Christopher Columbus could have given those calculating guys on "Mad Men" a true run for their money. He was supposed to sail to Asia and load up on very valuable black peppercorns, the Medieval European equivalent of balsamic vinegar, black truffle, fleur de sel and beluga caviar all rolled into one.
Instead, Columbus returns from what is now called the Caribbean with a pile of fiery chilies.
"What is this?" asked the Spanish.
Columbus' answer, as reported in "Why We Eat What We Eat" by Raymond Sokolov, was interesting and evasive.
Instead of calling the chilies by their indigenous name, aji, he calls them peppers after the peppercorns he never found.
In so doing, Columbus started "a worldwide nomenclatural confusion that complicates culinary communication in dozens of languages even today," wrote Sokolov. Chilies were being cultivated in Mexico more than 5,000 years ago, according to "Foods of the Americas."
Today, chilies are grown all over the world. Among the areas where chilies figure prominently are China, India, Mexico, Spain, Thailand, Africa and South America, according to "The New Food Lover's Companion."
Some 200 varieties of chilies are grown; the heat can vary dramatically from mild to blistering depending on the type of chili. Capsaicin is the element that gives chilies their heat. The heat of a chili pepper is measured by something called Scoville Heat Units. A sweet bell pepper would rate 0 units, a jalapeno from 2,500 to 4,000 units, notes "The Oxford Companion to Food."
Chilies are used fresh, dried and in a number of preparations, from Hungarian paprika to Chinese chili bean paste to hot sauces made in Louisiana.
By the numbers500 to 2,500The number of Scoville heat units found in poblano peppers.
100,000 to 300,000Scoville heat units found in a habanero chili.