Recently Slate posed a question that has puzzled us for
a long time. In Eating Fire, they ask:
"Why do people feel compelled to put the world's spiciest
chili peppers in their mouths?" Indeed, in recent years, there has
been a contest to develop the hottest pepper in the world. In 2012,
the new scorpion pepper edged out the ghost pepper for that
illustrious title. To put this amount of heat in perspective, the
scorpion pepper has a Scoville unit rating of
1,463,700; a jalepeno, by contrast, can only go up to a
Obviously there wouldn't be this competition if people
didn't actually eat these peppers. But why inflict so much pain?
Slate has a theory that it is a courage ritual:
"Ultra-hot peppers occupy a unique role in the West.
They have been created specifically for the purpose of being
horribly painful to people (usually men) who deliberately inflict
this pain on themselves-typically in front of others. Other
cultures have analogs of this behavior: The men of one Amazon tribe
cover their hands with venomous ants in a ceremony so painful that
one American participant said that he would have cut off his arm
with a machete to stop the pain if he'd been able to. Other
cultures enjoy ritual cutting or scheduled beatings. Young American
men sometimes consent to hazing rituals in the course of rushing a
fraternity or joining a sports team, but rarely do they involve
pain as pointed as that of eating an ultra-hot pepper."
Of course, hot pepper addicts (and, yes, it can be an
addicition) propose an alternative scientific reason for eating
super-hot peppers. Eating capsaicin (the chemical in the peppers
that carries the heat) is supposed to provide a natural high from
the endorphins that are generated by the body in reaction to the
pain - endorphins being a pain killer. Somehow, however, the
thought of enduring the pain first would, we would think, stop
someone in their tracks.
Interesting, it did not stop Jackson Landers, the
author, and his friend Jenny (it's not just males who
succumb) from trying a scorpion pepper - raw. As he describes
"The scorpion pepper creeps up on you, getting
incrementally fiercer over the course of a minute or so until your
whole face feels like it has turned into lava. At roughly the same
moment, Jenny and I both leapt off of my couch and ran for the
kitchen. We madly mixed together everything that was supposed to
help mitigate the effect of spicy food: milk, oil, and sugar,
poured haphazardly first into our cups and then directly into our
mouths. The combination provided momentary relief.
"Let's never do this again," I croaked from between
But, by the end of article, he has actually talked
himself into appreciating the experiment: "Having eaten the
world's hottest pepper, I feel that there's nothing the world can
throw at me that's any worse than what I've already experienced.
That's a very powerful sensation. For the cost of a vegetable and
an hour or so of one's time, it's actually a pretty good
We'd never do it, but it's an interesting question:
Would any of you? And we certainly acknowledge that there are
many of us who do enjoy a moderate (at least compared to the above
story) jolt of heat. The EYB Library lists over 166,000 recipes in our
member's libraries that call for chiles.
Photo courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar on