Farmer Doug Jones has been burned before, over and over again, all in the name of love and science.
For years, Jones has bred and developed varieties of peppers, some hot, some sweet, some orange, some red, some even the rich glossy brown of dark chocolate. The why couldn’t be simpler.
“I really love peppers, OK,” Jones said. “You’ve got to like what you’re working with.
“I eat way more raw peppers than cooked peppers,” Jones said. “Snacks, on sandwiches, out of your hand like an apple.”
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With peppers, it’s usually all about the heat, the cult of spice seeking out the next hottest thing and taking it down. Some people climb mountains, some eat hot peppers. Some likely do both.
But Jones, a scientific-minded farmer, isn’t into that. He’s much more into the gentler side of peppers, seeing them as the epitome of good and good for you. Therefore, he values quantity over agony.
Chasing the flavor and fruity backbone of habaneros, but hating to endure the heat, Jones has worked to develop varieties that tone down the spice but keep their flavor. He eventually found it in the habanero’s Caribbean cousin, the Tobago pepper.
“For years I had to suffer the heat,” Jones said. “Habaneros are one of the hottest peppers in the world. And then I discovered that in the Caribbean, closely related that have little to no heat and all kinds of flavor. ... The Tobago is a close cousin of habanero, but one percent of the heat.”
Jones’ Tobagos are bright orange and red, but small like a habanero, with a thin hooked stem, looking like it would make for a pretty good Christmas ornament. Every now and then, you’ll find a hot one, the burn sharp and prickly, but bearable.
Ten years ago, Jones helped organize a tasting of his pepper varieties at Pittsboro’s Eco-Industrial Park, trying to get more peppers on more taste buds to see which were the most flavorful. The tasting turned into a party, and that party became Pepper Fest, which celebrates its 10th year on Sunday. Chefs and brewers will create new spice-centric dishes and beers for tasting.
The event is organized by and benefits Abundance NC, which champions sustainable food initiatives in the region.
Jones sees peppers as the unknown superfood, with diners unable to tap into their health benefits without tears welling up in their eyes.
“A lot of my angle on this is how can we improve the quality of the fruit so that consumers are excited about them and eat more peppers,” he said. “They are a superfood. They’re nutrient dense, high in vitamins A and C. (Sweet peppers) can be a much more important part of your diet. Hot and sweet peppers have the same nutrients, but the amount you can eat of a pepper is much higher.”
At Pepper Fest, chefs likely will test the range of peppers, serving hot pepper jelly, chilis roasted and fried, sauces spiked with feeling. Peppers push our relationship to food beyond sense and flavor and into the realm of physicality. They hurt and tingle and challenge, and sandwiches and wings would feel naked without them.
Jones doesn’t reject the world of heat in his love of sweet, but sees a line where flavor could never overcome the spice of certain peppers.
“People are always working on the next hottest pepper,” Jones said. “I ate one tiny bite just to see what it was like. There’s the Carolina Reaper and famous ones like the Ghost. I’m just not into those because they’re all so burning hot.”
But peppers will be peppers. Heat and Jones likely will find one another again. The silent invisible flames of the mouth are usually extinguished by time, dairy and old wives tales. Jones has his own method.
“My favorite antidote is yogurt,” he said.
Drew Jackson; 919-829-4707; @jdrewjackson
What: Abundance NC’s 10th annual Pepper Fest
When: 3 to 6 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 24
Where: Great Meadow Park at Briar Chapel, 185 Granite Mill Blvd., Chapel Hill
Cost: $30 through Sept. 23. $35 at the gate. $5 for ages 7 to 12. Free for 6 and under.