Eating Fire

Why do people feel compelled to put the world’s spiciest chili peppers in their mouths?

I’ve always wanted to be the kind of guy who eats really spicy things. Nobody wants to be the wimp who orders the mild Buffalo wings when everyone else at the table is opting for “nuclear.” But I also never wanted to be the guy with tears of pain running down his face, reaching for the bread and choking out a request for a glass of milk. Jalapeños were about as hot as I would go, and only in small doses—preferably diffused by a hefty dose of cheese and tortilla chips. If you had asked me the week before I did it, I would have scoffed at the notion of voluntarily chewing and swallowing the world’s hottest pepper.

Peppers taste hot because of a chemical called capsaicin that causes our nerve cells to react as if they have been burned, though without doing any actual damage. The amount of capsaicin in a pepper is measured on a scale of Scoville units. Banana peppers, those greenish-yellow antipasto favorites, are rated at up to 900 Scoville units—I can handle those. Jalapeños clock in at between 3,500 and 8,000 Scovilles. Cayenne pepper, which is sold ground and in crushed red pepper blends, comes in at over 30,000 Scoville units. I ate a flake of that stuff once at Pizza Hut when I was 8 years old and haven’t touched any cayenne since.

Ghost peppers, which held the Guinness world record between 2007 and 2011, hit about 1,001,000 on the Scoville scale. But in early 2012, a new variety of scorpion pepper was accepted into the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s hottest. Native to Trinidad and Tobago, it is so named for the pointed bottom of the fruit, which indeed resembles the stinger of a scorpion. The Butch T variety of the scorpion pepper (named after Butch Taylor, the American who developed it) blows the ghost pepper out of the water at 1,463,700 Scovilles.

Butch T Scorpion pepper
Butch T Scorpion pepper

Courtesy of eBay

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.

One evening last October, my friend Jenny brought me some Butch T peppers she had grown in her garden. I had invited a few friends over to make bear burgers and jalapeño bear poppers (long story). As we cooked and ate, these red, wrinkled little peppers seemed to taunt us from the kitchen counter.

Call it peer pressure if you like, or chalk it up to one too many beers. In any case, these peppers refused to be ignored. Before I knew it, Jenny and I were each holding a pepper in our hands. We looked each other in the eye, toasted our peppers warily, and then simultaneously popped them into our mouths and began to chew. My girlfriend decided to record the entire thing on my camera. (This was before I discovered the small community of people on YouTube who like to record their experiences eating incredibly hot peppers. Millions of people watch these videos for entertainment—when pain is deliberately self-inflicted, misery becomes hilarious.)

At first, the pepper didn’t taste hot at all—in fact, it had a gentle floral flavor. After a few seconds, the heat began to hit. This pepper was hotter than anything I had ever tasted. But it was about to get worse.

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.

The problem with never doing it again is that one can only hold the credential of having eaten the world’s hottest pepper for so long. Breeding ultra-hot peppers is an international arms race. Hobbyists and commercial growers are constantly trying to develop new varieties that will top the previous record and claim the title. Holding the record means both bragging rights and marketing muscle—or even military muscle. In 2009 the Indian military announced plans to weaponize the ghost pepper: Incorporated into sprays or grenades, the chili’s nightmarish Scoville assault would temporarily blind and disable any human target. However, most of the market for ultra-hot peppers is in hot-sauce manufacturing. The claim that a sauce is made with the world’s hottest pepper is a reliable advertising hook (though, of course, such products can be diluted so that one made with scorpion peppers isn’t necessarily any hotter than a bottle made from habañeros).

Weaponry and marketing aside, is there any good reason for these types of peppers to exist? I would never have put that pepper in my mouth if it hadn’t held the “world’s hottest” title. I ate it in order to win bragging rights for having eaten it. But that doesn’t mean eating hot peppers is merely a meaningless display of machismo. Ritualized pain is an invisible talisman of sorts: 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.