Without so much as an introduction, strangers will sometimes rush up to Jennifer Trainer Thompson and ask: "What's the hottest?"
It's a question the demure cookbook author handles with coolness.
The Queen of Hot, as she has come to be known, is the unofficial expert on hot sauces, and has helped ignite a growing palate passion.
There's a machismo to the question "Have you tried the hottest?" Ms. Thompson explains during a breakfast interview. She mentions one sizzler of a sauce - "Dave's Insanity" as one that most consumers cite. But the hottest sauce she has ever experienced is "Red Dog Tavern's Armageddon Sauce," concocted by a former United States Navy Sea Dog.
Thompson is all too familiar with these fiery incarnations and their quirky names: There's "Montezuma Devil's Tingle" and "Capital Punishment." "Hellfire and Damnation" and the almost-audible "Ieeowch!!"
Amid hot-sauce culture, an adventurous air pervades. So it's no wonder a lot of culinary daredevils gravitate to the scorchers and try to out-macho each other. Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of manufacturers and consumers are men. All that may change, however, as cooks begin to realize that along with the heat, many sauces add additional flavor.
For example, Thompson marinates chicken breasts in hot sauce before grilling them. "The heat falls away and what you're left with is this incredible flavor," she says.
A drop or two in corn chowder or added to a pot of plain rice can go a long way. Some people do douse, she concedes, but it's usually because they've built up a level of tolerance.
Tabasco has been around for decades, but the more-obscure hot sauces have been oozing into mainstream homes and restaurants just over the past decade, dovetailing the explosion in international food. "You don't have to go to the Caribbean, Mexico, or Asia anymore," Thompson says. Mail-order houses are plentiful, and there are several dozen restaurants and tasting bars that specifically celebrate hot sauce, not to mention festivals, clubs, publications, and more.
With an increasing number of hot sauces on the market, the better-sellers are forcing the more mom-and-pop sauces to go under. "What's surviving are the hotter sauces," says Thompson, expressing some surprise, while warning me the sauce I'm about to try is "pretty hot."
(A mere drop of Busha Browne's Pukka Hot Pepper Sauce from Jamaica provides a powerful kick to my eggs. Later it's a scant drizzle of Scorned Woman and then Cholula. Whew, please pass the ice water!)
Thompson, who has about 500 sauces in her pantry, says she prefers the smoky-flavored ones such as those found in the Caribbean, as opposed to the vinegar-based Louisiana sauces. But she sees a lot of cross-mixing or fusion going on. A papaya- pumpkin hot sauce has recently come out.
What started as a collection of hot sauces has become an enduring passion for Thompson. Her books include "Trail of Flame," "The Great Hot Sauce Book," "Hot Licks," and "Great Recipes for Making and Cooking With Hot Sauces."
But the project that has perhaps gained the most visibility is her posters. These large photographs of shelf after shelf of hot sauce bottles beckon lookers to check out their quirky names.
Thompson muses that five years ago people would stand in her pantry and laugh. That was the catalyst for the first poster, which grew into three posters, selling 100,000 copies. A hot sauce calendar will be out next year. The initial attraction to hot sauces may be the amusing and provocative labels, but sometimes the writing on back of the bottle is just as much fun, Thompson adds. But when "liquid fire" hits the lips, "fun" may not be the first word to roll off your tongue.
HABANERO HOT SAUCE
'Hot sauces with habanero chiles are the staple seasoning of the Caribbean. They can be as simple as chiles and vinegar, or embellished with various vegetables (carrots, onions, pumpkin) and/or fruits (papayas, passion fruit, mangos).'
1 fresh habanero, stemmed
1 medium onion
1 cup distilled white vinegar
2 cloves garlic
Juice of 1 lime
Puree all ingredients in blender or food processor. Pour into saucepan and bring to a boil. Simmer for a few minutes, then remove from heat. Let cool, and pour into sterilized containers.
Makes 2 cups.
BARBECUE PORK RIBS
'If you live in a place where the weather is fickle, indoor barbecue is the way to go. Whether from your oven or from the grill, these tender ribs must be served with bread ... so you don't miss a drop of this sweet, tangy barbecue sauce.'
1/2 cup finely diced yellow onion
1/3 cup dark molasses
1/3 cup honey
1 cup ketchup
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons Walker's Wood Jerk Seasoning or any other spicy Jamaican jerk sauce
2 tablespoons Dijon-style mustard
3 pounds country-style pork ribs
Combine marinade ingredients, mix well, and pour over ribs. Marinate for about 4 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Cover ribs with aluminum foil and cook for 1/2 hour. Remove foil, and lower temperature to 325 degrees F, and cook for an additional 20 to 30 minutes. (Or, remove from oven after initial 1/2 hour and finish on the grill.)
- From 'The Great Hot Sauce Book'