Natural Perspectives: Things get hot at tomato and pepper sale

I went to the 2012 Monster Tomato and Pepper sale at the Fullerton Arboretum on March 16.

The event featured seedlings of more than 250 varieties of tomatoes and about 200 varieties of peppers. They were grown by volunteers and offered for sale at $3.50 for a four-inch pot as a fundraiser for the arboretum.

The weather was cold and overcast. Vic declined to go, so I went with my friend Larry Rolewic. Vic was kind enough to print out an inventory of seedlings for us. And I'm sure that he'll be happy to eat any peppers or tomatoes that Larry and I grow. But Vic has little interest in the process that comes before the cooking and eating stage. He leaves the planting, tending and harvesting to me.

I was fascinated by all of the different tomato varieties that were offered. But Larry was after the hottest chile peppers he could find. He and Vic will have fun watching tears run down each other's faces when they attempt to choke down those really hot chiles. I guess it's a guy thing. I don't like food that tries to kill me.

Larry was excited because a chile has been found that has broken the hotness record of habanero chiles. The Bhut Jolokia is 10 times hotter than a habanero. And that's what he wanted.

Chiles are rated by their hotness on the Scoville scale, which was developed by chemist Wilbur L. Scoville in 1912. He diluted solutions of chile peppers with sugar water until a panel of taste testers couldn't taste the heat any more. A rating of 100 means that it has been diluted by a factor of 100 to get it to the point where someone can't feel the heat.

There is an enormous range of hotness in peppers.

For example, a sweet bell pepper has a Scoville rating of 0. Pimentos and pepperoncinis (sweet Italian peppers) are fairly mild with ratings of 100-500 Scoville units. Cubanelle peppers range between 100 and 1,000.

The reason why there is such variation within a given variety is that different peppers of the same variety pack different amounts of heat depending on how they were grown.

Anaheim peppers, the ones that are used in those cans of diced green chiles, range from 500 to 2,500 Scoville units. Poblano and ancho peppers range from 1,000 to 2,000 Scoville units. Poblano peppers are often used to make chile rellenos, those lovely egg-batter-dipped, cheese-stuffed peppers with a lovely enchilada sauce on top. The milder forms of these peppers are at my limit of heat tolerance.

I can't even think about eating a jalapeno at 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units. But they don't faze Larry or Vic. I'm pretty sure that this establishes me as a culinary wuss in the world of pepper eaters.

Serrano peppers are highly variable in their hotness, with a range of 6,000 to a tongue-blistering 23,000 Scoville units. The Tabasco pepper, from which Tabasco sauce is made, ranges from 30,000 to 50,000 Scoville units.

And then we get to the habanero pepper. It was the previous record holder for hot peppers with a scorching rank of 100,000 to 350,000 Scoville units.

But recently, a new variety of pepper was tested, and it blew the habanero out of the water. The Bhut Jolokia has a Scoville rating of a cool million. Or is that a hot million? That is ten times hotter than a habanero. If you look above the rating of the Bhut Jolokia, you'll find that you're into the range of pepper sprays that are used by the police for riot control.

When Larry bought his Bhut Jolokia pepper plant, he was warned to not handle the pepper fruits without gloves and goggles. Why would anyone in their right mind put something like that into their mouth? Like I said, it must be a guy thing.

I passed right over all those hot peppers, and bought three quite tame sweet bell pepper plants. Mostly I shopped for tomatoes.

I bypassed the Big Boy, Better Boy and Early Girls. I can get those hybrids anywhere. Instead, I searched for unusual heirlooms that I might not be able to find at local nursery centers.

The tomatoes were grouped by type: beefsteak, cherry, ox-heart, paste, saladette and slicer. Before this sale, I didn't know that there were that many tomato types. I only knew of beefsteak, cherry and paste.

To expand my horizon, I bought an ox-heart tomato called Bull's Heart. It is an heirloom from Russia that produces two-pound pink tomatoes.

For beefsteak tomatoes, I bought a German Johnson that is supposed to have good yields of pinkish red and one pound of fruit with excellent flavor. I also got a Sudduth's Brandywine, an Amish heirloom that produces two pounds of fruit with legendary flavor.

It's supposed to be the best of the Brandywines. I've grown regular Brandywines, and can attest to their remarkable flavor.

I'm partial to the flavor of black tomatoes, and bought several varieties of those. I couldn't pass up the one named Brad's Black Heart. It is supposed to make exceptional fruits with sweet, complex flavors.

I will also plant two of my favorite black tomatoes, Black Krim and Black Prince. I bought a Black Mammoth, but it promptly perished of a fungus disease called damping off. I think Sunday's rainstorm did it in.

I want to try making sun-dried tomatoes this summer, so I bought several varieties of paste tomato, including Amish paste, Black Plum and Super Marzano. The latter is a hybrid that is supposed to be one of the finest paste tomatoes available. It will be interesting to see how these varieties compare in flavor and yield to the Roma paste tomatoes that I usually plant.

My arms were full and I needed to save room in the garden for some favorite varieties that I also would be planting. I had to pass up tomatoes with such great names as Box Car Willie and Royal Hillbilly. There was also no room for the Giant Belgium, which supposedly makes five-pound tomatoes. Ah well, next year.

This is just one of the reasons why people garden: to grow amazing varieties that they can't find at the grocery store.

VIC LEIPZIG and LOU MURRAY are Huntington Beach residents and environmentalists. They can be reached at LmurrayPhD@gmail.com.

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