsaicin, the chemical compound that makes chile spicy. A good, hot New Mexico chile typically ranks somewhere between 3500 and 8000, while its degenerate offspring the Anaheim pepper is closer to 1,000. Law enforcement grade pepper spray registers at around 1.5 million.
Wilbur Scoville, a pharmacist, developed the scale in 1912 in order to ensure that the peppers used in a turn-of-the-century muscle salve called Heet were consistently spicy enough to take advantage of capsaicin’s topical pain relieving qualities (is there anything chile can’t do?). Appropriately enough, not only did Scoville develop the first standardized heat scale, he was also one of the first scientific chile tasters to note that the best way to cool down a fiery tongue is to reach for a glass of milk.