I Eat the Heat, Therefore I Am

This story appears in the Fall 2013 issue of Eidé Magazine. Read it here, or click to read it in the issue below.

SOME LIKE IT HOT. SOME LIKE IT REALLY HOT. SOME LIKE IT SO HOT THAT THEIR EYES TEAR UP, THEIR HANDS CRAMP AND THEIR TONGUE, THROAT, AND LIPS CRINGE AND BURN FOR HOURS ON END.

We’ve pondered for centuries what separates humans from other living mammals, and one answer is such: humans like it hot, eating and enjoying chili peppers at will.

It’s the thrill of it all, really.

When capsaicin, the element of chili that causes the spiciness, comes into contact with the tongue, it stimulates somatosensory (pain/temperature) fibers, and the body believes that it is on fire. Pain-relieving endorphins are released, increasing the body’s threshold for pain. Numbness overcomes the affected area, and a euphoria sets in — a chemical reaction similar to morphine. A kind of natural addiction ensues, and we are in need of our next heat-fix.

It’s an evolutionary quirk, as all other mammals steer clear of the fruits dangling on the low bushes. Humans choose to stomach the heat, assuring our tongues and bodies that we are not actually on fire. Call it a higher brain function (or not), such tolerance and subsequent pleasure illuminates human’s intricate relationship between body and mind, placing physical and immaterial desires so strangely at odds.

SPICY, OR “PIQUANT,” IS NOT TECHNICALLY A TASTE SINCE THE SENSATION DOES NOT ARISE FROM TASTE BUDS. IT’S A FEELING. ONE THAT BURN, BURN, BURNS.

Originally cultivated to enliven mundane rice or corn-based diets, the chili’s sensation creates an outlet for the flavor-repressed. And in the land of corn syrup and processed sugars, Americans take their repressed frustrations to the extreme. Don’t names like Blair’s Pure Death, Lethal Ingestion, Spontaneous Combustion, Crazy Mother Pucker’s Fire Roasted Confusion, Vicious Viper and Colon Blow, “A Red Habanero Enema,” sound like the perfect accompaniments to your chicken salad sandwich?

This obsession to pursue the ultimate heat is seemingly an American quirk. Where other cultures integrate the heat of the chili into their daily digestion and cuisines, American chiliheads (those that consume the chili, devotedly) see only the danger, the challenge, the masochistic provocation of the bulbous fruit. From sports to fashion to reality television, we possess a knack for upcycling pain into national entertainment. And our ingestion predilections should be no different.

Dr. Paul Rozin, the self-proclaimed father of disgust in psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, theorizes about the pleasures of “constrained risk.” “Humans seem to enjoy situations in which their bodies warn them of danger but they know they are really okay,” he says. In researching people’s thresholds and preferences for spiciness, Rozin found that subjects chose the highest piquant in- tensity “just below the level of unbearable pain,” concluding, “They like the burn.”

But the burning, cringing, numbness and pains of this cruel capsaicin heals. The Native Americans first discovered the health benefits of chili peppers, using the pepper pods on their gums to ease toothaches. Nowadays, topical creams of capsaicin provide relief of pain from neuropathy, arthritis, headaches and minor aches in muscles and joints.

Capsaicin is very effective in preventing chronic sinus infections, as many have personally experienced the clearing out of congested nasal passages by eating something spicy. Longterm exposure therefore helps prevent sinus-related allergy symptoms.

Moreover, recent studies suggest capsaicin can kill off prostate cancer cells, noting a correlation between increased cell death and capsaicin. The capsaicin’s cartenoids and flavonoids scavenge free radicals (cancer-inducing molecules) within our system, so people who eat a lot of chili peppers have a lower incidence of prostate cancer.

But chiliheads could care less about such benefits. Granted, these are perks, but for the heat-addicted there is no cure. There will always be something hotter to taste. And someone will be there to film it, I’m sure.

WHY DO WE GO TO EXTREMES? BECAUSE WE CAN. WE’RE HUMANS AFTER ALL. 

I Eat the Heat

BELL PEPPER: 0 SCU Capsicum annum (This is the only chili that does not actually produce capsaicin due to a recessive form of a gene.) Name: Christopher Columbus gave the name “pepper” to this plant when he brought it back to Europe. At that time, peppercorn, the fruit of an unrelated plant originating from India, was a highly prized condiment, so the name “pepper” was applied to all known spices with a hot and pungent taste. Found: China is the world’s largest bell pepper producer. Common Uses: These can be sliced raw for dipping or salads, stuffed and roasted, or grilled on kebabs.

ANAHEIM: 500 – 5,000 SCU Capsicum annum Name: “Anaheim” comes from Emilio Ortega, the farmer who brought the seeds to Anaheim, California, where Ortega grew these chilis commercially in the early 1900s. Found: Anaheim peppers originated in New Mexico. Common Uses: Most popular preparation is stuffing them to make chile rellenos, or used raw in salsas.

JALEPENO: 2,500 – 10,000 SCU Capsicum annum Name: The jalapeno is named after the Mexican town of Xalapa. Fact: “Jalapenos” can refer to the spicy chili or the residents of the town itself. Common Uses: Jalapenos are often smoked into chipotles, while jalapeno juice can be a remedy for seasonal allergies and cardiovascular problems.

SERRANO: 10,000 – 23,000 SCU Capsicum annum Name: “Serrano” is a reference to the sierra or mountainous regions of Mexico’s Pueb- la and Hidalgo where the chili originated. Found: It is one of the most used chili peppers in Mexican cuisine, and the country produces over 180,000 tons each year. Common Uses: Since this chili is particularly fleshy, it is often used in making pico de gallo sauces and salsas.

THAI CHILI: 75,000 – 150,00 SCU Capsicum annum Name: Native to Southeast Asia, it is also called the “Thai Dragon” due to its resemblance to claws. Fact: The Garos of Meghalaya called it jal·ik meseki (where jal·ik = chili; mese- ki = mouse dropping) because of the native strain’s tiny shape. Common Uses: Appears on most people’s tables alongside the salt and pepper as a chili fish sauce, while often minced to season meats.

SCOTCH BONNET: 100,000 – 325,000 SCU Capsicum chinense Name: This chili is named for its resemblance to the Scottish bonnet “Tam O’Shanter” — the brimless beret with a pom-pom in the center. Found: Native mainly in the Caribbean, the Maldives Islands and West Africa. Common Uses: This chili is what gives jerk dishes their unique flavor.

HABANERO: 100,000 – 350,000 SCU Capsicum chinense Name: “Habanero” translates to “of Havana” from the theory that it originated in Cuba. Found: Native to Central and South America. Common Uses: Habaneros are an integral part of Yucatecan food. In America, they are the chili often chosen for sweet and spicy recipes, in jellies, sauces and mixed drinks.

NAGA BHUT JOLOKIA: 330,000 – 1,032,310 SCU Capsicum chinense Name: Where “bhut” translates to “ghost” from several Indian languages, the “Naga” is believed to refer to the ferocious Naga warriors of the Naga tribes in northeast India, who were known head hunters. Fact: Scientists at India’s Defense Research and Development Organization announced plans to use the peppers in hand grenades, as a non-lethal way to flush out terrorists from their hideouts. Uses: This chili is used mostly in hot sauces and curries. While in northeastern India, the peppers are smeared on fences or incorporated in smoke bombs as a safety precaution to keep wild elephants at a distance.

TRINIDAD MORUGA SCORPION: 580,198 – 2,009,231 SCU Capsicum chinense (As of February 2013 this is declared the world’s hottest Chili pepper cultivated). Name: This pepper is indigenous to Maruga in Trinidad and Tobago. The “scorpion” namesake ensures consumers know what they are up against. Found: Endemic to the district of Moruga in Trinidad and Tobago. Common Uses: Besides for hot sauce, this chili is strictly an academic chili.

New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute is the only international, non-profit, scientific organization devoted to education and research related to chilies. Each year their team plants 100+ chilis of the hottest varieties to test which is the hottest. Perhaps there will be a new victor next year.