CONCORD, N.H. -- Perhaps it's because I'm from the Northeast, but I'm just not accustomed to food causing pain, at least not intentionally so. Nor to it carrying dire warning labels.
That's probably why I recently was mystified by a spice catalog that included a "USE WITH CAUTION" alert in the description of a particular dried chili pepper.
Seems to me that food requiring such warnings might not be fit for consumption.
Below the ominous description was a chart listing various peppers and their corresponding heat ratings, or Scoville units (named for Wilbur Scoville, a chemist who around 1912 developed a method for testing chili pepper heat).
According to the chart, common bell peppers rate zero Scoville units. Crushed red pepper flakes (with which my liberal hand has ruined more than one dinner) rate 15,000 units. Jalapenos clock in at 55,000 units.
And the dried piquin peppers that bore the caution label? A horrifying 140,000 units.
At least, I thought it was horrifying until I later stumbled upon the curious "Mr. ChileHead: Adventures in the Taste of Pain" (ECW Press, 2003, $15.95) by James D. Campbell.
Reading Campbell's oddly fascinating account of his love of hot chili peppers is equal parts disturbing (it starts with the words "Pain has a taste") and educational.
While I certainly knew there were legions of dedicated chili pepper fans, my assumption always had been that the fervor was fueled by the flavor.
But as Campbell explains while recounting his pursuit of the hottest hot pepper experience, taste is only part of the package. Pain and the endorphin rush that accompanies it are the real goals.
"The pain is very definitely integral to the experience," he said during a telephone interview from his home in Montreal. "Many people find the pain purifying. It cleanses the organism and exalts the spirit and therefore is a very fine thing indeed."
For a taste of the pain so-called chiliheads crave, try Campbell's intriguing jalapeno brownies. Though much hotter than I care for, the contrast of sweet and spicy was surprisingly good. Unless you want a mouth of fire, dice the peppers well.
(Preparation 50 minutes)
2/3 cup semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup butter
4 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
5 large jalapeno peppers, minced
6 to 8 Thai chilies, minced
3/4 cup walnuts, toasted and chopped
Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly oil a 9x13-inch pan.
Melt butter and chocolate chips together in a double boiler. Set aside to cool.
In a large bowl, whisk or beat the eggs with the salt until foamy. Add the sugar and vanilla and beat until well blended. Add the chocolate-butter mixture and stir until just combined.
Add the flour and cocoa powder and mix until almost blended. Fold in the jalapenos, chilies and nuts.
Transfer batter to the prepared pan and bake until the top forms a cracked crust and the inside looks slightly moist, 30 to 35 minutes. Allow to cool, then cut into squares and dust with powdered sugar.
Makes about 12 large brownies.