Out in front of the Eidson home there's a fire hydrant. The symbolism seems almost too obvious, but there it is: a fire hydrant in front of the world headquarters of hot.
From this plain old house on a sleepy San Luis Obispo side street, Tim and Wendy Eidson (pronounced like Edison, but without the "i") run Mo Hotta Mo Betta, a mail-order business specializing in spicy foods. Their catalogue lists 250 items, not only hot sauces and curry makings but wasabi chips, jalapeno ketchup, peppered peanut butter and chile-spiked honey. The catalogue opens with two pages of sauces made from the habanero or Scotch bonnet pepper, which American chile fanatics currently applaud as the hottest in the world.
"That's not true, of course," Tim Eidson says, keeping an eye on a plump, jolly baby Eidson--not yet a chile-eater--who is crawling across the living room rug. "Jean Anderson (author of "Peppers: The Domesticated Capsicums") has told me South American peppers such as the rocotillo pepper are hotter."
Two years after the first Mo Hotta Mo Betta appeared, the Eidsons have customers in 49 states. "I don't know why none of the people in South Dakota who order our catalogues never buy anything," Tim says. "But somehow I prefer to be able to say 'customers in 49 states.' "
The reason for their success is probably that the catalogue emphasizes the rare and hard-to-find. For instance, the Eidsons don't bother to sell the Bufalo brand red sauce because it's widely sold in California, but they do carry a less familiar chipotle pepper sauce made by the same Mexican firm. Of course, what's widely available in California isn't necessarily available elsewhere. Mo Hotta's biggest market outside California is Chicago.
As to how the Eidsons got into this business--and into San Luis Obispo, of all places--the beach seems to be part of the answer. Tim went to college in Santa Barbara and lived in various beach towns while working in the clothing and book trades in the late '70s and early '80s. In 1985 he took a vacation in the South Pacific; on Raratonga he met Wendy, who had been in the film industry in Toronto. The very name Mo Hotta Mo Betta is Hawaiian beach-boy lingo for "the hotter the better."
After they got married, the Eidsons decided to settle in a small town on or near the California coast, and a swift perusal of property values led them to San Luis Obispo. The obvious way to make a living there seemed to be opening a mail-order business, and the pepper-loving Eidsons noticed that nobody had thought of addressing the very specific, and astonishingly large, market for spicy foods.
That market proved to be even larger than they expected. With 250 items in the catalogue, they're still looking for more, specifically from Asian sources. But even with 250 items, they've rejected a lot of potential hot pepper foods.
"There are some products that have nothing to recommend them but hotness," says Tim. "Of course, there are also people who eat hot peppers just because they're an ordeal. I always think of this one kid who asked me for a sample of my very hottest and took a mouthful and stood there sweating, but had to say it wasn't hot at all. Just suffering and denying it. Personally, I eat a lot of hot things, and I think it's crazy to eat peppers without enjoying them."
The current Mo Hotta Mo Betta offices and warehouse--the Eidsons' garage, though they are about to rent a real warehouse--are, coincidentally, about two blocks from Higuera Street, which is blocked off every Thursday evening for San Luis Opispo's famous barbecue binge. Flatbed trailers customized as mobile barbecue pits roll up and fill the air with smoke and the aroma of roasting meat. All San Luis Obispo throngs barbecue row.
It's tempting to take half a dozen hot sauces along to up the amperage of the barbecuers' own sauces, but it exposes you to the risk of bottle breakage and social disapprobation from the barefooted. One sauce is probably the right number.
Scientific research has shown, however, that it's a mistake to carry an open jar of habanero pepper flakes, particularly when there's a wind. Get one of those flakes in your eye and you'll be sorry for a long six minutes.
To show the variety of hot sauces in the Mo Hotta Mo Betta catalogue, here are tasting notes on a dozen, arranged roughly in ascending order of hotness:
Lingham & Son Chilly sauce: Malaysian-style sauce, sweet and sneakily hot. Fine chile aroma.
Pickapeppa Hot Pepper Sauce: aged three years in wood, consequently not always available. Mellowly vinegary, medium hot. (It shares its rich, fruity bouquet, largely due to the use of rum vinegar, with the better-known and not particularly hot Pickapeppa Sauce, which somewhat resembles A-1 Sauce.)
Hawaiian Passion: made with lilikoi (passion fruit); a clean, hot burn.