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It has been raining steadily in rural Indiana for twelve hours, and it shows between the rows of Jim Campbell’s 6,500 chile pepper plants. He stomps and slogs through the mud, pausing occasionally to point out a favorite variety, and then wrenching his boot out of the sucking muck.
Near the fields of plants are campsites, R.V.s and a surprisingly large and determined group of “Chile Heads.” They obsess about hot peppers the way some do about celebrities or sports teams. Some of them have traveled thousands of miles to be here.
They come from Michigan, Texas, Kansas, New York, California, Alabama. One is from Argentina. These people are hardcore.
Campbell is chief among them. A firefighter by trade, he has started innumerable fires in the mouths and stomachs of pepper and hot sauce enthusiasts all over the country in his 15 years as a grower. “It’s a passion, not a business,” he says. “Almost everyone you meet in the chile community has a day job. Chiles are something we love.”
Jim’s commercial crop of 25,000 plants is just a few miles away from this smaller crop of 6,500 he shares with the Chile Heads each year during his invitation-only Field Days, usually at the end of September and hopefully before the first Indiana frost. He sells chiles to some of the biggest names in the cottage hot sauce industry, like Blair’s Death and Dave’s Insanity. This is real hot sauce, the kind that’s just back this side of law-enforcement quality pepper spray. Don’t talk to him about the mass-produced stuff you find in the grocery stores. “Pepper-flavored vinegar,” he says. “They don’t bring the heat.”
Someone has just announced a thunderstorm warning for southern Indiana. But no one is going anywhere. They’re picking peppers in the field, sharing varieties they brought with them from all corners of the country and cooking sauces and soups that you fear—given their enthusiasm for the hottest hot peppers—might burn your eyes if you look at them.
Hardcore like Butch Taylor, who drove an R.V. with his wife from Woodville, Miss., to this field in Indiana. Butch climbs out clutching a bag of inch-round red peppers with mean little tails protruding from their centers. He says they’re called Trinidad Scorpions. “And they bite,” he warns. “They’re all the rage right now; the newest thing.”
Chile Heads gather from all corners of the camp to see what Butch brought to show them—or, more accurately, inflict on them. The first taster looks like an NFL lineman. A sliver of the Scorpion plants him in a chair, breathing heavily, eyes streaming, holding his head in his hands. The second taster wrings his hands, saying “I wish it would go away.” The third, ignoring the warnings and feeling the inevitable burn, says, “I’m just stupid.”
Jim Campbell won’t try it. “I know my limits,” he says. Though he’s only been selling peppers for 15 years, he’s been growing them for 45, “since I was 3 or 4 years old,” he says. “There were ten kids in my family, so we had a big garden. It was my job to grow the peppers.”
Jim grows some of the hottest habañeros but prefers the jalapeño, known in its roasted form as chipotle. He has his list of favorites, most of which are considerably milder than the dangerous Trinidad Scorpion Butch brought.
“That’s the thing about asking someone about their favorite chile, though” says Jim. “Different varieties are called different things based on where you’re from.”
That’s why most peppers have geographic names. Chimayó, another relatively mild pepper that’s one of Jim’s favorites, is named for the village in New Mexico where it originated. “It may be called something else in other parts of the world,” says Jim. “But the real ones come from New Mexico.”
Use caution when ordering seed for these traditional, heirloom varieties. Not all is as it seems. The pepper most recognized as the hottest on record, the Red Savina habañero, is trademarked to prevent copycats from claiming the throne. Jim says there are folks who say they have seed for Red Savina, but legal issues have forced the owners to remove all seed from the home grower market. “Buyer beware,” says Jim.
Even commercial growers of this hottest hot pepper—like Jim—must be licensed. For good reason, too. Just handling the peppers can cause sensitive skin to blister, and woe unto the poor soul who rubs his or her eyes, nose or mouth after messing with these firebombs.
Still, there might even be hotter peppers out there. Is the Trinidad Scorpion hotter, for instance? How about the Naga, a pepper originating in Bangladesh that some web sites claim is hotter than Red Savina? “Two or three times a year for the last several years now, there are claims made that this or that is hotter,” says Jim. “I think most of this is hype by seed sellers but no doubt, in time, something might prove to be hotter. I just remain a bit skeptical.”
There’s still plenty of heat out there for the home grower, such as a variety of other habañero varieties and some of Jim’s other favorites.
How you grow them might even affect the heat of the fruit. The old axiom that holding out on the water will make some chiles hotter is true, Jim says, but watering can be tricky.
“Most folks see the wilting and think they need to water more but this isn’t the case,” Jim says. In fact, habañero varieties will wilt from too much sun, and prefer a little shade, particularly in the hottest part of the day. “If these are in full hot sun with high temps, they are going to wilt even if they were sitting in a swimming pool,” says Jim.
Over-watering can cause a number of problems, such as root rot and even damaged fruit. “These things ‘sweat’ almost as fast as you water them,” jim says. The fruit takes on water and expands, then contracts as it sweats. The more this happens, the weaker the surface of the fruit gets.
Just water consistently, once a week. Make sure the plant has a good root structure by planting them in good, well drained soil.
One chile in particular likes the afternoon sun. The Tepin (also know as the “Chiltecpin”), known for its tiny fruit and big taste, can take the heat. And bring it.
The larger-pod chiles, such as the Chimayó and the Aconcagua, are milder and great for stuffing and roasting. In the garden, though they require a little more care. “A tomato cage or stake works great,” says Jim. And, like tomatoes, these larger pods are susceptible to blossom end rot. Again, consistent—not constant—watering in well-drained soil helps prevent this problem.
Jim prefers the milder varieties. “I’m a firefighter, not a fire eater,” he says, though he knows how funny it is that he’s a fireman and a chile grower.
He also somehow finds time for charity work. Firefighters are often very competitive about how many steps they can climb—makes sense; they often have to do so to save lives. But only Jim can lay claim to being a world-champion stair climber, while raising money for charity in the process.
Individuals and organizations sponsored Jim based on dollars per 1,000 steps climbed. The previous world record was 66,000 steps. Jim shattered it, climbing 106,000 steps on a stair-climbing machine.
That record—along with the nuclear power of the Trinidad Scorpion—is quite the topic of conversation during the rainy Field Days event. But the Chile Heads know Jim well. How does he find the energy to climb 106,000 stairs? “Hot sauce,” says one soggy pepper fanatic. “Gotta be the hot sauce.”