Wilbur’s Guide to Setting your Tongue on Fire

I went to the farmer’s market yesterday. Last time I went, about a month ago, the only fresh produce they had for sale was asparagus and apples. I figured, since it was now JUNE – and the first really warm summer day this year (86 in Portland…ouch) – that there was bound to be more of a selection this time. I was hoping for some corn on the cob. Maybe some apricots or nectarines. A peach would be peachy. Strawberries ripen in June, and there are none better than freshly grown Oregon or Washington berries (sorry, California, but yours don’t even come close). So I eagerly joined the throngs of people walking en masse amongst the myriad booths and tents, only to find…

Asparagus. And apples.

Well, damn. Nothing had changed in a whole month, except the outfits my fellow market patrons wore (gone were the sweatshirts and umbrellas, replaced by shorts and flip-flops). The whole scene screamed summer, except for the produce. And to think that I had better luck last Halloween, when I was able to put together an entire meal from my farmer’s market purchases despite the gloom and chill. I guess I was fooled by all the fruits and veggies in the supermarket, which are of course trucked in from locations where it hasn’t been cool and wet for months on end. I went ahead and bought some asparagus, because I didn’t want to come away totally empty handed, and treated myself to a corn dog for lunch. Then I promptly made my way to Trader Joe’s, where I found the corn I had been seeking, along with the requisite other cool things you can only find there, like fresh avocado salsa verde and cheap-but-good wine. Ahh, TJ’s, how I love thee.

Earlier in the week, I’d ventured into Portland on a quest for Secret Aardvark Drunken Garlic & Black Bean Habanero sauce. I’d read about this stuff in the latest issue of Willamette Week and was intrigued enough to seek it out, foodie that I am. I found it at New Season’s Market, and bought a bottle (along with their trademark regular Habanero Hot Sauce, both of which are made with whiskey). Turns out Secret Aardvark Trading Company is a local, two-man operation that started out selling their products at the Portland Farmer’s Market in 2004. I love stories like that and am all about supporting the local economy. In addition to the sauces, I came home that day with a bag of New York-style boiled bagels, a handful of guitar picks, and a couple of MAKE PORTLAND WEIRDER bumper stickers. It was an odd sort of day, but productive.

Wilbur Scoville's fiery chile pepper chart of death (not the official name).

So last night, I decided to try the Habanero Hot Sauce. I love spicy foods, but have never been able to master and enjoy habanero peppers, which are 50 times hotter than jalapenos on the Scoville Scale, a method of measuring the spiciness of chili peppers that was developed by Wilbur Scoville in 1912. It’s a handy and rather scary-looking chart, especially if you’re contemplating digging into some of the hotter chilies. A jalapeno, for instance, is measured at 3500-8000 Scoville units, while a habanero comes in at 200,000-350,000 units. Ouch, right? Every time I’ve tried to eat something with habaneros, my body has protested vigorously. My tongue catches fire and I am wracked with hiccups (apparently a common reaction and a defense mechanism of your diaphragm, which is now screaming get this shit away from me!!).

However, I’m no pepper pansy. I have annihilated anaheims, punished poblanos and pasillas, slaughtered serranos, and conquered cayennes. It was time to take the next step in my chili pepper war and humiliate habaneros.

Here’s the thing: I like the flavor of habaneros. They are piquant and citrusy. If it weren’t for the damn heat, I’d use them in everything. My dad (who can barely handle a bell pepper) was asking how one can distinguish the flavor of a chili pepper when it feels like you’re gargling with molten lava, and that’s an interesting question, but you certainly can. All chilies have different flavors, and that is why there’s such a proliferation of hot sauces on the market.

Anyway. I fired up the grill last evening and barbecued some chicken. (I also threw my corn on the cob on the grill, something I’ve always wanted to try, and it turned out pretty good, with a unique smoky flavor you don’t get from boiling, unless your stove catches on fire in the process). When dinner was ready, I broke out the Secret Aardvark sauce and squeezed a few dollops on my plate, dipping bite-sized pieces of chicken in the habanero chile puddle. And, guess what?

I didn’t die.

Actually, I rather enjoyed the flavor. Secret Aardvark is good stuff! Maybe it’s the whiskey. My mouth burned and my tongue protested for awhile, but eventually they got used to it, and the sauce added a tangy, almost tropical flavor to the chicken. This morning I made myself an omelette and, wanting to prove that the previous evening wasn’t a fluke, doused it with some more of the habanero sauce. Surprisingly, it was eggcellent, elevating the omelette experience to a whole new level. It appears I may have finally put the habanero in its place and shown it who’s in charge.

I’m eyeing the ghost chili next, but at 1,000,000+ Scoville units, I’m in no hurry to dethrone that little guy.


Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

30 thoughts on “Wilbur’s Guide to Setting your Tongue on Fire

  1. Can I tell you how much I dig that a man who uses the word “piquant” to describe food gets the hiccups in response to a pepper?!?! It doesn’t get much more pedestrian than that, Mr. Elitist Food Snob…


    Just teasin’, of course. I say this lovingly, as my bf is a foodie too. In my former life, with former boyfriends, beer and hot dogs were on the menu. With my current, we can’t leave the supermarket without spending $150 on items like smoked salmon, basil-infused bruschetta and gouda.

    Piquant, indeed…


  2. “86 in Portland…ouch”

    Yes, yours and mine LEAST favorite season is upon us – UGH! Last week, we had days in the mid-90’s and very humid. I thought I was going to DIE! Luckily, the temps. dropped down into the high 70’s!

    Okay, first….you are so lucky that the Trader Joe’s in your area carries wine. In Pennsylvania, you can only get alcohol in a wine and spirits store.

    Second, I’m like your father….My dad (who can barely handle a bell pepper). I can’t eat anything hot or spicy – rips my stomach apart. When I eat Mexican, I have to have everything mild. I can barely handle black pepper – HA!

    But, I’m glad you enjoyed that Habanero Hot Sauce!


    1. Interesting. We can buy wine in the grocery stores here, and beer, but all liquor is sold in state-controlled stores in Washington and Oregon. Which sucks if you’re shopping for eggs and have a sudden hankering for rum. (Hey, it happens).


  3. Mark: Farmer’s Market in August and September = sublime.

    On the flip side…It WAS a beautiful day yesterday…
    today I like, too…here it is warm, the ceiling of heaven is nothing but clouds, humid and still…


    I watched my son eat a…ghost pepper once…man, it was funny.



  4. The weather here today was 94. If I stay out too long, I start panting and my face turns bright red. Speaking of panting, I haven’t found anything that a habanero complements in my diet. Those little suckers are the real meaning of “eating pain”.


  5. Mark–yes, there’s a video on FB of him eating the pepper…but it isn’t in my photo section…alas.

    the full version of the lake jump is in my videos, though. 🙂 If you’ve never seen it.

    cooler tonight. Happy.


  6. For some reason I feel obligated to say that “spicy” in Charmorro (the language of Guam and the rest of the Mariana Islands) is PIKA. I love that word!

    Also, CA berries are delicious… when consumed near and soon after where they were picked. Better yet to be organic and very in season. While I sincerely believe that the best blackberries in the world are picked off Fourth Plain near Burnt Bridge Creek, Swanton Berry Farm south of SF produces ollalieberries that will make you cry. It’s also the first farm to have workers represented by a union. The berries taste better for it IMO.


      1. That’s where I spent every summer through high school, hanging with cuz Caryn at our grandma’s. I went by there when I was up in the Couv last summer… OH the memories…


  7. Next time you’re in San Jose you have to go to La Victoria’s. There’s one just North of SJSU on San Carlos, and another on Santa Clara Street. They have this sauce … they have this sauce, man, that is so good it will make you cry. Its given me those hiccups many times. And people would sit there and laugh at this Gringo hiccupping and weezing and crying tears of joy. It is so good. And thick too. Like a paste. Its an orange sauce and I think they use sour cream to make it thick and tangy. But dude, its soooo freaking good.

    Also, thought I should mention — I love your alliteration: “However, I’m no pepper pansy. I have annihilated anaheims, punished poblanos and pasillas, slaughtered serranos, and conquered cayennes. It was time to take the next step in my chili pepper war and humiliate habaneros.” Great paragraph!

    Keep writing dude … and get a job !!



  8. Not to brag, but I had the complete opposite of your farmer’s market experience this past weekend! I went to a farmer’s market on the way to the Outer Banks in NC, and it was amazing! My sister had to take a picture of me I was so happy. You could smell peaches when you walked in, the watermelon were perfect, the avocados were ripe, they even had kettle corn and fudge! And free samples! I spent like $40 and I’m not quite sure what I got 🙂
    Come to Virignia/North Carolina… we’ll share our farmer’s markets with you! 🙂


    1. That sounds wonderful! Especially the avocados. No matter how sunny and warm it gets here, our farmer’s markets never sell avocados because they don’t grow in this climate.


      1. …So now would probably be a bad time to mention that we are finishing up avocado season on Guam, and that the amount of fresh, ripe, deliciously satisfying avos on island is staggering…?


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