Turning up the heat:
'Pope of Peppers' creates
latest tome to all things hot
Dave DeWitt and fiery foods are synonymous -- after
all, he isn't dubbed "The Pope of Peppers"
for mere comedic relief.
DeWitt, in Chicago to turn up the heat on sales
of The Spicy Food Lover's Bible (Stewart, Tabori
& Chang, $29.95), his latest venture with Nancy
Gerlach, eliminates all of Emeril Lagasse's "Bam!
Bam!" and "Turn it up a notch" lingo,
but there's no doubt DeWitt knows his subject. He
is a spice historian.
Attired in one of his eight chile pepper-themed
shirts ("I don't know whether they are costumes
or uniforms"), DeWitt confides he wears the
signature shirts so people will say, "That's
gotta be the guy!" The shirts will do, he insists
-- with a humor as dry as his spicy rubs -- until
he has a chile pepper tattooed on his bald head.
The publisher of Fiery-Foods & BBQ magazine
and the founder of www.fiery-foods.com glances across
his Sofitel Chicago hotel room awaiting the anticipated
"I-don't-think-so" reaction from Mary
Jane Wilan, his wife of 20 years.
The Spicy Food Lover's Bible serves as DeWitt's
crash course in Spices of the World 101 -- everything
from how to buy, grow, store and use a wide variety
of flavor enhancers from horseradish to habaneros,
wasabi to white pepper, and ginger to garam masala.
Gerlach, who teamed with DeWitt on The Whole Chile
Pepper Book and eight other cookbooks, uses spices
galore in the 250 recipes she created and tested
for Bible. DeWitt's favorite Bible recipes are Korean-Style
Fajitas and Fresh Margarita Strawberries with Tequila
and Cracked Black Peppercorns. "They're outstanding,"
DeWitt and Gerlach prefer spiciness in the medium
to medium-hot heat range and caution those who have
milder taste buds to simply use fewer pungent spices
in recipes. "Taste as you go -- know what hot
means to your taste buds" is DeWitt's recommendation,
adding that it is easy to add more spices but nearly
impossible to remove the hot stuff and problematic
to try to dilute dishes.
"People aren't afraid of spices anymore,"
says DeWitt, citing the trends of natural, vegetarian,
low-fat and no-salt foods as other reasons for the
increased popularity of spicy foods. "You can
pick your own heat scale and flavor components --
it's going beyond but not forgetting black pepper,
ginger, wasabi and horseradish."
"Speaking of wasabi," DeWitt interjects,
"did you realize that when you go to your favorite
sushi restaurant or market that 99 percent of the
green paste you are being served is imitation wasabi,
made from horseradish, Chinese mustard, cornstarch
and green food coloring?" He follows with a
mini-lesson: Real wasabi is a rare and expensive
delicacy confined mostly to Japan and New Zealand
though, even in Japan, only 5 percent of sushi shops
can afford to use fresh wasabi. Recently, Pacific
Farms in Oregon began growing and selling wasabi
($25 for six 43-gram tubes).
DeWitt, a native of Virginia, says his mother's
spicy, "but pretty tame" spaghetti sauce
was the extent of his knowledge of spicy before
falling in love with the food and culture of New
Mexico in 1974. By 1984, he and Gerlach had co-authored
The Fiery Cuisines.
Now the 61-year-old considers himself an expert
griller and smoker -- leaving "the inside kitchen
stuff" to his wife. DeWitt uses rubs (dry spice
mixtures) on his favorite brisket, salmon and pork
chops. Non-snobbish DeWitt doesn't rely solely on
hand-concocted rubs; his favorite commercial rub, hands-down, is Knox's Spice
Company Chipotle B-B-Q Dry Rub made in Chicago.
For ingredients for Bible recipes, DeWitt recommends
Tom and Patty Erd's The Spice House on Wells Street
in Old Town.
The spice guru reminds that it's important that
rubs be made from the freshest possible ingredients,
"not the ground oregano that's been in your
cupboard since 1986." He explains that older
spices and herbs oxidize, or turn rancid, and either
lose or gain flavor. DeWitt suggests buying spices
such as mustard, black pepper, cumin and coriander
in their whole form, and then grinding them in a
spice mill, coffee grinder or a mortar and pestle
to make the rubs. Rubs do not store well -- leftovers
should be placed in a small jar with a tight seal
and placed in a cool, dry cupboard or in the freezer.
For cooling down between bites of spicy foods,
DeWitt suggests palate cleansers including sliced
fruits such as mango, peach, plum, pineapple and
papaya; pickled vegetables such as eggplant, cauliflower,
carrots and cucumbers; cheese wedges; grated coconut;
high-quality olives; chutneys and relishes; breads,
flavored tortillas and crackers, and sorbets.
For the perfect finish for a fiery feast, DeWitt
debunks ice water ("as soon as the water leaves
the mouth, the fire rages on"), hot tea ("there
is no logical reason for it to work since it's 99
percent water") and lemon juice ("we can't
picture our guests sitting around the table sucking
on lemons"). He favors Scotch on the rocks,
reasoning "Well, if you drink enough of it,
you soon won't care about cooling down!"
Returning to his serious side, DeWitt says that
dairy products, particularly yogurt, are the best
antidote for capsaicin (the crystalline alkaloid
that causes heat in chile peppers). To put out internal
fires, he highly recommends the Indian yogurt and
fruit drink called lassi.
Undecided about a next book, DeWitt is turning
his attention to the TV show "Secret Life of
Fiery Foods" in October on the Food Network
and the 18th Annual National Fiery-Foods & BBQ
Show he and his wife will produce March 3 to 5 in
After his Bible book tour, DeWitt is returning
to New Mexico and the tomatoes, eggplants, specialty
lettuces and chile plants in his garden and the
black pepper plant in his greenhouse. A voracious
reader, he will devour books about food and science
and catch up on his beloved crime novels. He will
find time for Scotch on the rocks; his Cornish Rexes
Roswell, Ella Fitzgerald and Libby, and his Doberman
pinschers Mimi and O'Ryan.
Dave DeWitt's life might be comfortable, but it's
anything but bland. The Spicy Food Lover's Bible
offers helpful advice on how to buy, grow, store
and use a wide variety of hot flavor enhancers.
Sandy Thorn Clark is a Chicago-based
Copyright 2005 Chicago Sun-Times, Inc.
April 26, 2006>