World's hottest chile pepper: The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion!


This post has been corrected. See note at the bottom for details.

The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion sounds like a lethal beast, and in many ways, it is.

It's just been crowned the hottest chile pepper on the planet, after testing this week by experts at New Mexico State University's Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces.

The pepper, which comes from the central south coast of Trinidad, is certifiably potent: Its mean score on the Scoville scale used to grade peppers topped more than 1.2 million heat units, the testing showed. By comparison, a jalapeno logs about 5,000 on the scale.

"You take a bite. It doesn't seem so bad, and then it builds and it builds and it builds. So it is quite nasty," Paul Bosland, renowned pepper expert and director of the chile institute, told the Associated Press.

Researchers were pushed by hot sauce makers, seed producers and others in the spicy food industry to establish the average heat levels for super-hot varieties in an effort to quash unscientific claims of which peppers are actually the hottest.

That's something that hadn't been done before, Bosland said.

"Chile heat is a complex thing, and the industry doesn't like to base it on just a single fruit that's a record holder. It's too variable," Bosland said.

Bosland's team planted about 125 plants of each "super hot" chile pepper variety — the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, the Trinidad Scorpion, the 7-pot, the Chocolate 7-pot and the Bhut Jolokia, the previous winner certified hottest by Guinness World Records in 2007, beating out the Red Savina.

Peppers were randomly selected, dried and ground until researchers could extract the compounds that produce heat, called capsaicinoids. The capsaicinoids were so strong, they penetrated researchers' latex gloves, which had to be replaced repeatedly.

The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion's new notoriety is already making waves in the industry and among those who love their hot, spicy foods.

"As with all the previous record holders, there will be a run on seeds and plants," Jim Duffy, San Diego chile pepper grower, told the Associated Press. "Like Cabbage Patch dolls right before Christmas or Beanie Babies, it's like the hot item."

What physical effect does the pepper, also known as Brain Strain, cause when it's eaten? Many of those brave enough to try -- who use such names as Firehead Thomas or  Ted the Firebreathing Idiot -- have posted online videos showing the symptoms: The eyes widen and tear. Sweat starts to drip. The subject winces, grimaces and hops. It is said the tongue can be numb for days.    

"Whew, back of my throat, my tongue, it's filling up my tongue," Firehead Thomas says in one video. "It's pretty intense. It really heats your tongue, and it's building. Man, my tongue is on fire! Having trouble talking. Oh, it's bad. ... This is killer."

[For the Record, 4:10 p.m. Feb. 16: An earlier version of this post said New Mexico State University's  Chile Pepper Institute was in Albuquerque. It is in Las Cruces.]


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Photo: The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion. Credit: New Mexico State University. Video: "Firehead Thomas" tastes the hottest chile pepper in the world. Credit: YouTube

Best in show: How the Pekingese breed earned 'Lion Dog' nickname

Malachy wins best in show

Best in show honors at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show on Tuesday night went to Malachy, a Pekingese who did proud a truly ancient breed. Dating back to the 8th century and the Tang Dynasty, the breed once held court as the lapdog companion of emperors.

Do not be fooled by the teeny tiny dog that rarely hits 15 pounds. The Pekingese breed is actually quite muscular, and its regal bearing and fierce loyalty helped earn it the nickname Lion Dog.

Legend has it that a long, long time ago in "the mists of time," a lion fell in love with a tiny marmoset monkey. But such a love was impossible. The lion begged the deity that ruled the animal kingdom to shrink him down to size so he could marry his true love. But his heart remained its original size, according to Asian, and it is from this union that the Pekingese, or Fu Lin -- Lion Dog -- was born.

PHOTOS: Westminster Kennel Club dog show

In reality, the site says, DNA studies show that the Pekingese breed closely mimics the genetic composition of wolves and is among the purest breeds of dogs on Earth, making it a very ancient  breed indeed.

The dogs' appearance is marked by a long-haired coat and ears that lend a heart-shaped look to their  otherwise wide, flat head. They may look dainty and delicate, but they're surprisingly muscular and stocky, according to the American Kennel Club.

"Pekingese possess a regal dignity, intelligence and self-importance, making them good-natured, opinionated and affectionate family companions," according to the American Kennel Club.

Some other facts about Lion Dogs: They are front heavy. They can be any color. They are difficult to housebreak. They are relatively "inactive," which makes them ideal for indoor or apartment living. They're also prone to developing Small Dog Syndrome, that human-induced disorder that allows small dogs to think they run the joint. And those coats, as you might imagine, need plenty of brushing.

Pekingese get their name from the ancient Chinese city of Peking, now known as Beijing. Chinese art through the centuries -- ink drawings, bronze figures, clay sculptures and the like -- often celebrated the Pekingese. At one point in history, Lion Dogs could be owned only by royalty and were rarely seen outside the emperor's palace. (Stealing such a dog resulted in death.)

That changed when the British invaded in 1860, according to Pedigree UK. Upon entering the Forbidden City, troops found Empress Tzu'Hai dead on the floor after committing suicide rather than submit to invasion of the West. Guarding her body were five Pekingese dogs. When the British returned home, they took the breed with them.


Opinion: My furry Valentine

A little dog wins big at Westminster

Best in show at Westminster dog show: A pipsqueak, Malachy

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Yep, I'm top dog: Malachy poses for photos moments after winning best in show at the Westminster Kennel Dog Show at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Credit: Michael Nagle / Getty Images

Best in show at Westminster dog show: A pipsqueak, Malachy

Best in show, that most coveted of all honors at the famed Westminster dog show, went to ... how should we describe it? A fallen cloud? A hair ball? A pug stuck inside a pom pom? Let's just call it what it is: a Pekingese named Malachy.

The 4-year-old champion at the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show seemed to realize his coronation as the crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City shouted out his name. The Associated Press noted Malachy was reveling in all the attention as his handler held him up while his pink tongue expressed itself amid all that fur, his "eyes sparkling like black diamonds."

It's worth noting that Malachy doesn't really win much -- he gets a silver bowl. There is no prize money. But the allure of the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show transcends the notion of ribbons and bows and baubles. Malachy's title puts him into the history books, and perhaps his name will forever be uttered in show dog circles with awe and reverence. And wealth will come in time for Malachy's owners, with all the breeding opportunities afforded the winner.

PHOTOS: Westminster Kennel Club dog show

Malachy beat out dogs big and small Tuesday night to capture the throne, including a Dalmatian, a German shepherd, a Doberman pinscher, an Irish setter, a Kerry blue terrier and a wire-haired dachshund.

Since then, the court of public opinion has weighed in on Malachy, not all of it nice. But because Malachy can't read, we'll tell you: "Cute little dustmop/ Looks very huggable," said one comment on Twitter. "I'm sorry, but the thing that won Westminster is NOT a dog. It's more like an animatronic troll doll with extra hair," said another Twitter comment.

The Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show was not without criticism and controversy.

Advocates for mutts and strays and rescue dogs have long decried the focus on pedigrees. They fear it encourages puppy mills when there are already so many dogs in need of a home. "They kill shelter dogs' chances," says PETA, which this year launched several protests surrounding the event. Some members even tried to infiltrate the show itself before they were halted.

Another protest took aim at the man who could be our next president: Mitt Romney. The Republican candidate has riled dog lovers everywhere with his story about traveling with his Irish setter, Seamus, back in 1983 and strapping the dog's crate to the roof rack for a 12-hour drive.

When Romney told the story, many people found it amusing. But animal rights activists didn't laugh about what they say must have been a harrowing, wind-whipped ride for the canine. On Tuesday, they held signs saying "Dogs Aren’t Luggage" and "I Ride Inside."

It's a good bet that Malachy never gets strapped to a roof rack.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Malachy sits in his trophy after being named best in show at the 136th annual Westminster Kennel Club dog show in New York. Credit: Seth Wenig / Associated Press

'Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter' winning over Lincoln historians

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" won't be in theaters until June 22. But the horror-meets-history thriller that re-envisions our 16th president as an ax-wielding fang-fighter already has an unexpected fan base: historians.

But that fan base didn't develop overnight. When the experts at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., first heard about the fictional book "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter," by Seth Grahame-Smith, they were not exactly pleased. Would it make a mockery of the Great Emancipator? Would it ignore Lincoln's pivotal role in history? Would it portray him as a cartoonish figure in a stovepipe hat?

"There was a lot of skepticism, let's just say that," library spokesman Dave Blanchett told The Times.

But "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" appears to be winning over historians with its attention to fact and detail even as it swings wildly into the fantastic and the fictional.

The trailer for the movie was posted online Monday by 20th Century Fox, timed to coincide with  the official observances of the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln's Feb. 12, 1809, birth.

That trailer was a mere morsel for the masses when compared to the banquet served up Friday night at the library.

Director Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted," "Night Watch") and actor Benjamin Walker, who plays Honest Abe, personally introduced several scenes from the movie to library staff and movie critics who flew in as part of a Hollywood junket. Producer Tim Burton couldn't make it, but he sent the next best thing, Blanchette said: a black-and-white digital message with several Burtonesque touches that seemed to thrill those in attendance.

Continue reading »

Valentine's Day spending hits a sweet new high: $17.6 billion


Valentine's Day spending is expected to reach an all-time high this year -- at least $17.6 billion. That's a lot of chocolate, cards, jewelry and unmentionables.

Those planning to celebrate the holiday are expected to drop an average of $126.03 per person, up 8.5% over last year, according to the National Retail Federation's annual survey. That's the highest total in the 10 years that the survey has been conducted.   

Valentine's Day is "one of the biggest gift-giving holidays of the year," federation Chief Executive Matthew Shay said in a statement. "It’s encouraging that consumers are still exhibiting the desire to spend on discretionary gift items, a strong indication our economy continues to move in the right direction."

The average male celebrating the holiday will spend $168.74 for the works -- flowers, dinner, gift, etc. By contrast, women will spend an average of $85.76.

Here's what all that spending looks like, according to the survey: Just over 35% of those surveyed will buy flowers, and 35.6% will treat someone to dinner. Nearly 19% of those surveyed will buy jewelry, and 13.3% will give their sweetheart a gift card. (We're pretty sure that those who give a card will not have an especially memorable Valentine's Day evening, but the survey did not explore that question.)

And just over half -- 50.5% -- of all Valentine's Day celebrants will buy candy.

One beloved chocolatier, See's Candies, sees about 3 million pounds of chocolate fly off its shelves this time of year. (See's, which recently celebrated its 95th anniversary, was the training ground for Lucille Ball and Vivian Vance in the famous "I Love Lucy" conveyor-belt scene.)

It might surprise you to know that Valentine's Day is not the company's biggest selling holiday, or even its second-biggest. Valentine's Day ranks No. 3, behind Christmas and Easter.

"Valentine's is a fairly short-selling season," See’s President Brad Kinstler told The Times. "The real sales don't start coming in until Feb. 1. And then it's a lot of activity compressed into a few days."

By contrast, the Christmas selling season begins after Thanksgiving and lasts until Dec. 24. And Easter is all about chocolate and candy, unlike Valentine's Day, which can also be about baubles and roses.

Kinstler said See's outlets will be jam-packed all day Tuesday with customers -- mainly men -- who woke up and realized they were about to be in the doghouse unless they came up with something super sweet, super fast.

When asked whether he was bringing home something sweet for someone special, Kinstler said: "Oh, I know what I am required to bring home." (See's dark chocolate butterchews are his wife's favorite.)

"But I did my shopping already, I didn't wait," he said.


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Valentine's Day: Conversation hearts find inspiration on Facebook

-- Rene Lynch

Photo: Red roses waiting to be shipped. Credit: AFP / Getty Images

Valentine's Day: Conversation hearts on Facebook? Sweet!

Remember conversation hearts? The candy makers are now turning to Facebook for sweet inspiration as they update the messages for next year
Before there was texting, there were conversation hearts -- and Valentine's Day just wouldn't be the same without them. Right now, someone, somewhere is sitting in a first-grade classroom getting his or her very first box of conversation hearts. You remember, dontcha -- those pastel hearts inscribed with sweet sayings such as "All Mine" and "Be True"?

This Valentine's Day will no doubt be awash in conversation hearts. The New England Confectionery Company (NECCO) produced a whopping 8 billion candy hearts for this sweet holiday, shipping 25 million units in all, including those classroom-exchange boxes. (They had the label on the back, so you could fill in the "To:" and "From:" lines and bring a bunch to school for all your friends and, of course, let that special someone three desks over know he or she had an admirer.)

But some things have changed. Pick up a box today and you'll notice the candy colors seem a little more vibrant, the flavors both tart and sweet. But what will really catch your eye? The messages. Over the years, the company has tinkered with the sayings ... to mixed results.

ALSO: Valentine's Day gets a Google Doodle

Most folks were OK with ditching now-dated sayings like "Fax Me," in favor of "Text Me" or "Tweet Me," Al Gulachenski, the candy company's chief executive, told The Times. Other sayings that got the ax include "Melt My Heart," "Sugar Pie" and "Purr-fect" in favor of "Ur It" and "Hold Hands."

Some updates didn't go over so well. Racy sayings such as "Ur Hot," "Hottie," even "Bite Me" struck some as just too much, a sign that the company was trying a bit too hard to appeal to a younger generation. (Evidence: a Facebook fanpage called "Bring back the old conversation hearts!!!!!")

In days past, the company accepted recommendations via mail for updated sayings. "We used to do it the old-fashioned way. All year long, people would send in letters and we'd keep a tally. Nobody puts stamps on things anymore," Gulachenski said.

This year, for the first time, the company is turning to Facebook to allow customers to guide the conversation for next Valentine's Day. You can weigh in over at the Facebook page for CVS, which is a major retailer of the 'lil sweets.

Conversation hearts have been around a long time. Since 1902, in fact, according to NECCO's history page. Now they're part of the national conversation, used as wedding favors, on edible wreaths and as inspiration for spinoffs. Such as mini cheesecakes. "They are a favorite; they are unique because they're something that's edible but also gives a message," Gulachenski said.

We asked Gulachenski whether this month was a mad, frantic rush at the candy company. Nope. In fact, it's just the opposite -- kind of quiet. "We stopped shipping Valentine's Day sometime in December. We're on to Easter," he said.


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Abraham Lincoln gets Hollywood reboot -- as a vampire hunter

-- Rene Lynch

Photo credit: New England Confectionery Company

Abraham Lincoln gets a Hollywood reboot -- as a vampire hunter

Abraham Lincoln is known by many labels. The Great Emancipator. The Rail Splitter. The 16th president. Honest Abe. "That guy on Mt. Rushmore." And the face of the $5 bill.

But this summer he'll be reintroduced to America with a new moniker: "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

20th Century Fox honored Honest Abe on Monday by posting online a trailer for the hotly anticipated summer movie "Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter."

Compare that with -- yawn -- the various ways the rest of the country is honoring the 203rd anniversary of Lincoln's Feb. 12, 1809, birth. Some schools are giving students the day off; some states are shutting down all city, county and state offices; and no doubt the countless memorials and monuments erected nationwide in Lincoln's honor will see increased foot traffic all this week.

"Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter" is a fantasy-fueled horror-thriller that re-engineers Lincoln as a politician who, in his spare time, wields a battle ax in his bid to crush vampires and their slave-owning helpers. Lincoln is also out to avenge his mother's death at the hands of such a supernatural creature.

Benjamin Walker plays Lincoln in the movie, which is based upon the book of the same name by author Seth Grahame-Smith. The fictional tome expresses itself through Lincoln's previously undiscovered journal of his quest for vengeance, a quest that takes him all the way to the White House. (Not familiar with this new history-marries-horror genre? It's also given birth to the likes of "Alice in Deadland," "George Washington Werewolf," "Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.")

The film is produced by Tim Burton and directed by Timur Bekmambetov ("Wanted," "Night Watch") and you can see both influences in the action-packed trailer, which is creating a lot of buzz online Monday. It's slated for release June 22.

Happy birthday, Abraham Lincoln.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Jennifer Hudson tribute to Whitney Houston: The must-see video

Jennifer Hudson's tribute to Whitney Houston at the Grammys on Sunday night was a heartbreaking showstopper. And it's easy to see why.

The producers of the 54th Annual Grammy Awards had to scramble to find a way to revamp the awards show to honor Whitney Houston just hours after the singer was declared dead under mysterious circumstances in her Beverly Hilton room in Beverly Hills. The 48-year-old pop legend had long struggled with drug addiction.

Houston's memory loomed large over the awards, with host L.L. Cool J. starting the show by addressing the challenge of celebrating music on a night tinged with such heartache. "There is no way around this. We had a death in our family," he said before leading the audience at Staples Center in a prayer for "our sister Whitney."

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But all agreed — including Houston's mentor, Clive Davis — that Houston would have wanted the show to go on. So it did.

Hudson's emotional rendition of "I Will Always Love You" did not try to compete with Houston's version of the song. Instead, it paid homage and deference to a voice for the ages, a voice that influenced so many other performers, Hudson among them.

Wearing a somber yet elegant black dress and backlighted, Hudson's hair and makeup (particularly those glossy, nude lips) recalled Houston in her heyday. Still, Hudson nonetheless put her own twist on the song, finishing it this way: "Whitney, we love, we love you."


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— Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

'Lonely old widow' lawmaker becomes voice for same-sex marriage

Washington state is the focus of one of the most hotly-debated issues of our time: same-sex marriage. Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, is poised to sign a bill next week that would allow such unions. And she does so with the support of Washington state lawmaker Maureen Walsh, a Republican, who broke ranks in order to support same-sex marriage.

That's how Walsh became an online celebrity and champion for gays and lesbians everywhere.

Walsh explains in the must-see video above that she wrestled with the question of same-sex marriages for some time. A widow of several years, Walsh said she desperately misses her husband. And not just because of the sex. (Although she misses that.) She says she misses the emotional bond that they shared. And when she realized that, she said, she knew how she'd vote on the same-sex marriage issue.

"How could I deny anyone the right to have that incredible bond with another individual in life?" she says. "To me it seems almost cruel." Walsh also says she hopes to one day throw a great big wedding for her daughter, who came out of the closet a few years ago.

It's no surprise that this video has gone viral -- watched, shared, posted and commented upon thousands upon thousands of times in the last 48 hours.

One indicator of its popularity: Actor George Takei of "Star Trek" fame, known more recently for his advocacy of gay rights, posted it on his Facebook page. The video has so far been shared more than 6,000 times from that page alone. It also has more than 13,000 "likes" -- again, from that page alone.

Watch the video and see what the fuss is about. Note that there is one glaring error in the video. Walsh starts out a bit nervously and says "I don't wax as eloquently as the people on the floor here."

Whether you support same-sex marriage or oppose it, there's no denying that Walsh eloquently states her case.


Madonna breaks silence, rips M.I.A. over Super Bowl 'bird'

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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Madonna breaks silence, rips M.I.A. over Super Bowl 'bird'


Madonna broke her silence Friday morning on the uproar that followed her Super Bowl XLVI halftime show, which was upstaged when fellow performer M.I.A. appeared to curse and gave the middle finger to the more than 110 million viewers watching.

Madonna said that she only learned of the antics after the fact -- and was none too pleased.

"I was really surprised," she told Ryan Seacrest during a call-in interview to "On Air With Ryan Seacrest." "I didn’t know anything about it. I wasn’t happy about it. I understand it’s punk rock and everything, but to me there was such a feeling of love and good energy and positivity, it seemed negative."

She added: "It’s such a teenager … irrelevant thing to do … there was such a feeling of love and unity there, what was the point? It was just out of place."

We'll pause while you recall the days when Madonna was the anti-establishment icon causing controversy ...

Back to the news:

Madonna, 53, was poised to go down in Super Bowl history for a glamorous, star-studded performance that many say ranked as one of the best Super Bowl halftime shows ever. Now the performance also goes into the history books as being marred by the vulgarity and rude gesture -- which happened so quickly they escaped many audiences. The word and gesture also slipped by NBC, which was too slow to catch them.

The fallout over M.I.A.'s actions pales in comparison to the uproar -- and record fine -- that followed Nipplegate. (You remember, the now-infamous 2004 halftime show featuring Justin Timberlake, Janet Jackson and Janet Jackson's nipple.)

Still, there seems to be an awful lot of radio silence about this "bird" flipping incident.

The Federal Communications Commission, which cracked down on CBS after Nipplegate, has declined to comment on whether it's conducting any sort of inquiry in the wake of the national flipping off, or whether it's even received any complaints. The NFL and NBC, which carried Super Bowl XLVI, have apologized. But they haven't answered questions -- such as those from the Los Angeles-based Parents Television Council -- or offered assurances about how they'll prevent this from happening again.

And M.I.A. herself? She appears to be, well, M.I.A.

She hasn't been seen from or heard from since Sunday, although her Twitter feed shows that she -- or someone with access to her account -- retweeted a post from Benjamin Bronfman. He's the son of Seagram heir Edgar Bronfman, father to M.I.A.'s child, Ikhyd, and if the New York Daily News is to be believed, main caretaker of the boy.

Bronfman's Tweet said: "its sad to see our media in such a state of unfounded gossipy nonsense when there are real problems in the world".

In recent hours, he has also Tweeted much support to M.I.A., including repeatedly calling her a "great" mom.


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-- Rene Lynch
Twitter / renelynch

Photo: Madonna performs during the Super Bowl XLVI Halftime Show at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, Ind. Credit: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images


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Rene Lynch has been an editor and writer in Metro, Sports, Business, Calendar and Food. @ReneLynch

As an editor and reporter, Michael Muskal has covered local, national, economic and foreign issues at three newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times. @latimesmuskal

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