Pepperheads spice up the Valley

Peppers on the stove are about to become a batch of ROOTS Hot Sauce. (Photo courtesy of Scott Hensley)

By Jordan Simal, contributor

Against all better judgement, he swallowed Hell.

The hot sauce label clearly stated, “more than one drop is suicide,” so JMU computer science major Landon Gilbert decided the best way to test the warning would be to just eat a whole spoonful of it.

“My throat closed up and I was just gasping for air on the floor of my kitchen,” he said with a grin. “I decided this is perfect for my jerk chicken, and I’ve been using it since.”

Gilbert is a pepperhead, a class of hotheads whose diets are spicier than most.

Scott Hensley, the founder of the Staunton-based ROOTS Hot Sauce, has wholly embraced pepperheads. At his home, which doubles as ROOTS’s headquarters, he whips up four distinct batches of hot sauces ranging from the tamer Thai chili-based Thai Fighter sauce to the inferno-like Ghost Nectar ghost pepper sauce.

“I would say a pepperhead is someone who’s slightly masochistic,” Hensley said. “An extreme, avid lover of hot peppers and [all] things hot.”

Being able to consume peppers and sauces that cross 500,000 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) on the Scoville Scale like Gilbert can takes time, patience and a lot of endurance. A simple jalapeno checks in at only 8,000 SHU at its hottest.

However, great flavors still come from hotter peppers most people wouldn’t even dream of touching.

“You bear it just to get that quality of flavor,” says Gilbert, who acknowledges there’s a strategy to coping with the sting.

“You almost have to keep the ball rolling because if you stop eating the food, the spice will actually catch up to you,” he said. “You have to keep eating it.”

While eating, the resulting sensations can be many.

“My entire head just goes almost numb in, like, a sort-of staticky feeling,” said Gilbert, who described the sensation as purely “euphoric.”

Sauces aside, some pepperheads love eating hot peppers on their own, such as the Trinidad Scorpion peppers and the hottest pepper in the world:  the Carolina Reaper

“It’s almost like you’re just overflowing on spice, and I like chasing that,” Gilbert said. “It’s almost like a ‘spice high.’ I don’t know how else to describe it.”

William Brumfield, a chef in Harrisonburg, has turned some of the hottest peppers in the world into pain-inducing hot sauce. Additionally, he grows “ghost peppers, Carolina Reapers, Trinidad Scorpions [and] cayenne” and can make several diabolical sauces ranging from his favorite, peach habanero, to others that might have come straight out of Satan’s cookbook.

Some have gone to Brumfield when they hear he’s “the hot sauce guy,” eager to test their palates. Brumfield chuckled when he recalled one man who “burst out in tears” from trying his latest batch.

“He sampled it right out of the blender,” Brumfield said. “That one was Carolina Reaper, ghost peppers and Trinidad Scorpions.”

Despite this, he must have been satisfied with Brumfield’s work because he took home a bottle after eventually calming down.

As with Brumfield, hot sauces have been in Gilbert’s kitchen for some time now.

The 21-year-old junior from Mechanicsville, Virginia, makes his jerk chicken with the same brand of scorpion pepper-based sauce from Tropical Pepper Co., or “Death Sauce” as he calls it, that previously had him on the floor. 

“Growing up, I did not like spicy food,” he said, laughing. “I actually despised it, which is ironic.”

Not everyone understands the craze behind the blaze, though.

Patrick Schell, a JMU senior history major from Singers Glen and a friend of Gilbert’s, avoids hot food entirely.

Schell recalled one night eating out when he unknowingly ate a certain dish with jalapenos and was pleading for milk immediately afterward. 

“I was just on fire for several minutes,” said Schell, adding it was his “worst experience” ever dining out. He has yet to go back for that particular dish.

“I’m very much a foodie,” he said. “To me, that kind of spice really detracts from the flavor itself.”

Schell is puzzled by pepperheads

“I think they need psychological help, I really do,” said Schell, who stated they must take some “carnal pleasure” or “irregular gratification” from enjoying the levels of heat they consume.

Gilbert said he’s tried to help bring others to the spicier sides of cuisine, offering to cook his scorpion pepper-sauced jerk chicken for his friends. 

“Your face will go numb, but it’s fun,” he warns.

Often, they decline.

Additionally, Gilbert is always willing to discuss the art of flaming hot cuisine with JMU students and anyone interested in giving it an eyebrow-singeing try.

In the meantime, he also said he plans to continue growing his spice tolerance. 

The dreaded ghost chili might well be next.

“I know people have taken raw ghost peppers,” he said. “If I had one, I’d probably try it just to see what it’s like, although I [would] probably have my face melt.”

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