ride the wild capsaicin

Sensuous in diverse ways—curve, color, texture—a cayenne chili saves its best show for the exquisitely sensitive membranes that line your mouth. Mince a teaspoon and drop it in a marinara made from fresh heirloom tomatoes. Sit back and let capsaicin light a slow blaze over your tongue and down your throat.  

Capsaicin is a cyclic amide, chemically C18 H27 NO3. The heat is its adaptive strategy, a secondary product of its metabolism that is meant to deter any creature meaning to consume it—and the great irony is that chiliheads have come to love it for this very reason. We court that intended pain, and as the complex alchemic transmutation of chili-becomes-flavor, our senses make of it a hot pleasure.

We have two bushy garden plants densely hung with Red Cap Mushroom chilis, just a few starting to blush orange. Those beauties, looking like a Liliputian's stomped-on fedora, pack a much greater fire than the cayenne, but the cayenne is no imposter. Only certain kinds of people would be willing to chew up the one shown above, which to my mind would be showing off and, worse yet, the waste of a good cayenne.

And this, folks, is indeed a good cayenne chili.

Noon sun turns the flesh such a robust red hue, it makes your retina fairly tingle. I just measured it and even with the graceful arc of stem and tail, it's 12 inches long. I've been growing different varieties of this pepper for more than two decades and while I've had many fine and handsome fruits, this is the champion—Joe's Long Red Cayenne from Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. I've mentioned this place before, and will again. The chili is heirloom; it will return from seed, true to variety, as long as I care to tend it.

A makeshift ristra of 20 chilis just like this one is hung and drying on an old mandolin string (a D string, in case you're wondering) in my cool, dry basement. Several plants in the garden hold yet twice that many, still to ripen in the coming weeks.

Once they're fully dried, I'll snap off the stem crowns, pour out and save the seeds, and then pulverize the crisp casings into powder. That will provide our house with plenty for sprinkling into many different dishes in the coming year. We use it sparingly, often to replace ground black pepper in a recipe--a little easier on the body to digest, and certainly more sparky on the palate, complementing a wider variety of foods than you'd expect.

I'll clearly have enough ground cayenne to fill a few spice jars for friends—that and a bottle of homemade cranberry liqueur will make fine Yuletide presents for the discerning foodies on our list. For those with gardens, we'll throw in a small packet of cayenne seeds.

Tonight, we're perched on the last few hours of the last day of August, and the view is fine. The crickets are mad loud in the weeds out back, frantic to hook up on a hot night. Mid-day heat today ran up around 95, with moderate humidity and a passing shower that briefly glazed the greenery of the garden. The predawn dark will no doubt carry a subtle chill just a shade deeper than it did even a few nights ago. All of this is a continuum of signals to a garden.

And that garden is a heavily laden, verdant web. Strong branches and vines of many kinds bear one of the best harvests in recent years here. Mortgage Lifter tomatoes, some up to 2.5 lbs., hang in pairs off a single stocky branch—that's five pounds of near-ripe tomato meat on one paired stem, on a plant with multiple such stems. These tomatoes blow your mind—big as your splayed hand, their dense, rich flavors range from sugary to pungent to wine-like. I slice them thick as my pinky finger, sprinkle them with sea salt, lay thin-carved sheets of fresh mozzarella atop them, and rough-tear and sprinkle leaves of fresh basil over it all. That's a main dish for a supper; prepare as many as needed for your gathering in a matter of minutes.

Speaking of which, this weekend, some good friends will gather at our house for a special meal. These are among the smartest, funniest, most creative people I know—essayists, novelists, poets, and partners who are attorneys and computer programmers and teachers. All of us read, voraciously, and love to talk books and art. We gather in a pattern roughly alinged to be once per season of the year. Exceptional dishes crowd the table, exceptional wine fills the glasses, laughter wells up amid the amazing conversation, and somewhere the dust that was Epicurus glows a bit.

This time around, in celebration of late summer in a Colorado garden, one thing is for sure—that all of us will ride the wild capsaicin.