Hot Sauce Marketing Is So Aggro, But the Community Behind It Is Surprisingly Sweet
A couple apartments ago, I found a vial of Kiss The Devil Spray among the condiments that a roommate had left behind upon moving out. Kiss The Devil Spray checks all the boxes, hot-sauce-branding-wise: scarlet font, leering devil on the label to suggest sinfulness, an explicit warning never to spray the stuff in your eye or nose. Curious, I unscrewed the top, dabbed a couple drops onto my tongue, and zipped pell-mell around my kitchen for the next 30 straight minutes, gobbling milk, maple syrup, water, anything I could think of that might smother the fire.
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Had I consulted a community of chiliheads, I might have fared differently that day. One of these hot pepper enthusiasts might have pointed out that Kiss The Devil is crammed with 1,500,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU), the metric used to measure one pepper's heat against the next. (For reference, the peppers used in Tabasco sauce clock in at no higher than 50,000.) A wise Redditor might have noted that Kiss The Devil's primary use is not seasoning food, but boosting a gym-goer's endorphins just before exercising. Perhaps I would have been directed to an expectations-managing episode of Hot Ones, a series where celebrities attempt to answer interview questions while eating searing hot wings. I knew nothing of the show at the time, but even I, an avowed non-chilihead, would have been charmed by segments like the one in which Gabrielle Union coughs and sputters her exceedingly Scovilled way through an anecdote about watching The Golden Girls with DMX in his trailer.
Then again, I might not have meshed well with the chiliheads at all. The subreddit r/spicy does offer tantalizing photos of chile-heavy dinners and helpful reviews of various hot sauce subscription boxes. But I, as someone who merely enjoys spicy food and does not proselytize it as the one true gospel, would read as a hopeless dilettante.
I like the taste of spicy food, but most of my personality derives from metrics that don't appear on the Scoville scale. Spiciness is one minor way in which food can be exciting, neither the only one nor the most important. I don't think the heat of one's food says anything about one's mettle or toughness or—oddest of all—one's masculinity. And yet, do a quick Twitter search for "real men eat spicy food" and you'll see how many people have felt the opposite way over the years.
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The establishment of one's masculine bona fides wasn't always a common approach towards spicy food, but then, heat wasn't always a common element of white Americans' diets. Until the second half of the 20th century, many white Americans were suspicious of lively-tasting food, believing it to be a mark of dangerous subversiveness. This applied to anything pickled, garlicky, or spicy, as WASPs were uneasy with the Jewish, Italian, and Mexican people who favored those tastes. Maybe if they'd been enjoying spicy food en masse that whole time, they would've become annoying about it much earlier than they did. It is, after all, quite American to fall in love with an unfamiliar taste and immediately establish it as a ubiquitous feature of white Americans' identities—just look at what America did to turmeric and sriracha.
Lauren Collins' 2013 New Yorker piece "On Fire-Eaters" offers a detailed profile of some early chiliheads. Most pepper hobbyists are American, British, and Australian men who both grow and consume chile peppers in massive quantities, harvesting them for use in the planet's hottest hot sauces. Theirs is a Guinness Book of World Records-like approach, one which seeks to establish the hottest peppers that can only be eaten in the most minute quantities. Everyone is fluent in SHU counts. Almost a decade has passed since that profile, and the meme that hot sauce has become has only intensified.
Regardless of the meme's historic origins, it's gone too far. I spent some time on Heatonist, a hub for all things hot sauce—it sells over 150 varieties of small batch hot sauces by the bottle and offers a monthly subscription box in conjunction with its beloved Hot Ones series. Wanting to think like a chilihead, I skipped the store's Mild and Medium sections for the moment, heading straight for Hottest Hot Sauces.
Looking at so many different mega-hot sauces together was revealing. Their branding doesn't trouble itself with questions of what's tastiest. Products are described less in terms of flavor profiles than heat profiles—where the sauce's heat hits on your tongue, how long you can expect your eyes to well and your pores to sweat. These sauces taunt and jeer, daring an intrepid adventurer to try and eat them. References to severe gastric distress (Puckerbutt Pepper Co, Burn After Eating) are common. So are logos like Da Bomb's nuclear warhead and the striking snake on Hot Ones' own The Constrictor. Overall, a person could be forgiven for assuming that these are not the names of humble condiments, but rather rare poisons designed to inflict agony on one's enemies.
Not all the products on offer at Heatonist are so aggressive. In the store's Mild Hot Sauces section, snakes and warfare give way to comparably meek images of flames and peppers. Descriptions include references to everyday flavors and even recipe recommendations. But Hottest Hot Sauces boasts several products that can't even be consumed like regular condiments; if you slather The Last Dab's Apollo sauce (Heatonist heat rating: 11/10) on your hash browns like it's Tabasco, you'll puke. The hotter the sauce, the more triple-dog-dares one is obliged to swallow alongside it.
These are not condiments designed for people who simply like a kick in their food. These people are on a mission. Reviewers on Heatonist often refer to this or that sauce as the hottest, the hottest, always with a note of pride. Some reviews affectionately reference friends for whom a sauce was inedible. The idea is never merely to find a tasty hot sauce that will play well at a barbecue. The community appreciates a range of tastes and flavors, but heat is what they're there for, and what matters most. Reviews still make sense if you replace "hottest hot sauce" with "Holy Grail."
The humor is not lost on Heatonist founder Noah Chaimberg, who spoke to me about the way pain and masochism inform hot sauce's branding. "I think it comes in part from a sense of playfulness that's inherent to hot sauce," he says of the jokingly dramatic names that populate Heatonist's store. "We're taking something that physically hurts us and eating it for fun—you've got to see the humor in that. The illusion of peril is part of what we love about hot sauce."
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Artisanal hot sauces appeal to a few distinctly American preoccupations about food. One, provenance: the peppers that form the bases of these sauces are often bred for that purpose alone by chile enthusiasts. This appeals to the American romance surrounding small farmers and producers, as well as our consumerist need for unusual purchases that make us feel special. Two, grit: by eating super-extra-spicy hot sauces with ease, preferably for an audience, we can prove our lack of candy-assedness in a way that costs little effort. Savvy sauce makers see this manifestation of our need for approval, and cater to it by cultivating their "not your momma's hot sauce" aesthetic with as many skulls-and-crossbones and winking references to death as will fit on a single bottle. Finally, statistics: the question of which hot sauce tastes best is impossible to answer objectively, but the question of which is hottest is backed up by SHU measurements. Even if you trust neither a Scoville measurement nor a Guinness entry, you have to admit that the very ability to consult these metrics is comforting in its way.
Plus it's fun. Fun to eat, fun to watch others eat. There's a reason Hot Ones is so popular. "What could be better than seeing someone famous for their composure or beauty turn into a snotting, hiccoughing mess?" Chaimberg asks rhetorically. "But the real beauty is the way that the sauce creates this distracting fear for the guests, which encourages vulnerability in their answers." It's true; a person undergoing controlled but visible stress is a fascinating figure. The thrill of watching Hot Ones is not entirely unlike the now-extinct thrill of observing a penitent in the stocks.
What's interesting about heat as a hobby is that, by and large, this devotion to the study of peppers and Scovilles and whatnot doesn't make for a better hot sauce. A more elaborate one, certainly; a more enjoyable product to purchase, sure. (Who wouldn't rather support an eccentric chile farmer than a faceless multinational conglomerate?) I spoke to Boon Sauce's founder Max Boonthanakit, whose Batch 24 chile oil has rapidly become my best-loved kitchen product, and he seemed as good-naturedly bemused as I feel.
"We wanted the sauce to speak for itself," he said of Boon Sauce's straightforward packaging—no skulls and crossbones, no phone numbers for the Poison Control Center, just a list of the ingredients the sauce comprises. "We wanted to keep it lighthearted and direct people's focus to the flavor. We see Boon Sauce as a flavor enhancer that happens to have a nice kick, compared to hot sauces that focus on the heat."
Arguably, Boonthanakit is playing a completely different game than, say, Guinness World Record-holding chile breeder Smokin' Ed Currie, whose famed superhot peppers appear in nearly all the Hottest Hot Sauces on Heatonist. (One could say that Currie is to chiliheads what Elon Musk is to tech nerds.) Then again, maybe that's the point, because the condiments actually aren't so different. One is many times hotter, the other is subtler and more flexible to cook with. Still, at the end of the day, it's chiles, spices, and a base to hold it all together. Where the products differ most pointedly is less in their composition than in their marketing.
If the odd little world of hot sauce has any inarguable benefit, it's the community. I can't think of another food micro-community that's as devoted to its own small scale and farmer friendliness, which in this age of the artisanal is no small claim. "All of the small-batch makers we work with were cooking for fun before they turned their passion into a business," Chaimberg says, an assertion which is borne out by the posts in r/spicy—lots of mad scientists tinkering with their hot sauce recipes at home. The products and the hang-ups about masculinity that some consumers use those products to work through may not be for me. But the world of chiliheadism seems to be a warm, encouraging place overall.
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