Every morning at 7 o’clock , Dave DeWitt gulps down an extra-spicy virgin Bloody Mary, a fitting habit for one of the world’s leading experts on chile peppers and spicy foods. Chance started DeWitt (Col ’66) down his piquant path. Thirty-five years ago, he moved to New Mexico with no job or money, guided only by a deep affection for the state. He became a writer and found his muse in the New Mexico’s state vegetable—even though it’s technically a fruit—the chile pepper.
“You can’t write about New Mexico without writing about chile peppers,” DeWitt says of his adopted home state. “We grow more chile peppers commercially than all the other states combined.”
The chile pepper is deeply entwined with the state’s heritage. Many residents, DeWitt included, hang strings of dried red chile peppers on their porches for good luck. Certainly, chile peppers have been auspicious for DeWitt; what began as freelance work writing about travel and food has blossomed into a spicy foods empire. He launched Chile Pepper magazine in 1987, authored nearly 40 books about peppers and spicy foods and—with the help of several employees—runs the Fiery Foods and Barbeque SuperSite.
“There are worse things to be than a superstar in a very small niche,” DeWitt says, referring to his own fame. The SuperSite holds more than 600 articles—many written by DeWitt—and garners about 60,000 page views a day.
A popular section of the Web site is the “Ask Dave” page, where readers ask questions such as “How do I cool hot hands?” DeWitt’s answer: use poly gloves and scrub with hot water and vegetable oil.
One of DeWitt’s biggest myth-busting facts is that a person’s ability to withstand chile heat has little to do with general toughness and is instead dictated by genetic disposition. If you were born with a lot of capsaicin (the component of a pepper that transmits spiciness) receptors on your tongue, you’re more sensitive to the heat. If you were born with fewer, you are less sensitive and can enjoy hotter foods.
DeWitt and his team present annual Scovie Awards—named for Wilbur Scoville who pioneered a heat scale for spicy foods—to the top fiery foods, and also produce a major industry tradeshow. In 2009, DeWitt published two books, The Complete Chile Pepper Book and 1001 Hot and Spicy Recipes, and yet another book is slated for this fall. Thomas Jefferson and the Founding Foodies explores the evolution of American food and wine as supported by Jefferson and other colonialists. “The omniologist has been a nickname of mine in the past,” DeWitt says. “It [the Jefferson book] took three and a half years to finish, but was fascinating.”
DeWitt, who gets excited talking about everything from a visit to an Italian grower who is making his own habanero-infused olive oil to KFC’s new spicy wings advertising campaign, is a certified “chilehead.” He loves them unabashedly. DeWitt waxes nostalgically about the Bahamas, the first place he ever tried spicy foods, where the locals tried to “burn out the gringo” with a conch salad that was spiced with goat peppers. It was a failed prank, though, because it turned out DeWitt liked it.
“So I just write about what I really like,” DeWitt says. For those who might be less enthusiastic about chiles, he insists there are “a wide variety of heat levels and flavor profiles—not every pepper is going to kill you.” And while no one yet has described flavor profiles of chiles in the same way that sommeliers describe wine, Dewitt says “that day is coming.”
Lime Soup with Tortilla Strips and Chile
From The Complete Chile Pepper Book, by Dave DeWitt and Paul W. Bosland (Timber Press, 2009).
There are many variations of soup with tortillas throughout Mexico, and this is one that is popular in the Yucatán Peninsula. Chicken is commonly used, but you can substitute leftover turkey in this delicate soup. The Mexican limes that are used in the Yucatán Peninsula differ from the Persian limes that are common in the United States in that they are smaller, darker green and more tart. Although they are preferred, any lime can be substituted. Be sure to add the tortillas right before serving or they will become soggy.
- 3 corn tortillas, cut in strips
- Vegetable oil for frying
- 2 chicken breasts
- 1 small onion, chopped
- 2 cloves garlic, chopped
- 6 whole peppercorns
- 1 two-inch stick cinnamon
- 8 whole allspice berries
- 1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano, Mexican preferred
- 4 cups chicken broth
- 1 tomato, peeled and chopped
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 poblano or fresh green New Mexican chile, roasted, peeled, seeds and stem removed, cut in strips, or more to taste
- 4 lime slices for garnish
In a pan, fry the tortilla strips in 360 degree F. oil until crisp. Remove and drain.
Place the chicken, onion, garlic, peppercorns, cinnamon, allspice, oregano and broth in a pot. Bring to a boil and remove any foam that comes to the top. Reduce the heat and simmer, covered, for 30 minutes. Allow the chicken to cool in the stock.
Remove the chicken and remove the bones. Using two forks, shred the meat. Strain the broth and add enough water to make 1 quart of liquid.
Reheat the broth with the tomato, lime juice and chile. Add the chicken and simmer until the chicken is hot.
Place some of the tortilla strips in the bottom of a soup bowl, add the soup, garnish with a lime slice and cilantro and serve.
Yield: 4 to 6 servings
Heat Scale: Mild
Photo by Norman Johnson. Food Styling by Denice Skrepcinski.