ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — "OOOOOAAAAAWWWWWWOOOOO . . . . "
The Hon. Ormly Gumfudgin cut short his discourse on why chili con carne should be declared the country's national dish and cocked his head to listen as the yahoos back at the Coyote Tequila booth began another spirited round of community howling. Gumfudgin, the historian of the International Chili Society, leaned forward on his ornate cane, stroked his long gray beard and said conspiratorially, "You know, some of these people here are just a bit extreme."
Now in some circles a Grizzly Adams look-alike in a top hat, pink-ruffled tuxedo shirt, pink satin jacket and a bottle of pink Pepto Bismol in a gunslinger's holster might be considered a bit extreme himself. But here in Albuquerque at Meltdown, the Third National Fiery Foods Show, Gumfudgin, a con carne man who doesn't care much for super-hot peppers in his bowl of red, is squarely in the moderate camp. "Hotter is not better," he says with finality. "You've gotta have just enough heat to open the sinuses."
Many of the 4,000 chile-pepper aficionados and suppliers who came from across the country to attend the three-day carnival of fire at the Albuquerque Convention Center in February would beg to differ with Gumfudgin.
For the exhibitors hawking everything from exotic Caribbean hot sauces and pepper seeds to Texas-shaped tortilla chips and jalapeno brittle candy, the annual gathering is a showcase for the nation's burgeoning $2 billion hot-food industry. And for the true believers, Meltdown is the culinary equivalent of a trip to Mecca--the ultimate stop in the never-ending quest for fire.
Here, in one hanger-sized room, the combined aroma of 200 mini-crock pots, Sterno heaters and electric grills sizzling with samples of the most pungent, tongue-searing food in the world could either be likened to heaven on earth or, for the faint of heart, just the opposite.
Three years ago, the first Meltdown convention, started by David DeWitt in El Paso, consisted of 34 exhibitors. Last year's show, at an Albuquerque Holiday Inn, drew twice as many. This year's 100-plus vendors came from as far afield as Florida, Michigan and Rhode Island.
Over at Hotsicle Enterprises, Al Billie Timins of La Crescenta, Calif., a seasoned veteran of 14 years on the chili- con-carne cook-off circuit, was trying--mostly in vain--to entice passers-by with Chili-on-a-Stick, which he modestly calls "the next great alternative to the hot dog."
Two booths down Fire Alley, all five members of the Hamilton family of Los Angeles (Francis, his wife Maureen and their three young sons) were doing land-office business, plying browsers with samples of Jamaican delicacies. The languid strains of reggae music emanated from a boom box on a folding chair behind them.
No. 1 son Andre, a soft-spoken 16-year-old, explained that the family company, Island Imports, began selling Evadney's All-Purpose Jamaican Hot Sauce to small Caribbean markets and gourmet shops in the Los Angeles Basin three years ago. Francis (who comes from Belize) and his wife (who hails from Jamaica) were both raised on hearty, piquant fare, and they go to pains to stress to each purchaser that the Jamaican Scotch Bonnet peppers, from which the sauce is derived, are much more concentrated than domestic red peppers. In this crowd, nobody seems to bat an eyelash as tray after tray of barbecued Jamaican finger-foods is devoured within minutes.
Ten Speed Press of Berkeley had some of the hottest items--and they weren't food. Mark Miller's "Coyote Cafe" cookbook (the guru of Southwestern cuisine was signing copies at the show) and a stunning set of chile posters were among the best-selling items at the convention. (Overall, the small press has sold more than 14,000 posters at $15 retail in the last few months.)
Shepherd's Garden Seeds from Felton, Calif., was another non-food booth peppered with a constant stream of inquiries. Renee Shepherd spent most of the weekend patiently assuring customers that chiles can grow well--albeit not as hot--in cooler, non-tropical climates. She said her products have been grown successfully by amateur growers from Hong Kong to Vermont. Shepherd said sales of pepper seeds have increased sixfold during the past three years, with California and New York being the firm's two biggest-selling states.
If there is a Johnny Appleseed of the hot-pepper movement, it would be Dr. Paul Bosland, one of 20 faculty members at the New Mexico State University Department of Agronomy and Horticulture who devote their energies to building a better pepper. Bosland's biggest project, the proposed Chile Institute, would act as a clearinghouse for research into the fiery fruits and a promoter of bio-diversity within the Capsicum genus of plants.