Why eat the hottest pepper in the world?

Ghost pepper

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 measly 8,000.

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 it, 

"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 clenched teeth."

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 deal."

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 Flickr


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