by Chris Jay
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I snapped a branch off of a pepper bush, broke it clean off, as I shimmied between the rows of Gary Montcalm’s superhot pepper garden in rural De Soto Parish. I can’t tell you exactly where it is, not because I don’t know, but because Gary has asked me not to tell you. A green garden snake zipped across my right shoe, in pursuit of a toad.
I stopped and called out that I’d broken one of the plants, as though I’d shattered a vase in an antique store. It felt silly to mourn the snapping of a branch, but that’s me for you.
“That’s alright,” Gary Montcalm called out from somewhere in the garden.
I could hear the rise and fall of the crickets, and the arrhythmic plunking of World Famous Seven-Pot Primo Peppers hitting the bottoms of plastic buckets. I asked Gary how hot these peppers were, exactly?
“These peppers are 1.5 million Scovilles, Chris,” Gary’s disembodied voice responded from the heart of the garden, where he knelt, snapping loose Seven Pot Primos with a gentle twist. “They are the hottest in the world. A jalapeño is between five thousand and ten thousand Scovilles, for comparison. If you’ve never had a hot pepper, you can’t start out eating these. But if you can get to that place where you can eat these, it’s a really wonderful experience.”
It’s not always transcendent. Gary has experienced trials and tribulations while eating superhot peppers. One such jeremiad unfurled on the floor of the Wing Taxi men’s room out by Ford Park. Wing Taxi was a Shreveport restaurant owned by the late Richard “Snapper” Washington, a Black entrepreneur and community leader who was gunned down at his home in New Orleans after a long and celebrated career in Shreveport.
Gary told me that, following a spicy wing-eating contest in 2018, he began regularly delivering “freshies” to Snapper at the Cross Lake location of Wing Taxi. (They had a domino table set up and ready, 24/7, and Snapper played Bob Marley and Golden Era hip-hop over the satellite radio. The whole place was painted red and yellow, fast food clowns be damned.)
During Gary’s visits to Wing Taxi, he would ask Snapper to prepare the hot Snake Venom wings. One day, Gary wound up locked inside of the men’s room, curled up in a ball on the floor, projecting astrally and also in other ways for several hours.
“That bathroom floor, by the way, was so clean,” Gary said solemnly. “I got very intimate with it. I was laying there for God knows how long, and finally Herman, the cook, got some milk and sugar and brought it to me. Richard—Snapper—he was a real artist.”
How on earth, I asked, did Snapper and Gary wind up doing business together?
“Richard had gotten something off of the internet,” Gary said, in reference to the ghost pepper extract that Washington used to prepare Wing Taxi’s sadistically hot Snake Venom wings. “He wasn’t aware of the Seven-Pot Primo Pepper, which is the Louisiana superhot pepper I’m growing. I believe that was all he used in the Snake Venom wings from that point on, was these peppers right here.”
When Gary told me this, I caught myself being surprised that Wing Taxi used local ingredients. That’s kinda racist of me, I thought. I let myself sit with that, told myself to make a note in the story. Then I resumed my journey down the row of pepper plants.
Troy Primeaux owns Primo’s Peppers™. He’s the entrepreneur who released the superhot pepper that Gary is now growing, back in 2005, a decade before he met Gary at a hot sauce convention in Lafayette. Pepper conventions used to happen every year in Lafayette. Pepper growers would travel from throughout the southeast to swap seeds, trade cultivation tips, and taste one another’s work.
“We’d try to have our hot sauce conventions in the summer, when everybody had freshies,” Gary recalled of the conventions where he befriended Troy. “Everyone would bring their best stuff, you know, and we’d sit around in a circle and taste each other’s work. After a while, you kinda start to…”
“Leave this world?”
“Yeah, that,” Gary said, shooting the briefest knowing glance in my direction. “And that shared spiritual experience was really cool.”
Troy Primeaux was impressed by Gary from the start.
“One thing about him: He’s a really nice guy,” Primeaux said. “When you meet someone as nice as he is, you kind of have to make sure that they’re sincere, that they’re not crazy, and that they’re really genuine. Not only is Gary genuine, but he has some serious plant-growing skills.”
The elephant in the pepper patch here is that there’s been a lot of talk about the true identity and significance of these peppers among chileheads online. Many believe that these very peppers, here in De Soto Parish, are in fact the hottest in the world, and that these peppers are being marketed by a former friend of the Louisiana chilehead community, under another name and with much success, in another state. This theory holds that the pepper was, essentially, stolen and taken to market with such success that it is now everywhere: in infused vodkas, in the “one-chip challenge,” in a sauce at Wendy’s, all while under another name. Here’s a story, if you’re curious to learn more.
Personally, I don’t know enough on the topic to have an opinion, but it’s fascinating that the epicenter of this controversy is here in De Soto Parish, among the lignite-filled hills and hollers, in this peaceful place.
I asked Gary if he cares about something like the title of “world’s hottest,” if it matters to him in the least.
“No,” he said, straightening up in the evening sun. “These peppers, for me personally, are more medicinal and spiritual than anything else. If you’re gonna eat these peppers, you’re gonna have to be ready to have some kind of experience.”
I knew what he meant. I’ve been having some experiences, too, but my particular brand of self-immolation seems less like a journey than a spiral. Sometimes I wind up staring at the bathroom tile, too, but I have yet to transcend a damn thing. I had a tough 2020, and I can’t seem to put it behind me.
The three of us—me, Gary, and my best friend, Chris Number Two—gathered on a bluff overlooking the garden and combined our pepper hauls so that Gary could send them off to Lafayette in the morning to become hot sauce. The funniest thing about this garden, Gary said, is that it used to be a garbage dump, if you could imagine that. And now just look what it is.
I tilted my head back and closed my eyes and just stood there in the fall light and prayed, in my way. Change me next, I asked.
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Support Louisiana Superhots
“The Swampadelic is hotter than any Louisiana sauce out there, but it’s got a Cajun seasoning profile,” Troy Primeaux told me. “I think it’s probably our flagship sauce.”
Peppers grown by Gary Montcalm are also featured in the Primonition verde sauce, which may be ordered here.
Please support Primo’s Peppers and their efforts to promote Louisiana native superhot peppers.