All for the love of the chile pepper
By Mary Lee Grant
Nov 30, 2005
If one cooks, one may presume to know the chile pepper, its shocking autumnal colors, the reds, greens and yellows, the deep nuances of its fire, how it roars down the throat like a locomotive with its steam up, its crunch.
But to fully know the chile pepper, cook or no, one ought to be reading Chile Pepper magazine. These days, Chile Pepper is published in New York, but until a year ago its home was Texas, as were its roots–there and throughout the Southwest and wherever chile peppers were grown and tossed into cooking pots.
Chile Pepper celebrates as it informs, knowing its subject like no other, immersing readers in the deepest of arcana about this often fiery plant. And for that it deserves a nod and attention, as a magazine, long independently published, that does its one thing very well, narrow as its topic may be.
This is one in a series of Media Life profiles of independently published magazines that do their one thing very well, driven by passion and with nary a whiff of the focus-group-think common to so many corporate titles.
Reading Chile Pepper we learn amazing stuff. We learn that at roadside stands in the Mississippi Delta you can buy some of the best tamales in the world. Mexican migrant workers brought their tamales to these lazy river towns in the late 19th century, working for planters who had lost their slaves during the Civil War. Over time, other immigrants, commonly store and restaurant owners, added their own ingredients, and what evolved was the small, not-so-spicy Mexican-Lebanese-African-Sicilian-Hungarian Mississippi Delta tamale. It is a little less piquant than what you will find in Del Rio, but it is as essential a part of the Delta as blues joints or barbecue. We want to eat those tamales real bad.
In the pages of Chile Pepper we travel the globe, stopping wherever hot peppers are used in cooking. We tour London’s curry restaurants, taste the cookery along Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, study up on the varieties of Balinese sambal.
But mostly in the pages of Chile Pepper we find the passion of its founder, Dave Dewitt, who launched it as a newsletter back in 1987. Dewitt was teaching college English in Virginia those many years ago when he took a trip to New Mexico, loved the place, and moved there to begin a freelance writing career.
Only shortly thereafter he met up with the state vegetable, the chile pepper, and fell in love again. In 1984 he and another writer published a book called “The Fiery Cuisines.” It was after thumbing through that old hippy standby, the Whole Earth Catalogue, that Dewitt came up with the idea for a magazine with the working title of the Whole Chile Pepper Catalogue. He approached start-up publisher Robert Spiegel, and Spiegel maxed out his credit cards to launch what was to become Chile Pepper.
That was in 1987, before the great American food craze, and back when the chile pepper was still a Southwest thing. But Chile Pepper magazine was right on time, which in magazines means just ahead of the curve. The first issue jumped off newsstands.
“We tried to get every detail on all kinds of chile peppers and how they were used around the world,” recalls Dewitt, who has since left the title for another publishing venture. “We wrote about travel and horticulture. We always had a global focus.”
Dewitt credits Spiegel for helping create Chile Pepper as a magazine unlike any other cooking title. “Robert was one of these people who had a vision and believed in what he was doing, and not once in nine and a half years did he try to control my creative freedom.”
Chile Pepper was quirky by design and intent. One cover featured an Elvis impersonator hitchhiking down the road looking at signs for different spicy foods festivals. Another highlighted the cuisine of war-torn countries.
“We would catch all kinds of hell from the newsstand people for not having shots of food on the cover,” he says. “We were very creative, and it worked. We were always willing to try something different.”
By 1995, Chile Pepper had a circulation of 50,000.
“There was a lifestyle,” Dewitt says. “People were buying chile pepper underpants, for Christ’s sakes. They were collecting hot sauce. We even did a chile pepper cruise. What happened, really, was that chile peppers turned from a semi-cult to semi-mainstream.”
The magazine went through several changes of ownership, along with some bumps, and eventually Dewitt got fired. He went on to start Fiery Foods and Barbecue magazine and a web site, Fieryfoods.com. He has written 32 books about chile peppers.
“The magazine made my career,” he says of Chile Pepper. “I have nothing but high praise for my time there. Nothing’s perfect. Now I find myself in the unenviable position of competing against my former magazine.”
The ads in Chile Pepper can be as entertaining as the articles. A Peppers of Key West ad displays latex-gloved hands cupping peppers. Caption: “Safety tip #17: When handling your peppers, always wear protection.”
Pigs are featured in many ads, as in one for Dancing Pigs Bar-B-Q Sauce, which promises to “bring music to your ears and pigs to your table.” And there’s the bare-bottomed pig in a chef’s outfit advertising Bad Byron’s Butt Rub with the words, “A little Butt Rub makes everything better.”
You can order all kinds of chile-related products from the pages of Chile Pepper, like a “chilohoa” shirt, a Hawaiian shirt covered with peppers. You can purchase the Grand Champion of Barbecue thermometers. You can Pump up the Flavor with the Cajun Injector, then dip your barbecue in some Meat Moppin Sauce. And by all means throw it on the Belson Oudoor-Porta-Grill with your brand new Pigtail Food Flipper. A testimonial for the Food Flipper says, “My brother stole mine, so I’m buying another set. GREAT PRODUCT!”
If none of that appeals, you might try some Sinus Buster All Natural Nasal Spray, the world’s first pepper-based nose spray.
These specialty products appear among ads for Coors, Dasani water, the Uruguayan beef council and the Jamaican tourist board, which promotes itself as a zesty destination.
Last year, Lifestyle Media, a New York publisher of enthusiast titles, bought Chile Pepper, and its challenge will be to retain the magazine’s passion and quirkiness as it seeks to build a wider audience. The magazine now has a circulation of 140,000, about half sold at newsstands. Working in its favor, the new publisher knows enthusiast titles, with 17 magazines on topics ranging from pilates to cheerleading.
Chile Pepper’s new editor is Marie Dalby, a foodie and former editor of La Cucina Italiana. She understands Chile Pepper’s legacy. “Through its history it has maintained an incredibly loyal base who, through thick and thin, never let it go out of print.”
She aspires to retain that appeal, and one way is through the photography. “We have a base line for food photography. Without getting too bogged down in stylization, we want to impart a clear aesthetic without getting frou frou.”
Since taking over Chile Pepper, Lifestyle has invested in circulation and marketing, and Dalby is working to penetrate more foodie markets. California, Texas and Florida have the most subscribers now.
The magazine is also looking to broaden its advertiser base. “We’re going for larger accounts while not leaving behind small hot sauce companies,” Dalby says. “They are giving the book an even more sophisticated feel.”
Dalby says Chile Pepper’s founders had a vision about not just chile peppers but food in general.
“I think it was a far-reaching look that food was going to become something more than rudimentary in lifestyle. Food was going to become a major-league controllable part of people’s lifestyle that was not just very fulfilling but very chic,” she says.
“Today even people who don’t cook have to have a swank kitchen. Now everyone is talking about fresh chiles and spices, and we bring authenticity to that. It was a members-only culture at that time.”