The “Chili Goddess” Can’t Stand the Heat

But she’s renowned for growing the hottest peppers under the sun, right here in Central Jersey.

Janie Lamson holds a tray of seedlings of bhut jolokia, the Guinness record-holder as world’s hottest pepper. In June, the seedlings will be large enough to transfer to outdoor beds, where they will continue to grow and be sold to hot pepper aficionados.
Photo by Eric Levin.

When Janie Lamson was eight years old, her father played a trick on her. Knowing she loved sweet peppers, he handed her a pepper from the garden of their Hopewell home. She recognized it as hot, but when he insisted it was not (“Trust me, I’m your father”), she bit in.

Mouth ablaze, she dashed to the house and stuck her scalded tongue under the cold water spigot. As she now knows, “That is, of course, the worst thing to do because capsaicin [the fiery compound in hot peppers] is an oil, and the water’s going to not break it down but just spread it around.” (The right remedies, she says, are whole-fat dairy products. The casein in them releases the oils that have stuck to receptors in the tongue.)

Lamson says her father doesn’t remember the incident, and she has long since forgiven him. (“Trust me, I’m your father” has become, she says, a family punchline.)

Not surprisingly, Lamson has never eaten another hot pepper.

Surprisingly, she grows and sells them for a living. “I think they grow better for me because they don’t feel threatened!” she says with a laugh.

In fact, Lamson’s prowess at growing peppers has earned her the sobriquet the Chili Goddess, first applied to her in an online forum after a chili pepper event she attended at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in 1998. At Cross Country Nurseries, her five-acre plant nursery and home in Rosemont, Hunterdon County, Lamson and her husband, Fernando Villegas, grow and sell exactly 500 varieties of live pepper plants, which her website (chileplants.com) bills as “the world’s largest selection.”

The peppers range up to the Indian bhut jolokia, whose Guinness Book of World Records-holding rating of 1,001,304 scoville units would make a habañero (80,000-350,000 scovilles) or jalapeño (2,500-5,000 scovilles) jealous. She sells about 10,000 bhut jolokia plants a year. (The scoville system, named for American chemist Wilbur Scoville, is based on the amount of sugar-water dilution required to make the heat in a given pepper untasteable.)

Lamson sells about 110,000 live pepper plants annually, all between April and mid-June, by mail-order or pickup at the nursery. From September to mid-October (or first frost) she sells about twenty varieties of fresh peppers at $4.50-$5 per half-pint. Cross Country also sells about 350 varieties of tomato, basil, eggplant, cilantro, and tomatillo plants, plus books, posters, and novelties such as soaps in the shape of chili peppers. Lamson raises her plants using organic fertilizer—fish emulsion and seaweed—which she thinks may make hers grow more slowly and finish larger.

“I consider Janie the nation’s top consumer-focused grower of chili peppers,” says Dave DeWitt, an associate professor on the adjunct faculty of the College of Agriculture and Home Economics of New Mexico State University and the author of 36 books on chilis. “Her varieties top anyone else’s I know in quality.”

As a child, Lamson helped her mother plant flower beds on rental properties, but she went to school for architecture and later designed her parents’ house. She also took community college courses in horticulture, then worked on an herb farm in Lambertville and as a “plug grower,” growing plants from seed, in Doylestown: “I wanted to see how professionals did it.” She then started growing perennials for the landscape trade, and in 1985 opened her own perennials business.

One day her brother gave her six packets of pepper seeds to grow. Mice chewed up all but one of the plants, but seeing its longevity, she realized it was not an annual, as she (like many growers) thought, but a tender perennial. “I was like, ‘Well, that’s weird,’ and thought, ‘What other peppers could I grow?’”

Lamson launched her pepper website in 1996 and phased out her other perennials by 2000. Her repeat customers include restaurant chefs, home cooks, and a few one-of-a-kinds: A magician recently called to inquire about the perfect pepper for performing sleight of hand. Lamson sent him one shaped like a small round ball.

The Chili Goddess attributes the popularity of hot peppers to the widespread availability of cuisines like Thai and Indian. She adds, “Hot peppers release endorphins in the brain. and endorphins make you feel good. A lot of people who get hooked want them hotter and hotter to get that endorphin rush”—perhaps explaining why Peter Piper didn’t stop at one pickled pepper, but picked an entire peck.

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  1. Tom Connelly

    Their website doesn’t do the recover password thing, they don’t answer emails anymore, and facebook pleas for help ignored.