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Folks Have Fever for Fiery Foods

March 7, 1998

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) _ The way the Pope of Peppers sees things, once you’ve had hot and spicy you’ll never go back to bland.

From cheesecake to chicken sauces the chili pepper is cropping up in a surprising number of cuisines, said Fiery Foods Magazine publisher Dave DeWitt, otherwise known as the Pope of Peppers.

``It looks a lot like a fad because of the crazy names of the products. However, in reality hot and spicy is the biggest trend in the country,″ DeWitt said.

Put plainly: spicy food is hot.

Bad Girls in Heat, Hot n’ Bottled, Instant Inferno and Black Widow pepper pasta sauce are among the peculiar pepper-packed products at this year’s Fiery Foods convention that opened here Friday.

``Virtually any kind of food you can think of has chili peppers in it,″ DeWitt said.

The Fiery Foods fiesta _ whose predominant decorating color was, of course, red _ resembled a circus with 260 vendors, many of them small mom-and-pop businesses, and some booths decorated with skeletons, sirens and the like.

Vendors had chocolates, jellies, pistachios, mustards, olives and sardines available with that characteristic slow burn.

But cheesecake?

Todd Guiton of The Peppered Palette reasoned that desserts had been forgotten in the fiery foods fever. So he went to the kitchen and whipped up the cheesecake. After starting business in August 1996, he anticipates sales of about $100,000 this year.

``This stuff is to die for,″ said Vicky Schwartz, an exhibitor at the convention who says she’s hooked on the sweet and heat combination.

Then there’s hot toppings for cool treats.

The idea for Toad Sweat Desert Hot Sauce, an ice cream topping, was born after people tasted a partially thawed cheesecake on a summer day, Guiton said.

It’s enough to make your eyes water.

As Indian, Caribbean, Chinese, Mexican and other ethnic restaurants grow in popularity, people are starting to enjoy spicy foods, DeWitt said.

Still, the Southwest remains the leading spicy food capital.

New Mexico, where it’s considered rude to order food with chilies only on the side, sells the most hot peppers in the country, more all the other states combined despite its small population, said DeWitt.

``The American palate is changing dramatically,″ said Debbie Sussex of Van Nuys, Calif.-based Peppertown USA.

People also are turning more and more to spicy foods to jazz up bland low-fat foods, said Dianne Harris of Dallas-based Hot Sauce Harry’s.

The habanero pepper, the hottest in the world, dramatically changed Gil’s Gourmet Gallery of Sands City, Calif.

The business’ Crying Tongue bagel chips is the hottest item right now among the 50 products it sells, said owner Gil Tortolani. ``It really lives up to its name,″ he said.

While many jellies, sauces and salad dressings are fairly tame, products such as Brain Damage-Mind Blowin’ Hot Sauce and D.O.A. Cyanide Hot Sauce are just for the brave.

While Tortolani sees the pepper-related industry swinging from extreme heat back to a more moderate flavor, he believes hot and spicy will continue to grow.

His assessment:

``America’s taste buds are heated up.″

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