Sunday, August 12, 2001

Feelin' hot, hot, hot

Chile pepper club members like to grow, but most of all they love the heat

By Chuck Martin
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        What brings 25 people to a treehouse high above Kennedy Heights on a hot, muggy August evening?

        A burning passion for chile peppers.

        They are members of the Cincinnati Chili Pepper Club, an informal group that grows peppers, cooks, eats, drinks and sweats together.

        The club meets once a month, June to October, to celebrate a love of everything spicy. On this night, they gather on and under the treehouse outside the home of member George Cook, hoping for a soothing breeze.

        More than 35 feet above the ground in the treehouse, surrounded by muscular pin oak branches, Mr. Cook stands at a gas grill, sizzling his homemade “Pepper Garden” sausages to the tunes of Jimmy Buffet.

        “Fourteen different kinds of peppers,” says Mr. Cook, a GE flight safety engineer. “All of them came from my garden.”

        Tom McClean of College Hill passes out Bloody Marys made with his incendiary tomato juice, while Mark Arlinghaus of Silverton muses on how hot food should feel in the mouth.

        “It shouldn't hit you all at once,” he says. “It should kind of sneak up on you.”

        “And it shouldn't linger too long,” adds John Stricker of Silverton, who wears a black T-shirt that reads: “Fat Boys Rule.”

        So addicted to the heat, Mr. Arlinghaus grinds his dried, homegrown peppers into a powder and stuffs it into a small metal toothpick holder he wears around his neck.

        “When we're out eating, I put it on food that tastes really pathetic,” he says.

        Down below on a ground-level deck, other club members attack a buffet of fiery foods — cold (but spicy) avocado soup, grilled chicken and cactus salad and sweet, chewy oatmeal cookies spiked with cayenne.

        It's Sue Brungs' second meeting, and she already has passed the club's initiation.

        “Last time, I ate something hot and wanted a drink,” says Ms. Brungs of Mack. “But there was nothing but beer.”

        She doesn't drink beer.

   If you want to start your own pepper club, ask for advice from Ted Hardman at at
        Most of the club members cook and many relish eating reasonably hot stuff, but the common bond among all is a love for growing chile peppers.

        They swap advice on how to make their peppers thrive. Mr. Arlinghaus swears crushed birth control pills will perk up pepper plants. Something about the estrogen.

        The roots of the Chili Pepper Club go back five years, when then-soccer coach Mike Mueller of Madisonville started trading peppers and eating with the parents of some of his players. A couple of years later, Mr. Mueller struck a deal with Roy Evers of Evers' Greenhouse in Bond Hill to help the club start chile peppers from seed. Now, the club meets in December to order seeds from catalogs. They plant the seeds in January, Mr. Evers providing the soil and warmth of his greenhouses.

        Members care for the seedlings through the winter and spring and take their share home to plant in May. Mr. Evers keeps the rest to sell.

        This year, the club cultivated more than 70 varieties and 2,700 plants, everything from African fish chiles to tulip peppers. But it's obvious from hearing them talk the club favors the flavor of the intensely hot and fruity “habs” (Pepper Club lingo for habanero chiles). The more common jalapenos are dismissed as a sissy chile.

        “I guess everyone has to grow a token jalapeno or two,” Mr. Arlinghaus says, smirking.

        Anarchy rules this club — there are no elected officers. Two hours after they started munching and sipping, the call goes out for September's meeting place. Ted and Marlene Hardman of Hyde Park quickly volunteer their home.

        Their boisterous laughter only dies when they hear the sounds of someone coughing. Newcomer Traci Mockbee of Mason has gagged on something hot in the cactus salad, her face turning the color of a red savina pepper ripening in the sun — more from embarrassment than discomfort.

        There's nothing much worse than choking on a chile during a meeting of the pepper club.


        Cold Avocado Soup

       3 cups prepared guacamole
       3 cups low-fat chicken broth
       1 cup sour cream
       Juice of 1 lemon
       1 tablespoon Malouk's Calypso Sauce (available at Jungle Jim's Market in Fairfield and Saigon Market at Findlay Market)
       1 teaspoon garlic salt
       1 teaspoon favorite hot sauce

        Combine and whisk all ingredients until smooth. Chill thoroughly and serve cold.


— Marlene and Ted Hardman, Hyde Park

       Strick's Oatmeal Cookies (with a Wang)

       1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
        1/2 teaspoon baking soda
       1 teaspoon cinnamon
       1 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste
        1/2 teaspoon salt

        1 egg
       1 cup sugar
        1/2 cup each: melted butter, melted lard
       1 tablespoon molasses
        1/4 cup milk
       1 3/4 cups rolled oats
        1/2 cup or more dried cranberries or raisins
        1/2 cup walnuts, chopped

        Sift flour, baking soda, cinnamon, cayenne and salt together. Add remaining ingredients and mix well. Drop batter on buttered cookie sheets by spoonfuls and bake in preheated 325-degree oven for about 20 minutes.

— John Stricker, Silverton


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