Houshmand cooks up scholarships
GLASSBORO — Although hot peppers of all types are grown all over his native Iran, Rowan University President Dr. Ali Houshmand didn’t get the hot sauce bug until he was living in Cincinnati.
Now with his own line of specialty hot sauces — which he uses to raise scholarship money for needy students who wish to attend Rowan — Houshmand and his crew of helpers have entered the $5 billion worldwide hot sauce market. He’s been using the nearby Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton, a licensed, certified commercial kitchen facility, to make large batches of his hot sauce for the last five years.
Houshmand also has taken Rowan University’s curriculum further down agricultural and aquaculture paths.
Houshmand was raised just outside Tehran, Iran’s largest city, one of 12 children. Both his parents were illiterate, he said. He developed a fascination with produce, helping his father at his produce market at night and on weekends.
That led him to an interest in growing his own vegetables and agriculture. He left Iran in 1975, moving first to England to attend the University of Essex to study math.
He came to the United States in 1983 to study engineering in Ohio and later Michigan.
“Hot peppers are grown all over Iran and they vary in taste depending on where you are, but I didn’t start growing hot peppers until I was a professor in Cincinnati,” Houshmand said. “There, I had a number of graduate students from India and I loved gardening so I grew them. Eventually I grew so many hot peppers, I started cooking and making hot sauces out there in Ohio. Eventually I developed a recipe for hot sauce that I have had for years now.”
Houshmand’s hot sauces come in three varieties: Ali’s Nasty; Nastylicious, and the hottest or highest on the Scoville scale, Nastyvicious.
Bob Ferretti of Hillsborough formed his non-profit venture, HotSauce4 Good, a decade ago and is among regular attendees at the annual International Hot Sauce Show in New York City.
Dr. Houshmand’s story began with making bottled hot sauces in his home kitchen and giving the bottles to friends.
“About six years ago, one of my staff asked whether I could make a few extra jars of hot sauce to auction off for the University,” he said. “Then people became interested and it started becoming popular and people were asking for more hot sauces, so I made several more batches, and that’s really how it took off, on campus first, and eventually we developed the recipes and partnered with the Rutgers Food Innovation Center in Bridgeton to begin to perfect our processes over there.”
Not planning on entering the $5 billion worldwide hot sauce market, Dr. Houshmand said competition was the furthest thing from his mind, initially.
“I wasn’t thinking about competition when I started making hot sauce in big batches,” he said. “But hey, I’m always ready for competition; this is a democratic and capitalistic society so you present your case and you compete against whoever is out there and let the best man win. But I truly think we have a great hot sauce and a great brand here.”
Dr. Houshmand, ensconced since 2006 in farm-rich southern New Jersey counties like Gloucester, Salem and Cumberland, said he has a great deal of love, admiration and respect for farmers, not just in south Jersey, but around the United States.
“Aside from the respect I have for food and the interest I have with food, I have enormous respect for farmers. I consider farmers to be among the greatest human beings. I think in a global economy they take the short end of the stick and they are economically deprived. They are doing very important work, feeding the world, so it’s all very upsetting to me,” he said. “I really believe they are the greatest human beings in this country and around the world, and their portion of GDP is not enough.”
The loss of farmland and small farms in south Jersey concerns him a great deal, he said, “and it’s a shame, because the farmers are getting older and they often can’t find anyone to take over their preserved farms, so it makes me wonder about the rest of this country: what’s going to happen to this country 20 or 30 years from now if this trend continues around the U.S.?”
Dr. Houshmand added he recognizes the United States’s agricultural legacy and roots, and has read extensively about a time just about 60 years ago when college kids would return from school for the summer to work on the family farm.
Dr. Houshmand grows all his hot pepper varieties from seeds on a farm on the West Campus of Rowan University off Route 322, about a mile away from the main campus in Glassboro, or Harrison Township. There, Dr. Houshmand and a growing group of students cultivate all manner of vegetables, not just hot peppers.
Since he moved to the Glassboro area in 2006 to become president of Rowan, Houshmand has seen too many smaller farms disappear, so he’s been actively recruiting students to get involved in Rowan’s growing agriculture and aquaculture curriculums.
“I have about 12 students who actively help me on the farm growing peppers and other vegetables and I pay them,” he said. All the vegetables raised on the Rowan farm go to area food banks, and he looks after about 2,000 pepper plants on his portion of the farm.
“We are using this opportunity to start a major agricultural degree program so the purpose of my involvement in farming is to encourage more students to get involved in farming. We will be launching a degree program very soon,” he said. Houshmand added three years ago, Rowan was gifted a 42-acre aquaculture facility near Carney’s Point in Salem County, and that program is just starting to evolve as well.
“Here is what is most important: Any nation that cannot feed itself is doomed to be destroyed, especially this country that has the most beautiful land and some of the most healthy soils and enough farmland and water and the best ecology and environmental programs. It would be a shame if we lose that here in the USA.”