"I realize now that it was probably the ghost chili," Garcia says of that lone seven-alarm wing. "My mouth was on fire. It took three shots of ranch and five ice-cream sandwiches to cool off. The reason they call it the ghost chili is because you think you're going to die."
Sitting on his porch in Waldo, the 31-year-old Garcia can laugh at his younger self, in part because the urban farmer has tamed what once bested him. On the patio table next to him is a collection of Mason jars filled with dried chilies, including the ghost variety, which he grew at his previous garden space, in Prairie Village.
The Bhut Jolokia, better known by its spectral nickname, is the divine fire for heat fanatics. It clocks in at 1 million on the Scoville heat-unit scale (which measures the amount of capsaicin in a given pepper). A jalapeño typically tops out at about 8,000 Scoville units, and the pepper spray used by police begins at 2 million, which puts the ghost pepper somewhere between zesty table salsa and crowd control.
The ghost pepper used to be available to Kansas City chiliheads only via the Internet (Craigslist had plants for sale for $3 last month), but it's now in gardens and on shelves across the metro. Proceed with caution, though, because as one Bhutanese farmer told Cultivate Kansas City's Ami Freeberg, "Three [ghost] peppers could kill an elephant."
"We try and seek out things people aren't growing, and that gets harder every year," Garcia says.
Urban Harvest, the aquaponic farm four blocks south on Summit, saw its first Chocolate Bhut Jolokia pepper appear last week. Farmer Eric Person has been tending to the plants at his indoor urban farm for the past two months; the peppers take 60 - 70 days to grow.
"We've had lots of requests from the neighborhood to grow peppers," Person says. "Anybody can grow jalapeños, so we wanted to grow stuff that's unique."
The current crop of ghost peppers is destined for Rhythm & Booze, where it will likely find its way into the house salsa. But Person wants to continue growing peppers to sell to the public. He envisions people stopping by to get their hot-pepper fix at the farm's open house on First Fridays.
"I think people are becoming more adventurous eaters," says Greg Dennis, Original Juan's vice president of sales. "Heat is just something the American palate has gotten used to over the past decade. People were just using standard Louisiana hot sauce, but now they want some heat with flavor."
There's no shortage of heat at Original Juan. The Source, which is pure pepper extract, clocks in at 7.1 million on the Scoville scale. This is what you'd deploy against a pack of unwanted elephants. Regular human guests might prefer the Da' Bomb Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce (22,800 Scoville units), made with habaneros and Jolokia powder.
"Extreme hot sauces give you an endorphin rush," Dennis says. "Your body's natural reaction is to pump endorphins into your system when the pain hits your chemoreceptors. Some people call it pain. Some call it pleasure."
In search of the new hotness, Original Juan is experimenting with the Trinidad Scorpion, the world's hottest pepper at 1.4 million Scoville units, and the Fatali pepper (as many as 300,000 Scoville units). Dennis says a few test bottles of the Fatali sauce are available in the sample store on Southwest Boulevard.
Garcia, who continues to eat ghost-chili peppers (though not in wing form), has a word of advice for the uninitiated.
"One ghost chili makes 3 gallons of chili pretty dang hot, 5 gallons of chili with a nice back heat, and 1 gallon of you're-mad-at-somebody," Garcia says. "A little goes a very, very long way."