Hot Sauce Stokes Culinary Adventure

Craze over the condiment points to a fundamental shift in the way Americans eat

Hot sauce is blazing trails across America. Call it chile juice, liquid fire, or bottled lightning. People are adding droplets of the hot stuff to their meals more than ever.

''If I can put it on something, I do,'' says Tom O'Brien, a professional mover from Brockton, Mass. ''Chicken, eggs, home fries -- I do that whole breakfast thing.''

Sales are spurting like a geyser: The $87-million industry boasts a growth rate of 9 percent a year. Some 38 mail-order catalogs and 50 specialty shops have started up in the past five years.

The trend is no flash in the pan: It underscores a fundamental shift in the way Americans are eating.

''We're seeing an unstoppable movement going on with hot-and-spicy food,'' says Dave DeWitt, editor of Chile Pepper magazine. ''It's not like people say 'I used to eat hot-and-spicy food, but now I'm back to bland.'''

Salsa led the way. Americans now spend $2.5 billion on hot-and-spicy products each year. The influx of immigrants has brought hotter and spicier food to restaurants, from Thai to Caribbean; and a global marketplace makes it easier for folks to find the fixings.

Perhaps the best indication of the heightened interest in hot sauce is Tabasco's break from tradition: After 127 years of making concentrated pepper sauce -- practically synonymous with hot sauce -- McIlhenny Co. recently introduced a green jalapeno sauce domestically and a garlic-flavored, mild-pepper sauce overseas (mainly in Japan). At the end of this year, they plan to come out with a habanero sauce.

''It'll give you whiplash when you take the top off,'' says Paul C.P. McIlhenney, whose great-grandfather founded the Louisiana company.

Hot cottage industry

Despite potential competition from hundreds of new hot sauces, Tabasco's market share has remained steady (around 27 percent) -- another sign that hot sauce is establishing a place in the mainstream American pantry.

At the same time, however, observers cite a fad within the trend: Hot sauce has become the kitschy condiment of the month.

Cottage industries have flared onto the scene, coming out with such sauces as: ''I Am On Fire! Ready to Die,'' ''Inner Beauty Hot Sauce,'' ''Lotta Hotta,'' ''Hell in a Bottle,'' ''911,'' and ''Capital Punishment (Legal in all 50 States).''

Tim Eidson remembers back to 1989 when he and his wife started ''Mo Hotta Mo Betta,'' then the only mail-order catalog that exclusively offered hot sauces.''Since we started, some 25 'me-too' companies have followed,'' he says.

Also indicative of the boom is the annual Fiery Foods Show in Albuquerque, N. M., where the number of exhibitors has risen from 30, eight years ago, to 200. ''Everything we look at -- hot-sauce sales and growth, chile-pepper acreage, books, the trade show -- indicate it's a solid trend,'' says Mr. DeWitt, founder of the trade show and coauthor of ''The Hot Sauce Bible,'' due out this fall.

Who consumes hot sauce? Hillary Rodham Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, and people like Diane Garrity, a Santa Fe attorney. ''I like that glow in my mouth,'' she says. Her favorite hot sauce is Bat's Brew: ''You use it for a while, and it turns black.''

Hot sauce special-interest groups include astronauts and people in the military. ''Pilots carry hot sauce in flight bags,'' Eidson says. ''You've tasted airline food, haven't you? People who work in embassies overseas are big customers. And oh, yeah, prisoners.''

Fringe fans fire up

The hot-sauce fad carries several subcultures. First, there are hot-sauce connoisseurs who speak of ''smoky tinges'' and ''vinegary finishes.'' Then there are collectors who display hundreds of bottles in traffic-light colors with funky labels. Rivals Chuck Evans of Columbus, Ohio, and Chip Hearn of Dewey Beach, Del., boast of owning more than 2,000 different brands.

Jennifer Trainer Thompson, author of ''Hot Licks: Great Recipes for Making and Cooking with Hot Sauces,'' had several posters made up from her hot-sauce collection (Ten Speed Press). After selling 20,000 posters and receiving passionate mail from hot-sauce lovers and ''chileheads,'' she concludes the craze has gained momentum through comradery. ''There are even online conversations going on,'' she says.

Part of the lore is a daredevil or macho attitude, Thompson notes. There are clubs, tastings, and contests that cater to those who want to test their tolerance.

The fact is, however, that some hot sauces are so hot that food professionals deem them inedible, such as the best-selling and searing Dave's Insanity, touted as ''The Hottest Sauce In the Universe.'' Fraternities have been known to use them for hazing. In February, a New Hampshire cook was charged with assault after serving two Vermont state troopers sandwiches doused with hot sauce.

Dangers aside, hot sauce has monumental culinary value when used in moderation. Beyond the heat factor, a good hot sauce adds flavor and accent. ''I use it instead of salt,'' Trainer says. She suggests starting with a little bit and then add more. If your mouth is mistakenly torched, Trainer says, ''Eat dairy.''

As for the hot-sauce trend, it'll be in the sun for a while. Chile Pepper magazine's DeWitt estimates that only 10 percent of the population is buying fiery foods on a regular basis. ''We have 90 percent to go.''

And tradition is on hot-and-spicy's side. Social historians have documented that once a culture's cuisine gets hotter and spicier, it doesn't go back.

''Hot sauce has been around for 6,500 years,'' says Mr. McIlhenny. ''It's got some shelf life.''

Pineapple Curry Heat Wave

'Smooth, thick, and deeply flavored with curry, this sauce has a two-fisted punch that hits immediately on your lips, then follows throughout your mouth, nose, and sinuses,' writes Jennifer Trainer Thompson.

'The pineapple makes an unusual base, and its high acid content lends a decided tropical note to the heat.'

(Editor's note: This sauce is extremely hot. For a milder version, use fewer chiles and more pineapple and honey.)

12 Scotch bonnet or habanero chiles, preferably yellow or red, stemmed (but not seeded)

1 large yellow onion, chopped (about 2 cups)

1 cup fresh pineapple, diced in 1-inch cubes

4 tablespoons 100% pure pineapple juice

3 teaspoons turmeric

2 teaspoons ground dry mustard

1 teaspoon ground fenugreek (used as both herb and seed in many Indian foods; available at Asian markets)

1 teaspoon ground coriander seed

1 teaspoon ground celery seed

2 teaspoons mace flakes (or 1 teaspoon ground mace)

3 teaspoons ground cumin seed

1 teaspoon ground cayenne

2 teaspoons pure, ground red chile powder

16 turns of fresh black pepper

1-inch piece of fresh ginger root, minced

1/4 teaspoon cornstarch

4 tablespoons cider vinegar

2 teaspoons honey

Place chiles, onion, pineapple, pineapple juice, and spices in a blender, and puree until smooth. In a nonreactive saucepan over low heat, dissolve the cornstarch in the vinegar, add the puree and honey, and simmer slowly for 10 minutes. Cool and pour into sterilized jar. Refrigerated, the sauce will keep up to 8 weeks.

Makes 2 1/2 cups.

From ''Hot Licks: Great Recipes for Making and Cooking with Hot Sauces,'' by Jennifer Trainer Thompson (Chronicle Books, 1994)

Hot sauce categories:

Louisiana: usually a mixture of cayenne peppers, salt, and vinegar. Tends to be thin and red.

Southwest/Mexican: often characterized by a particular chile, such as chipotle.

Caribbean: usually ''scorchers'' that feature habaneros with fruits or vegetables, herbs, and spices.

Asian and others: eclectic mixtures of flavor and heat from around the world.

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