Humanity can fairly be divided into two camps: those who like spicy food and those who don’t. Hot sauce is the holy water of the former group, and recently the worship of hot sauce has morphed into a cult. The stuff itself isn’t addictive, but the experience seems to be. Capsaicin, the active substance that makes chili peppers hot, causes the body to release endorphins that create a pleasurable sensation, one that people want to replicate again and again.
Every aspect of this phenomenon is discussed in Hot Sauce Nation, by Denver Nicks (Chicago Review Press; paperback, $17.99). Nicks is a journalist who has written for numerous magazines and penned a book about national security. Perhaps as a nod to his obsession with capsaicin, and perhaps in search of a less weighty topic, he has turned his attention to hot sauce.
The book gets off to a slow start. There is a long introduction that attempts to analyze the human fascination with spice and the pain/pleasure continuum, and an even longer first chapter that details the history of the chili pepper. Once Nicks gets rolling, however, his style is interesting: Calvin Trillin meets Hunter S. Thompson, with some John McPhee thrown in for good measure.
Nicks isn’t content with focusing on icons such as Tabasco, Frank’s RedHot or Huy Fong Sriracha, although these brands are certainly covered in the book. He travels a great deal to hidden corners of the globe in search of artisanal hot sauce, and meets some characters along the way. He goes to Oaxaca to investigate the best versions of mole, which he describes as an early evolutionary ancestor of hot sauce. He traverses the Mississippi Delta in search of the most compelling hot tamales and their accompanying sauce, journeys to Houston for tacos and the chipotle chocolate pyramid of a famous confectioner, and attends the NYC Hot Sauce Expo and endures Voodoo Chile’s scorpion tincture, reputed to be the hottest sauce in the world. Of course, he makes a pilgrimage to Buffalo to probe the origin of that city’s famous wings.
He also tells some charming stories: tales of couples falling in love over hot sauce, yarns about how capsaicin turned poverty into riches. Ultimately, the book accomplishes its goal: it makes you want to go out and try some hot sauce and experience that endorphin rush firsthand.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History (Lyons Press, 2012) and Moonshine Nation (Lyons Press, 2014); his first novel, Friend of the Devil, is now available from Black Opal Books. For more information, go to amazon.com