Autum Heat: a Farmer Follows his Second-Hottest Pepper from Plant to Plate

Tim Stark’s legendary peppers have chefs lining up at the Greenmarket.

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Where competition is concerned, there are two things you should know about me: My grandfather held Pennsylvania’s collegiate pole-vaulting record for a handful of years. “Until the fiberglass pole replaced the wooden,” Pap would grumble, as if the world owed him an asterisk. And in my athletic prime, I lost a chile pepper eating contest to Rob Rarick, with whom I had vied fiercely in events as varied as wrestling and beer chugging.

Ours was one of those dragged-out contests that ended with the two of us guzzling the spicy, rank canker-inducing vinegar left over from six jars of consumed cherry peppers. In the end, it was a fullbelly as much as fire on the tongue that urged me to throw in the towel.

Now that I have been a farmer for over a decade, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the chile in America has gone the way of the wood-propelled track-and-field event. No sooner did jalapeño trump cherry than along came habanero, Scotch bonnet, red savina habanero. Higher and higher rose the bar. Of the hundreds of varieties of chiles I have grown, there is one that stayed for years atop the heat scale: chocolate habanero.

If you’ve ever sold fresh vegetables off a sunlit table, you know about those regulars who come through the market to make a free lunch out of the heaped up fare, even when samples are not on offer. Invariably, one of these freeloaders locks onto a glossy, wrinkled habanero and sees only chocolate. Before I can intervene, a Hershey bar–sized bite has been filched and one hysterical human being is lying belly up in front of my stand.

Here would be my opportunity, you would think, to administer a lecture: This is what happens to people who take without asking. Instead, I go running off for milk and bread, and as I’m trying my best to get the sufferer to sit up and realize that he or she is going to live, the condemnatory faces in the crowd around us are trained on me. What did you do to the poor soul?

But even the chocolate habanero has been relegated to mediocrity thanks to bhut jolokia, which recently smashed the 1 million unit barrier on the Scoville heat measurement scale. (Those cherry peppers of my youth run about 300 Scoville units.)

Discovered in northeast India, where the locals revere it as much for its distinctive fragrance as its fire, this chile is a Guinness Book of World Records celebrity whose seeds sell for $2 apiece. Orangish red, triangular and short-tailed, bhut jolokia takes its place to the right of the chocolate habanero and the fiery yellow Fatalii on my market table.

Bhut jolokia reduces the chile-eating contest to a minimalist affair in which contestants slice off fingernail-sized shavings, starting at the relatively mild tail and working toward the atom-splitting seeds and stem. Kevin, a fellow farmer who sets up next to me at market and likes to nibble on capsaicin at dinner, brought one of my bhut jolokias home and had this to report next time I saw him: “Just when I got past the tail of the chile, I felt this surge of energy and started pacing back and forth. I wanted to climb the walls. I had to sit down and focus on staying inside my body. There was some pain, yes, but it was beyond pain, an amazing experience. You got another one of those chiles for me?”

Dante had it right, I suppose: You have to go through hell to get to heaven. But to get to my farm from New York City, you drive west for two hours and then meander among cows and covered bridges. Adam Longworth, chef de cuisine at Gotham Bar and Grill, recently paid a Sunday afternoon visit along with a posse of fellow Gothamites. He showed up on his motorcycle with three hours to kill before he had to head back for dinner service.

He was in search of inspiration, I could see, what with the long hot days ceding to copper-colored sunsets and crisp peaches and tomatoes going mealy from refrigerated nights. Time for a menu change. I steered Adam toward thistly cardoons, plump Brussels sprouts, pineapple-fat celery root. To my surprise, he tarried in the pepper patch, beside the glossy red tabloid star whose first name, bhut, means ghost. We cracked one open to breathe in the apricotty habanero perfume. Then came the obligatory dare, each of us tasting a teensy weensy piece from the tail, which brought sweat to Adam’s brow and set my heart to skipping.

Next stop was Fatalii, my second-hottest chile,measuring 300,000 Scoville units. Native to central Africa, it looks like a bright-yellow version of bhut jolokia. We cautiously sampled Fatalii, with identical results where heat is concerned—the human tongue is incapable of discriminating between 300,000 and 1 million Scoville units. But Fatalii outshone bhut jolokia in the floral category. You could smell the fragrant pod 50 feet away.

One million Scoville units means that 1 million parts of water need to be added to one part of chile to cancel out the chile’s heat. There are scientific measuring devices used to verify Guinness Book of World Record holders, but I know of no instrument other than nose and tongue for judging the bright fruitiness that redeems the fierce heat of varieties of chile like bhut jolokia and Fatalii.

Adam was thinking of ceviche as he sampled my chiles in the field. And, in the interest of a world-class cuisine, he passedon world-record heat, although he still had to perform a methodical sort of Scoville dilution of Fatalii before he could put it on the menu at Gotham Bar and Grill, removing the seeds and dousing the fiery flesh in the sweet andsour juices of its tropical counterparts— mango, lime, orange.

Now it was my turn to visit Adam in the kitchen, where Fatalii dissectors donned fume masks and rubber gloves. By Adam’s reckoning, a single seeded Fatalii provides the heat requirements of 50 ceviche appetizers. He had “cooked” pink snapper for six hours not with heat from the oven but by steeping the raw fish in chile-laced citrus juices in the refrigerator until it was white to its core, both supple and delicate, the perfect palette for the flavors with which it was adorned: coins of sweet cantaloupe, earthy red beet, crunchy radish. Creamy dollops of avocado floated atop a yolk-bright pool of sweet, chile-inspired mango gelée.

Hot commodity: Writer-turned-farmer Tim Stark grows hundreds of chiles, luring Caribbean grandmas and the city’s most adventurous chefs. Photo credit: Francine Daveta.

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At the height of the growing season, Tim Stark can be found either picking tomatoes, hawking tomatoes, eating tomatoes, juggling tomatoes or sleeping in the back of his truck at the Union Square Greenmarket. His book, Heirloom: Notes From An Accidental Tomato Farmer, recently came out in paperback.