My 13-year-old son, Anton, is big on superlatives. The other day I showed him some photos of a trip I took to Mexico years ago. One was of an outdoor market with dozens of burlap sacs brimming with ground chili peppers in a rainbow of colors. Anton immediately asked, "What's the hottest pepper in the world?"
I knew the answer to his question. "It's called the Bhut Jolokia," I told him. "Even the seeds are too hot to handle."
My son's eyes filled with stars. The next day, he approached me as I was turning the garden in preparation for spring planting. "Dad," he said. "I want to plant hot peppers."
"How hot?" I asked.
He made fists and quivered with enthusiasm. "Really hot. Like the, the, what do you call it?"
"Yeah. The Bhut."
"I can't get those, but I can get Thai Dragon seeds." It's hard to imagine the hold the word "dragon" has on a middle schooler unless you're in the process of raising one.
"Are they hot?" he asked.
I have never grown a pepper in my life and don't particularly like peppers, but I do know something about chilis. I think it's the names that most appeal to me. Just look at these monikers: Aji Amarillo, Dong Xuan, Giant Aconcagua, Naga Morich, Zimbabwe Bird. And is there any doubt that these two are incendiary – Explosive Ember and Firecracker Pequin?
"What are you going to do with such hot peppers?" I asked.
Well, why not? I ordered the Thai Dragon seeds and asked a friend of mine to germinate them in his greenhouse. Truth to tell, I was curious about them too. I knew that Thai Dragon was a rather small, thin pepper, and that small chilis tend to be the hottest. In Mexico, I had had a taste of one, and I remember the fire rolling across my mouth and the sweat pouring from my face. I quickly decided to admire the chilis from afar, because they are, indeed, as beautiful as they are numerous. In Mexico alone there are more than 100 varieties.
When we brought the seeds to my friend Richard, Anton was already champing at the bit, wondering when his Thai Dragons would break the soil. Richard, a soft-spoken, measured man, counseled patience. "It seems that the hotter the pepper, the more heat and time it takes to germinate them," he said. Then, with loving care, he took the small, flat seeds and bedded them down in potting soil for the long haul. Anton and I went home, where, that night, I slept as soundly as those seeds but Anton tossed and turned, the victim of anxious anticipation.
In the meantime, I donated a section of my garden to Anton's project. It was a narrow strip of good, dark soil, right next to the river. "What about the raccoons?" he asked, already worrying about complications.
"Anton," I said, "these are really hot chilis. One taste and a raccoon will learn its lesson." Besides, I was planting enough traditional vegetables to keep the raccoons busy and away from experimentation.
My son's chili-pepper project was actually a broader experience with many lessons. He learned how to turn a garden and add compost to enrich the soil. He came to appreciate the virtue of a raised bed, which allows the soil to warm more quickly and avoids the root rotting that can occur when something is planted in lower places. And of course he had no choice but to learn patience: Those Thai Dragon seeds were taking their own sweet time germinating, a process that was almost upended when Richard called to tell me that his greenhouse fan had quit and now his whole operation was in danger of overheating.
But this crisis passed, and on one recent warm, sunny spring day, Anton and I drove out to the greenhouse to meet the new arrivals. And there they were, thready green things, looking intensely fragile, with no sign of the promise they bore to scorch the palate.
"They don't look like hot peppers," said Anton, with a hint of disappointment.
"Well, not yet," I said, "but not long ago you didn't look like a teenager, and now you're one of the hottest kids in school."
Anton liked that, and the compliment seems to have bought him enough forbearance to see the project through.
He hopes to have sales figures by September.