August 22, 2018 10:29:49 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
So, we've heard of "parrot heads," but "pepper heads?" Bob Thompson is one. The genuine pepper-loving fan can't seem to get enough of the fiery stuff capable of making arms flail and heads explode.
After moving to land near Macon about six years ago, Thompson challenged himself to grow the most potent variety of pepper possible every season. It's kind of a thing with some pepper heads. (Not to be confused with PepperHead®, an online shop.)
"I'm just a big fan of hot food, spicy food, and I began growing whatever the hottest pepper was that year," said Thompson, an IT director for a medical company in Atlanta. His office is in Starkville.
In Thompson's first year in Noxubee County, the hottest variety was the notorious ghost pepper (Bhut Jolokia), then the Trinidad Maruga Scorpion pepper the following year. Then along came the Carolina Reaper, a red, gnarled pepper with a pointed tail, developed by Ed Currie in South Carolina. In 2013, Guinness World Records crowned it the hottest chili pepper in the world. It's gamely held the title for several years and was recertified by Guinness in 2017 as even hotter than the original.
But there's a new scorcher on the horizon -- Pepper X, another creation by Smokin' Ed Currie. Industry buzz is heating up.
Pepper X -- a temporary name -- is the result of multiple cross breedings and reported to be twice as hot as the Reaper. Thompson can't wait for it to become available.
"Ed Currie is my idol," said the grower. "Apparently this one's gong to knock the record out of the ballpark. He's estimated it'll be about 3.8 million Scoville heat units (SHU)."
The Scoville scale, named for Wilbur Scoville (1865-1942), is a measurement of the pungency, or hotness, of chili peppers or other spicy foods.
To illustrate, Thompson explained, "Bell pepper is zero (on the scale); it really has no heat to it. Jalapeno is 2,500 to up to 8,000 SHU on the scale."
That's child's play compared to the Carolina Reaper, which averages 1.6-plus million on the Scoville scale, and peaks at 2.2 million SHU, according to 2018 figures from pepperhead.com. And Pepper X is expected to eclipse that by far.
What makes 'em hot?
Capsaicin in peppers is the culprit that produces intense burning sensation in tissue it comes in contact with. It's odorless and flavorless, but pop a pepper, and the chemical binds to receptors that respond to pain from heat in the mouth and throat. When the brain gets the message, it sends for fire and rescue. Thompson said milk is usually the best relief.
"Capsaicin is an oil, so drinking something carbonated is just going to infuriate it. Milk is probably the best thing you could do."
Casein, the protein in milk, helps break the bonds capsaicin forms on nerve receptors, says the American Chemical Society.
Thompson has become fairly accustomed to the heat, but that's not to say he didn't learn some lessons the hard way.
"The first time I rubbed my face after holding a Carolina Reaper, I thought I'd blinded myself," he chuckled, remembering the incident that caused him to pull his car over to the side of the road. "I couldn't see and was trying to call my wife to tell her I'd blinded myself!"
It's not gonna kill ya
Thompson's peppers -- this year he's growing 30 varieties -- get their start in November or December each year in an indoor space. By March or April, he has a nice crop of 8-to-12-inch plants ready to go in the garden.
"For some reason they really seem to grow well in the gumbo down in Noxubee County. Around the end of September I'll start picking and dehydrating and grinding and putting up pepper sauce," he said. He usually takes some to local festivals where he offers the public a toothpick test: barely dab a toothpick in the powder and touch it to the tongue.
"It's not gonna kill ya, it'll just make you wish you were dead," he joked.
When cooking, he advises to start with 1/16th teaspoon per pot of chili or soup; you can always add more, but can't take it away.
Of course, the heat frequently turns up in his own family's kitchen, where Thompson likes it on turnip greens, uses it in meat rubs and in a custom barbecue sauce he has standing orders for. A few area Mexican restaurants keep some on hand for bold, brave customers.
"We even use a very small amount in our peanut brittle at Christmas. We've put it in brownies," he said. "When I take something to church, they always ask me. 'Did you make this? Is it safe?'" he chuckled.
While Thompson nurtures his crop and waits for Pepper X to make its debut, he'll also make ready for a few outings such as Macon's Dancing Rabbit Festival this fall. You might just want to have a glass of cold milk handy.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.