From Seed to Scorch: Where Hot Sauce Begins

The balanced dance of heat and flavor starts at the start


It is a cold drizzly day at the Portland, Oregon farmers market. Maybe not the first place you’d think of capsicum developing inside hot peppers in the sun.

But a masked woman approaches and tells me that my sauces are the only thing bringing her happiness during these strange days. As she explains that she likes my Habanero Carrot Curry sauce—“it has heat AND flavor!” Her happiness has caused a chain reaction. My heart races and I want her to know that the joy she feels, the chain reaction started by the interplay of carrot and capsicum was brought about by the hard work of many, many people, not just me. I want to tell her about the people who help to carry on the history of hot peppers and preserve traditions. I want her to know about the seed savers, who collect pepper seeds to keep the culinary culture alive. I want her to know about the farmers who grow the produce for me each year. I want her to know about the food scientist who held my hand and heart as I got my product ready to launch. But, I am too late. The joy-sparked woman has moved on to the next stand, and I am left with my thoughts of just how many experts in their craft it takes to get to the balance that made her so happy.

I may not have been able to tell the market shopper all I wanted to tell her that day, but this is what I would have said. Starting with the fact that one bottle of sauce takes the heart and work and raw drive and devotion of many. I might have first introduced her to author and food historian Heather Arndt Anderson.

Poised elegantly at her vintage library table, surrounded by plant specimen posters, stacks of books, and little red hen memorabilia, Anderson has one foot in the past. In her book, Chillies: A Global History she explored the path peppers took in spreading throughout the world and all the various threads that are pulled once you look under the cap. She says, “Heat is tied to alimentary pedagogy. In cultures where chilis are part of the daily diet, even little kids eat chilis in food because they are expected to and are used to it.” She describes herself not as a heat-expert, but as a “dilettante” in the subject of chilis. She appreciates the heat chasers for how much their seeking has driven horticulture and science towards even hotter pepper strains. She is inspired by chilis from around the world, is an expert kimchi maker herself and encourages people to can and ferment their own foods, keeping these traditions literally alive. Each time a guest enters her house, she greets them with tiny tastes of her homemade kumquat vinegar, lovage syrup or quince liquors. In her food and recipe writing, she keeps things simple, and always encourages her readers to “make shit” and share it. You can find her in gardens, pinching off marigold heads and sneaking peppers dried from the sun into her purse. She is a collector of history—seeds included.

Image copyright © The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Image source: Art Resource, NY

Buena Mulata Pepper was the name handwritten on the baby food jar next to the name “Pippin” in the bottom of the deep freezer in William Woys Weaver’s grandmother’s basement, found a decade after his plant-loving grandfather’s untimely death. Horace Pippin was an artist who beautifully depicted everyday life, landscapes, and through whose hands many historical pepper seeds passed.

The Seed Keepers

A jovial man in a tank top wanders through a dense field, it is the end of summer and his skin is tanned from months of this work. Strikingly tall cayenne plants sway in the wind—the fruits have gone from purple to a glowing sunset-orange. The man knows this means they are ready for harvest—not to eat, but to extract the seeds of this rare Buena Mulata Pepper. He slices through the flesh and scrapes the seeds, careful not to drop even one. He will dry them in the warm sun and package each seed by hand. These historical heirloom peppers will continue to bring connection to the people of Baltimore (where these seeds were found hand-labeled in a freezer). Owen Taylor is the owner of Truelove Seeds, a group of farmers, who believe keeping seeds is an act of true love for our collective future. Their focus is seed collecting, and their passion is contagious. Not only do they hope to reintroduce seeds that have been lost, they also want to teach others how to collect and share the seeds of their ancestors. Owen is the host of the radio show called Seeds And Their People, a show that features seed stories told by people who (you’d never guess) really love seeds. Leading with love, these forward-thinking seed breeders are truly saving historical heat and flavors that may have otherwise been lost.

Each of the pepper seed varieties is rich with story.

Several years ago, Owen slipped some Fish Pepper seeds into the hands of his friend and hot sauce maker Xavier Brown, who used them to make Pippin Sauce. This sauce celebrates the union of cultural transmission and seed saving, and specifically, the seed-saving work that went into preserving these special Fish Pepper seeds. How so? Well, African American artist Horace Pippin passed the Fish Pepper seeds to Owen’s mentor’s grandfather, H. R. Weaver, who in turn left them (inadvertently) for his grandson William Woys Weaver to find years later in the deep freezer. Each of the pepper seed varieties is rich with story, and it is up to the growers and seed keepers to keep those stories alive, well and in circulation. Which means growing in the dirt and propagating to new places. Owen tells me, “Each of us is one step in an ancient journey of living culture through seed keeping.”

All the Capsaicin to Come

She puts her earbuds in and switches from an unsolved-murder podcast to Lizzo, maybe later she will put on The Rolling Stones, but for now, she needs some high energy tunes. Her cracked, soil-stained hands extend as she pulls the trellis line. She peers over the bulging tomatillo plants and smiles. As she harvests the ripe husk-blanketed beauties, she thinks of the Serrano Ginger Lemongrass sauce it will become. She has planted these many rows
of nightshades just for me. Nicki Passarella grows many varieties of Pacific Northwest greats at Amica, the farm she shares with her business partner and friend Irina Schabram. These two women are connected to many local Portland artisan food makers. Nicki met many of us when she worked at the Portland Farmers Market, and these vendors have now become her customers. She takes pride in seeding, planting, tending to and really loving on the crops. All this love and care will result in the ultimate harvest for her market customers. Nicki and Irina touch base with their customers in January when they are doing crop planning, asking about specific varieties, getting seed recommendations. With everyone planning their heat and flavor profiles for the season, and seeds going in the ground, it is an exciting time of year for everyone. The ladies grow a raw agricultural product that will only be touched by a few pairs of hands but distributed to many. “When I see a customer purchase the final product at the farmers market, I smile to myself, knowing all that it took to grow the pepper and tomato,” she says. “And that they get to receive all the effort and energy and love we put into growing food for them.” It’s a quiet appreciation, but one that makes all the long hard days worth it.

Cloaked in a white lab coat, Sarah Masoni, lead scientist at the Oregon State University Food Innovation Center, peers into a molten lava pot, full of steaming, bubbling berries. She is creating ideas for the Oregon berry commission. She will be testing endless recipes with precision and dedication to her craft, her clients’ success relies on her “million-dollar palate.” Today, her schedule is packed. But she’s working to nail this recipe before a multitude of meetings begin. She has been alone in the kitchen, save for the crooning voice of Dean Martin for company. She turns off the music, as her next client will take her full concentration. Being a food scientist is just as much about food safety and labeling as it is about social connections. “I need to hear my client’s story, and help them to tell it through their product,” she explains. She helps female food entrepreneurs tell these stories on a podcast we host together, “Masoni & Marshall: The Meaningful Marketplace.” Each of them has a story to tell, something that got them excited about and connected to what they create, and as she says, “I want to celebrate that passion.”

Her first meeting is with the family who makes Sao Noi chili oil. They are coming in for help extending the shelf life of their product. They want to make sure the silky oil stays fresh but continues to carry its heat from the fried chilis, and its flavor from the rich garlic and floral lemongrass. After that, she’ll spend time with Creole Me Up. The owner, Elsy Dinvil, wants her Haitian pickles to stay crisp, and she needs a little push to get her product out to market, this is her third visit to the innovation center. Masoni tells her it’s time—time to get out of her own way and get to market. She may not always know the history or background of the products coming in, but she knows what tastes good. She describes the energy that these food entrepreneurs have as intoxicating. She has helped so many sauce makers get to market—including me. In a straightforward manner, she says, “Heat has been a component of flavor forever, but in recent years heat has become its own component of food, where heat levels exceed flavors and the burn becomes the attraction.”

Heat has been a component of flavor forever, but in recent years heat has become its own component of food.

“I really think of chilis and heat as a third dimension to salt and pepper—something to help draw out the flavor in food,” says Thomas Kelly, founder of The Chili Lab and publisher of The Chili Pepper Field Guide. “If you’re blasting someone’s palate with heat it’s not going to help.”

My connection to sauce-making came from honoring my family’s history and passion for growing gardens and canning. I was taught to be mindful of food, to acknowledge the hands that helped bring it to us, and to seek out a continued connection to the seasons by putting food up. When the woman at the market approached me to tell me about my sauce, I desperately wanted to introduce her to Virginia Herrera, owner of Eloisa Organic Farm, and tell her the reason my sauces are making her taste buds sing is because Virginia is an experienced farmer who came here from Oaxaca and that her consistent growing conditions are why the sauces have so much heat and flavor. What I am looking for when I am writing recipes and cooking up sauces is a joyful experience,  aiming to honor the connection to my current time and place and have it carry forward. I wander through the market thinking about ingredients that will complement each other, but my bottles of sauce are also telling the stories of what is going on at that specific time and place in Oregon agriculture. Each individual farm has a different seed, different environment, different product and the beauty of bringing these all together is what I want to share with people. When I see someone taste something I have made, and their eyes light up, and their skin begins to sparkle, and they do this tiny little hot sauce shuffle, my blood bubbles with joy. If I can bring them the sense of ecstasy that comes with a connection to real food, I have done my job.

Sarah Marshall started Marshall’s Haute Sauce from her home kitchen.