On Tuesday, February 25, lovers of all things heat packed Littlefield on Degraw Street for a spirited lecture on everything from mild sweet pimento heat, up to the ghost pepper mutants (mostly cultivated for shock value and Youtube views).
The lecture, a term incongruous with the raucous attitude of the audience and the skill of the bartenders, was one in a series with rabid fans and growing popularity. The Masters of Social Gastronomy lecture series are enthusiastically helmed by historical gastronomist and blogger Sarah Lohman, and Jonathan Soma, a scientist and the founding force behind Brooklyn Brainery, an aggregator of low-cost low-commitment classes on any and every topic imaginable. For more than two years, these two have been delighting audiences on the history and sociology behind their favorite foods.
According to Soma, the impetus for “Burning Down the Mouth: Sriracha, Ghost Peppers and the History of Heat,” started with the Phaal challenge at Brick Lane on the Lower East Side. Eat a piping hot bowl of mutant curry engineered to cause pain and destruction and get a free beer. Simple enough, but it lead Soma to disprove his strongly held conviction that “You are always in control of your body.” After peeling himself off the floor of the Brick Lane rest room, he looked into the birth of Phaal and it’s popular, slightly less hell-fire reminiscent counterparts.
“Our favorite spicy dishes come together through the cultural and linguistic confusion that add up to an accident,” said Soma while describing the origins of Vindaloo — a dish that seems to have its linguistic and culinary origins in Portugal by way of Goa, where a common Portuguese meat and potato stew was improved by colonialism and the addition of Indian spices. The original dish was called Carne Vinha d’Alhoos… you can see where that one ended up.
The enchanting pair talked the crowd through the Scoville scale — like the Richter for spice — and had at laugh at the extreme lengths to which cultivators are currently going to beat the record for the hottest pepper in the history of the world. The current leader is the Carolina Reaper, weighing in at 2.2 million on the Scoville (more than 100 times hotter than a jalapeño).
Lohman, a Sriracha devotee, recounted her visit to the Sriracha factory in Irwindale, California. Especially now after the air quality scandal regarding the factory (which is looking more and more trumped up), there are Sriracha lovers and sriracha haters. Lohman is decidedly the former getting a laugh from the crowd when she exclaimed, “Sriracha is the most important thing to happen to American food in the 21st century.”
Lohman raved about the earnest commitment of the original Sriracha maker and factory owner David Tran, who works exclusively with just one farmer and sees no need to grow any faster than his business is growing now (20 percent every year).
Despite the stories of blistering chilis and the uncommon access to the factory where the ingredient of the moment is made, the most surprising aspect of the night was definitely the fervor. There was an excitement in the room that live music in similar time slots rarely conjurs.
“Our crowd is always very enthusiastic,” said Lohman, “Did we have any idea we’d get such a big response talking about Sriracha? Nope.”
The Masters of Social Gastronomy will be doing their thing again in about two weeks, on March 25 back at Littlefield where the topic will be chocolate — come early if you want a taste.