The Heat of Summer

September 1, 2006

Of all the edible products of the diverse Solanaceae family that burst from farmers’ fields at this time of year–eggplant, tomato, tomatillo, potato–none command attention quite like the fruits of the genus Capsicum. Bright red, green, yellow, orange, rich brown and even purple peppers fill our mouths with sensations from sweet to smoky to extremely spicy.

When chiles reach their piquant peak, it is a sure sign of late summer. Hot peppers need a long, warm growing period during which they develop capsaicin, the chemical compound responsible for their spiciness. The production of capsaicin is a trait that probably evolved to discourage mammals from eating the fruits. In the wild, birds, which are attracted to peppers’ bright colors but unaffected by their heat, generally spread their seeds.

Despite the chile’s peppery pursuit to deter us, humans are pleased by their pungency. In fact, we have been very effective distributors of pepper seed. Capsicums are native to the Americas and were one of the first crops to be domesticated here thousands of years ago. After Columbus was introduced to the pepper, he brought its seeds to Spain; the crop subsequently made its way to the rest of Europe, Southeast Asia and India. Today, peppers pervade many cultures’ cuisines in various forms. Chile powder is one of the world’s most popular spices.

David Winsberg, who was raised on a 600-acre bell pepper farm in Florida, has been growing peppers on the much smaller Happy Quail Farm for the past 26 years. The farm produces over 30 varieties of pepper (among other crops) on two acres that comprise several backyards and greenhouses in East Palo Alto. David is known widely for his Pimientos de Padron, but also grows, dries, and powders a type of Habanero pepper called Red Savina, which up until March of this year held the record as the world’s hottest pepper.

The piquancy of peppers is measured using Scoville heat units, named after the man who first invented a way to gauge capsaicin content. On the scale, bell peppers rate zero, jalapeños around 5,000, and Habaneros around 500,000. Pepper spray, the active ingredient of which is a capsaicinoid compound, rates 5,000,000 units. In the United States, peppers with low Scoville ratings are more popular crops than their fiery relatives, but hotter peppers seem to be gaining employment in our culinary culture.

Lee and Wayne James, the brother and sister team that farms the 20 acres that make up Tierra Vegetables, have certainly found this to be the case. They started growing sweet peppers in 1980 but have transitioned into cultivating more and more chile varieties because of customer demand. Today, of the over 50 pepper varieties they grow, more than 30 are spicy. Tierra Vegetables is famous for their chipotles (smoked peppers), which are smoked for a week in a wood-burning oven that Wayne built.