The Triffid Ranch’s motto is “Odd Plants and Oddities For Odd People,” and that’s pretty much its business mission statement, too. That’s easy to uphold when dealing with carnivorous plants (that is, unless you’re a resident of Tallahassee, Florida, and even then), but how do you define “odd plants” otherwise? Is this label dependent upon location, upon growing habits, or upon its back history? More importantly, what do you do when a customer responds to the slogan, takes a peek, and tells you in all seriousness “I see odder things in my breakfast cereal”?
I bring this up because it’s time to retry an experiment cut short by last summer’s solar annihilation. This year, it’s time to expand, very slightly, into hot peppers.
Part of the fascination with Capsicum peppers comes, obviously, from the tasting. Several years back, I worked a day job where my daily consumption of sriracha sauce surprised Cuban co-workers, one of whom told me “You have a little brown in you, don’t you?” I definitely took the compliment in the manner in which it was intended, and didn’t have the heart to tell her that I used to be a hopeless wimp about spicy food when I was a child. Michigan wasn’t exactly known for spice in its cuisine, and I remember literally crying at the age of five when a McDonald’s hamburger had too much mustard on it. That lasted until I moved to Texas in 1979 and had my first exposure to jalapeno peppers that hadn’t been pickled to within an inch of their lives. After that, you might as well have carved “JUST ONE FIX” into my forehead when it came to Tex-Mex, Thai, or Indian cuisine.
(When I lived in Wisconsin in the mid-Eighties, a new Mexican restaurant opened in the area, advertising traditional Tex-Mex sauces. They didn’t realize how much they had toned down the bite for Wisconsinites until I kept asking for salsa that was “a little stronger than this.” By the time the main course was served, I had a crowd of employees and managers watching me snarf down an exquisite green chile salsa that was put off-limits to the general customers. Twenty years later, an acquaintance thought he was showing off by handing me a bottle of sriracha sauce and telling me that this was the hottest sauce he’d ever tried, and then completely lost it when I squeezed out a line onto my finger and used it to brush my teeth.)
The other aspect, though, is the science. It’s not enough to know that peppers are spicy, but why they’re spicy. The brilliant colors and the incredible heat evolved together, with the colors intent upon attracting birds acting as vectors for the pepper’s seeds and the capsicum oil intent upon repelling mammals whose digestive systems could destroy those seeds. The sheer variety of peppers today comes from a certain variety of upright ape that both had the ability to see those colors and taste those flavors, and cultivate plants based on their ability to perpetuate said colors and tastes. At that point, you have to wonder which species is influencing whom: are humans controlling the peppers’ distribution and evolution, or are the peppers controlling humans by encouraging them to expand the peppers’ range and variety?
Heady thoughts for a Monday evening, and thoughts that make me want to sit down with a gaggle of grad students at the Chile Pepper Institute for a good long chat. These and other questions are why the greenhouse is now full of flats of Bhut Jolokia seedlings, why I’m awaiting a fresh batch of Trinidad Scorpion seeds, and why I plan to use David Shaw’s recipe for homemade sriracha sauce with Black Pearl peppers to make the ultimate goth hot sauce. Purely for satiation of scientific curiosity, of course. Heck, I may even make some Capsicum bonsai.