In the white, middle-class, Reader's Digest world in which I was raised, the joke was: "They've been married so long, they're on their second bottle of Tabasco." In those days, the stuff lingered in cupboards until it oxidized pond-water brown, which further lowered the possibility that someone might actually consume it. Later, consumption of hot sauces became a guy thing—a measure of masculinity—weightier in some circles than quiche rejection or penile heft. Real men drank sauces right out of the bottle and put Mexi-Pep in their beer. But times, they are a-changin'. The new machisma is not only giving women solid biceps and male stress disorders; it seems they're going at hot sauces as hard as they are at their sparring partners. Women account for 25 to 35 percent of sales at The Firehouse (219 Broadway, Alley Building, 568-0144), a Capitol Hill emporium crammed with over 900 hot sauces and a bevy of marinades, pepper rubs, powdered blends, and custom gift packs. Though tiny, The Firehouse is sort of a community center. It's fun to stand around and listen as the junkies wander in and the talk gets hot. People swap recipes, swig from sauce bottles, and tell war stories. Adam Karlin, a partner in the venture, says, "We have the brutally hot, but these days it's all about flavor." Hotness comes from a substance called capsicum, which collects in the veins of peppers. Like heroin, tolerance is gained by using. In other words, the more you eat, the hotter you can stand or crave. Crackheads and fire-eaters live by this concept. The heat of peppers is measured in multiples of 100 "Scoville units." The little thermometers on some salsa bottles are roughly based on the Scoville scale. Although there's some pretense of science to this measurement, it's a subjective rating based on the consensus of panels of three people who rate pepper power. The wimpiest peppers, like paprika or cherry peppers, measure around 100; jalape� serranos, and chili oils come in at 10,000, Tabasco and cayenne at 12,000, while Texas Fireballs and Bahama Mamas go way up to 20,000. Ten years ago, however, Americans were exposed to another pepper that measures in megatonnage. It's known variously as Se�Bombasta, the Caribbean Sweat Curse, La Contusion, or the Scotch Bonnet. It's the baddest pepper of them all—the Jamaican red savina habenero, which pushes the mercury up to300,000 units. They're considered inedible by some meek horticulturists, but you can find them in produce departments of many local supermarkets these days. They're two inches in diameter and look deceptively innocent, like little Chinese lanterns in yellow, green, or red. They smile dishonestly as they mark you for the kill. As word of the habaneros and their machismatic possibilities spread, a new industry sprang up to meet the needs of the new fire-eaters. Hundreds of sauces with elaborate labels (and brewed in unlikely places like New Jersey) have created a bottled renaissance of styles, flavors, and firepower. Here are a few, starting with the hottest. Dave's Insanity Sauce ($5.99): This stuff separates the peppergrrls from the boys. Dave, who customarily wears a straightjacket, made national headlines a few years ago when he and his Insanity Sauce were kicked out of Albuquerque's prestigious National Fiery Foods Show. Officials said Dave's sauce was dangerous to public health. Then there's the guy who put it on his terrarium to keep his parrot from bothering his turtle. After pecking the sauce, the bird reportedly jumped back in its cage and yelled, "Asshole!" Even CBS' Bryant Gumbel, breaking his vow of blandness, once said, "Boy, this stuff is hot." On the shelves in time for Christmas, Dave's Ultimate Insanity ($9.99) is reputedly three times hotter than the original. These extreme sauces don't depend on habaneros for power; nowadays, they're kicked with pure capsicum. (NOTE: There's a delicate matter I'd be remiss not to mention here. These very hot sauces truly are gifts that keep on giving, if you get my drift. If you don't, it probably more than suffices to say that, like the match that burns twice, or the dog whose bark echoes in your next life, the egress can be as attention-getting as the ingest. You have been warned.) If you're not trying to prove anything—you just want heat and flavor, or a gift for a friendship that needs heating up—here are some other suggestions. Pepper Girl Brand Big Top Fantasy ($5.99): A unique habanero sauce with finely minced cucumbers, basil, garlic, and red onion, it's great in potato or pasta salad, and a natural for sandwiches. Somehow the subtle flavor of the cucumbers and basil comes through the fire. Pepper Girls Brand is an innovative company that favors flavor over heat. Try their "Bad Girls in Heat," a papaya-pumpkin habanero sauce, or "Fifi's Nasty Little Secret," with pineapples and jalape� These are the only sauces I know of that claim to be aphrodisiacal, hence their motto: "Our sauces arouse more than taste buds." Craig's Chipotle Sauce ($4.99): "New Jersey's finest," and a first place winner at the 1997 Fiery Foods Show. It's a rich, ruddy red sauce made from smokey chipotle peppers and tangy with peaches and brown sugar. Chipotles (pronounced chip-OAT-lees) are smoked Sonorran jalepe�with moderate heat and lots of extra flavor. They've become popular in recent years and are found crushed in a great variety of forms besides sauces—powders, salsas, and seasoning blends. Amazon Hot 'n' Sweet Mango Sauce ($4.99): Another deadly substance from Colombia—but this one's legal. This sauce is one of a genre of translucent, fruit-based Caribbean sauces made with mangoes, passion fruit, and habaneros. A sweet sauce, it's good with cured meats like sausages or ham, or on almost any fish, and it comes in varying temperatures. This can be a gateway drug—start your jones by beginning mild and working your way up the Scoville. Scorned Woman ($4.99): I know, "hell hath no fury," but you have nothing to fear with this well-crafted sauce from Atlanta's Oak Hill Farms. In a perfect world, it would replace Tabasco as the everyday table sauce in the breakfast places, barbecue joints, and motherly cupboards of America. It's hotter than Tabasco, but without the rough vinegary twang that turns off lots of pepper-sauce fans. Try it as a condiment for omelets or tacos, or as a way to vitalize a listless salsa. You can cook with it as well; use it in stir-frys, chili, soups, stews, or extreme desserts. Alligator Bayou Louisiana Barbecue Sauce ($5.99): There are lots of sauces for grilling meats and fish. Alligator Bayou is a certified Cajun sauce and, with typical Cajun understatement, claims to be "pretty hot." It's actually only jalape�ot, but also spicy with Cajun seasonings and reduced nice and thick, sweet but tangy. It's made of ketchup, like so many other good things in life that come from Louisiana. This is a good starter sauce for intermediate pepper bellies—a healthy step up from the old Kraft Hickory Smoke. Michael Hood is a regular contributor to Seattle Weekly.