Hot peppers, like hot coffee, seem to be an acquired taste.
Some may quail at the thought, while others revel when they feel the burn and break out in a sweat because they’ve consumed something that measures high on the Scoville scale.
“They make me happy. I don’t know why. Even if I just see them,” said Marcie Legler of Washington, who shops the local farmers market for ingredients she needs for pickling hot peppers, making hot pepper mustard or to add a kick to her sweet pepper relish.
From jalapeno to habanero, it’s nice to know what to expect when it comes to heat, if only to brace oneself or avoid unpleasant surprises.
“I started with Hungarian hot wax and jalapeno, but it’s gotten progressively hotter and hotter,” she said after stopping by the Main Street Farmers Market stand of Dr. Paul and Ardella Crawford of Marigold Farms.
The Crawfords, formerly of Windsor Highlands, South Strabane Township, grow a veritable rainbow of peppers in their garden in the Avella vicinity, including one that has an array of colors as it ripens: the Chinese five-color starts out purple and progresses to cream, yellow, orange and red.
Paul Crawford described its piquancy as “medium. It’s the high end of medium.”
But among these local pepper purveyors, there’s a mystery member of the capsicum family.
Meet the shishito.
The name may be Japanese, but Ardella Crawford likened eating one to playing Russian roulette. Pepper people say there can be variations among fruits from the same plant, but the heat scale from one shishito to another is apparently more profound than usual: You never know what you’re going to encounter. Maybe one in 10 to one in 20 will be torrid.
“They tend to heat up as the weather is hot,” Legler said of the perceived trend.
As summer-like temperatures extended from September into October, there was certainly a hefty share of sweltering among humans and vegetables alike.
The Crawfords discovered the shishito at a conference sponsored by Mother Earth News. He prefers mild. She has a higher tolerance.
“I probably eat them hotter than anyone else,” Ardella Crawford said of their garden’s pepper crop.
One of the most common mistakes a pepper eater can make is to try to douse the fire with cold water. It only cleanses the palate to be assaulted yet again. Fat, however, coats the tongue, shielding it from further furor.
“We just buy large tubs of sour cream,” Ardella Crawford said.
Maybe the secret of pepper preparation is to mix and match. She noted a commercial producer adds a little bit of Carolina Reaper – which Guinness World Records calls the hottest pepper – to its salsa to pack a punch.
The Crawfords have been known to take a medium-hot variety, like the paper lantern pepper, which Ardella Crawford described as “having heat, but not a lot of flavor,” and combining it with a heatless habanero to maximize the impact of each.
A fellow vendor at Main Street Farmers Market in Washington from the Avella area has been working on integrating pepper into its product.
The sizzle has to do with Swope’s Bees and Berries’ hot honey.
“We are currently working on developing a blend of honeys and peppers to create a palatable hot honey,” wrote Ron Swope in response to an email inquiry.
Hot honey could be making its debut as soon as this weekend’s Houston Pumpkin Festival.
Legler recalled another place where hot peppers perhaps unexpectedly cropped up locally was Red Fox Winery’s white wine infused with Serrano peppers. Red Fox calls it “Hickory Heat.”
Back in neighboring Avella, Paul Crawford, among the pepper and tomato plants, pine trees, early autumn goldenrod and, of course, the eponymous marigolds of the farm, recited his motto: If it’s organic, it’s real.
The farmers market is a place where he enjoys spreading the word.
“It’s fun to sell at the farmers market because people are interesting and interested. It’s fun to interact with the people,” he said.
Away from the garden, she edits online and he’s a medieval history professor at California University of Pennsylvania.
“Medieval people had all kinds of religious and philosophical ideas about the best way to live,” Paul Crawford said. “And that included living in harmony with the land.”
He quoted Thomas Aquinas, 13th Century Catholic philosopher and theologian as saying, “The farmer, the physician and the teacher are closer to God in their vocations than many other professions. The farmer cooperates with God in promoting plant and animal life. The doctor cooperates with God in his gift of human health and life; and the teacher cooperates with God in his gift of intellectual life.”
“I get to be two of these three,” he said.