What would possess someone to eat a Carolina Reaper pepper? This writer tried to find out.
Leigh Cowart explores the gruesome ways people find pleasure in pain in 'Hurts So Good.'
From Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart, copyright © 2021. Reprinted by permission of PublicAffairs, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Parked in the dusty lot of the county fairgrounds in Auburn, California, I’m in the driver’s seat of a rental car, hands imperceptibly trembling. There’s a cold bottle of water sweating in the cup holder, a one-use relic of end-stage capitalism that will outlast us all. I’m recording the preamble to my pepper-eating video over and over again, the insides of my lungs thrumming with excitement. (I’m scared.) The seats are deep and dark, and all the lights shining through the icons on the dash are red, making me feel like I am in a spaceship. This feels ominous, appropriate, given the journey I’m about to blast off on. I’m stalling with repeated takes, chipperly talking to my phone over and over, wedging it this way and that in the steering wheel. I’m stalling even now, even writing this, somewhat reticent to fully revisit the sadistic contours of the Carolina Reaper pepper experience I was about to bite into.
It’s a wonder, this, the hottest pepper in the world: its green stem between my fingers, its body having all the innocuity of a strawberry, with which it shares both size and hue. Looking at it, I feel the same way as when I hold a tab of acid or a test tube of particularly virulent Pseudomonas or a superlatively mean plastic flogger. The potential of a thing, radiating outward from it at a frequency only heard by those with ears tuned to its call. I’ve taken mushrooms on purpose, and I’ve taken mushrooms not on purpose, and I must say, I treated the humble object carrying the experience within it with much more reverence when I knew of its Precious Cargo.
I know what this pepper is. I know who grew it: Greg Foster, who holds the world record for most Reaper peppers eaten in one minute (120 grams, which came out to sixteen peppers, if you want to give it a shot). I know that this pepper is hot: I know its Scoville heat unit score (2.2 million, or roughly 600 times hotter than a single jalapeño pepper), and I know what it is going to do to me (very bad things). I’ve read countless essays about what it’s like to eat the hottest pepper in the world, watched a guy on YouTube smoke one in his bong, flipped through episodes of Hot Ones, where celebrities like Idris Elba and Paul Rudd choke down molten-hot chicken wings while being interviewed and weeping. I’ve spoken with world-class hot pepper eaters, read stacks of scientific papers about capsaicin, know that dairy and alcohol can be used to soothe the pain that is coming. I guess I am as ready as I could possibly be.
But I did not bring beer or a milkshake or anything that might uncouple the capsaicin molecules from the receptors in my mouth. Foolish human. I want the full experience.
“If you keep them in, no matter what you do, you’re going to have, like, the worst night of your life,” says the UK Chili Queen, Shahina Waseem. She tells me that out of the 71 hot-pepper-eating competitions she’s entered, she has failed to throw up afterward 11 times, which meant that she got the dreaded cap cramps: gastric distress caused by capsaicin in the GI tract. “You can’t get up, you’re literally on the floor like palms up, you’re begging, and you get cold sweats, hot sweats, everything, and you’re literally begging for death.” She looks me in the eye, serious as the hell she’s describing. “It’s that painful. It’s like being stabbed multiple times, and it’s the worst feeling.” After that, she says, she learned her lesson. Whatever happens, she has to throw up. “It burns coming back up as well. But then you think, ‘Well, I’d much rather have that than, like, twelve hours of being on the floor, hunkered up, crying and screaming in agony.’”
Welcome to the 2019 Pepper Festival.
Shahina and I are chatting in a small, stand-alone structure on the California state fairgrounds surrounded by volunteers looking for their orders and musicians hiding from the sun, an array of single-serving chip bags, wet beers from the ice tub, and pepper eaters. Competitive pepper eaters. In fact, some of the most highly ranked pepper eaters on the planet. Shahina, one of the headliners for today’s main event, sits across from me. She is animated, sharp, striking. All the announcers today will comment on her small stature, as if her lack of bearishness would put her at a disadvantage in this battle of wills. It’s something American cis men love to do, act like smallness inherently brings with it a competitive disadvantage, even if that competition has nothing to do with stature. Sir, this is a chili-eating competition, not a football game. The Atomik Menace didn’t get his name because he’s a big dude; he got it downing superhots.
Shahina’s nervous. She tells me that rumor has it that her opponent today, Dustin “the Atomik Menace” Johnson, doesn’t feel pain in his mouth from chili peppers. A relative newcomer to the scene, he burst onto the international pepper-eating circuit with his win at Ed Currie’s Inaugural International Pepper-Eating Contest held a month ago. Ed Currie, for those outside the chili pepper community, is the creator of the Carolina Reaper pepper, which, as I will experience firsthand soon enough, is the current record holder for the hottest pepper in the world.
Dustin, however, refutes the rumor. “I do feel the burn. I honestly couldn’t imagine caring at all about spicy food if I didn’t,” he wrote to me when I asked. “I almost think I’d view it as narcissistic to enter contests without any feeling whatsoever,” he says, noting that he is just “relatively gifted that I don’t have major reactions.” He doesn’t, however, usually purge after competitions. “I don’t get cramps too much until they’re about fully digested,” he says, though I cannot tell how much of his stoicism is a well-tuned performance to psych out future competitors. He is quiet in person, well-spoken in writing, and terrifies people in the competitive pepper-eating circuit. Later in the day, Dustin the Stoic and Shahina the Emotive will battle it out at a plastic picnic table, stuffing themselves with superhot peppers, without water or any relief, in front of a cheering, rapt audience who is there to drink cold beer and watch them suffer.
Outside, a small crowd of people mills about the festival. There are food trucks and a stage for the bands; people selling vacation packages, snow cones, and T-shirts; a weed delivery service that can’t, technically, deliver in Auburn, which is heartbreaking. Rick Tracewell, the organizer of this event, stands in a white tent before a host of cardboard boxes lined in plastic and bursting with brightly colored peppers. But the main event, for now anyway, is inside the hollow, one-story building that stands low and long by the bounce house: the hot sauce expo.
It’s a blessing, this indoor activity, though somewhat ironic that the hottest happenings are coolly shielded from the burning September midday sun. Inside, the walls are lined with the tables of hot sauce vendors giving samples of their wares and chatting with pepperheads. There’s everything from honey-sweet pepper jams served on buttery crackers with gobs of cream cheese to concentrated capsaicin tincture hot enough to really make you wail. At one table, as I’m watering from a particularly mean habanero sauce, I ask the man behind the table why he has a sword. He offers to swallow it and let me pull it out of his throat, and when I do it, I can feel his throat muscles twitch around the blade. The person next to him then whips out a full bed of nails and asks me to step on their chest while they lie on it. I decide that I love the pepper festival.
Everyone is here today for one obvious reason: pain—theirs, or someone else’s. For now, it’s here in this room: couples with unequal capsaicin tolerances sampling salsa and falling into slapstick; people turning crimson and acting nonchalant; people turning crimson and not acting nonchalant. There are few true bystanders, abstaining completely from the peppers and their sauces, but they are still here, witness to the pain contorting so many faces in the crowd. Later, though, the pain will be spectacle at the pepper-eating contest. But regardless of whether the pain is on display or private, here today it’s coming from one little molecule: capsaicin.
There are many misconceptions about capsaicin, and for that matter capsaicinoids, a family of molecules of which it is a prominent member. I’ve heard that it can burn a hole in your throat or your stomach, but that’s not true. It also isn’t involved in gastric reflux or heartburn. I’ve heard people say that it can make you throw up blood, or shit blood, or cause otherwise graphic damage, but unless you are downing pure, crystallized capsaicin—which is, in that form, very dangerous—it’s just not the case. (I will say that if you have a bleeding gastric ulcer and throw up after eating a pepper, there will be blood in your puke, but the blood won’t be the pepper’s fault.) Capsaicin allergies are rare and affect fewer than 1 percent of the population, but, like laundry detergent and poison oak and nickel jewelry, capsaicin can cause contact dermatitis in some of those people. For most people, though, eating hot peppers isn’t harmful—it just hurts. And amazingly, the burn you feel after a steaming plate of buldak or Nashville-style hot chicken has nothing to do with your taste buds.
If we were to anthropomorphize molecules, I would say that capsaicin is a clever little shit. Structurally related to vanillin—the molecule in special orchid pods responsible for vanilla’s creamy, iconic flavor—capsaicin is a trickster. It doesn’t fuck with the taste receptors in your mouth that alert to things like sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami. No, capsaicin fucks with temperature receptors called TRPV1s.
Specifically, capsaicin is a heat mimic. It activates sensory neurons that alert the brain to the presence of actual heat, not the flavor of heat but real, kinetic energy heat. When you eat a very hot pepper, capsaicin binds a specific receptor, the kind that warns your brain when your coffee is too hot. When the competitors today start horking down handfuls of the hottest peppers in the world, their brains will alert to the presence of a molten, dangerous substance—lava, hot coals, actual fire, whatever. But there is no real threat. The game, then, is to sit there and withstand the very real pain without running screaming from the not-so-real danger.
(Mint works similarly, faking the sensation of cold. However, mint and hot peppers act on different receptors. An Altoid and habanero will not cancel each other out; if you eat them at the same time, you will have created inside your mouth an edible Icy Hot arthritis cream.)
How exactly do people determine just how spicy a pepper is? After all, the “world’s spiciest” designation is a coveted accolade, and a moving target. As such, peppers are ranked according to the Scoville scale. This scale is used to determine the spiciness of a pepper, which correlates with a number reported in Scoville heat units, or SHU. There are a couple of ways to do this test. The first involves drying the pepper in question, then mixing smaller and smaller quantities of the dried pepper powder in a mixture of water and sugar, until taste testers can no longer detect any spiciness. The degree of dilution required to squelch the heat corresponds with the Scoville score of the pepper.
That was the original and notoriously subjective version of the test, developed by American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1921. Today, we have high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which is a cherry method for separating, identifying, and quantifying the stuff of a liquid sample. Using HPLC, researchers can assess capsaicin concentrations without having to rely on the nonstandard and relative sensitivities of the human mouth.
So, what does this scale look like? At the bottom, with a score of 0 SHU, are bell peppers. They have the sweet and verdant flavors of peppers, with none of the heat whatsoever. Poblano peppers, with their mild, emerald flesh come in at around 1,250 SHU. Original Tabasco sauce sits at 3,750 SHU, and jalapeños, as spicy as many people can enjoy, have a rating of around 5,000 to 8,000 SHU.
Climbing up the scale, we hit cayenne peppers at 50,000 SHU. Triple that are habaneros (150,000 SHU). The peppers that the Indian army uses as the base for chili grenades (hand grenades that incapacitate with capsaicin), the bhut jolokia, rank at an astonishing 1,000,000 SHU.
But the hottest pepper in the world, the Carolina Reaper, comes in at a whopping 2.2 million SHU. That’s 44,000 percent hotter than a jalapeño pepper, for those who like a little back-of-the-napkin math. Beyond that, pepper spray can get up to around 5.3 million SHU, and pure, unadulter- ated crystalline capsaicin clocks in at 16 million SHU.
At the pepper festival, I am surrounded by amateur and professional pepper sufferers alike sucking down taster spoons of condiments designed for pain. Every day, around the entire globe, about one-quarter of the entire world’s population tucks into meals seasoned to make their mouths hurt at least a little bit, their eyes tearing over steaming dinner plates of phaal curry, buffalo wings, or Som Tam served Thai spicy with vibrant red curls of peppers studded throughout. Hot sauce is booming; by 2021, sales of the spicy slurries in the USs alone are expected to be a $1.65 billion industry. So why on earth do people eat deliberately painful foods?
“Pain can be fun!” Dr. Paul Rozin’s raspy voice shimmers with glee. “I think a good case could be made that it’s extraordinarily common. You’ve got a couple of million people doing it a bunch of times a day.” Now, unlike Rozin, who says that he is not inclined toward painful stimuli, I’m an avowed masochist; I see masochism everywhere. I am looking for it, I am finding it, I am obsessed with it. As such, one of the foundational studies that has helped me make sense of it comes from Rozin. He is the academic father of the theory of benign masochism. When I say “many, many people get pleasure from pain,” it’s Rozin standing in the wings, nodding sagely. Because it’s not just pleasure from the pain itself; pleasure from pain can be a pleasure induced by the relief of the pain ceasing. “Some people of course don’t enjoy those things, but they enjoy the relief from them, so they’ll experience something unpleasant intentionally because the ending of that is very pleasant,” he tells me. “That’s not the same as enjoying pain. Right?” Or is it?
The question hangs in the air. It’s a big one, and it resonates through all of the pages of this book. Upon reflection, I must say, I don’t think that the idea of enjoying pain is so black-and-white. If a person deliberately engages with pain, not because they like the sensation of pain but because they like the sensations that come when the pain ends, I think that qualifies as a flavor of masochism. I think this because, anecdotally, and through the years of experiences that I’ve had relayed to me by hundreds of other people who dabble in deliberate suffering, when people talk about pain on purpose, they almost always talk about what comes next, how they feel after the pain. The dominion over self. The endorphin rush, that hit of homebrew morphine, the lactic acid that makes the muscles tense with a pleasing burn long after the workout has ended. High-sensation-seeking people out there using their bodies to test limits, to feel something wild, to push themselves. There are masochists who are strictly pain-seeking for the sensation of it, but, in my experience, there are so, so many more who use pain as a tool to feel something else. To feel bad to feel better.
In the 2012 paper titled “Glad to Be Sad, and Other Examples of Benign Masochism,” Rozin looks at the intersection of pain and pleasure. Or rather, the very broad overlap. In the study, Rozin and his colleagues asked participants to rate 29 innately negative experiences (like sadness, mouth burn, fear, and exhaustion) on a scale of 1 to 100 based on how pleasurable they found them. You read that right: Rozin and his team were asking people how much they enjoyed negative experiences. And they found that about half of the participants enjoyed these experiences, rating them at around the midpoint of the enjoyment scale. That is, it is normal and common to enjoy things that feel negative. “Masochists enjoy suffering,” he says, “but the kind of suffering they enjoy depends on the kind of masochism they have.”
But there’s more! Rozin and his colleagues asked participants when they got the most enjoyment from negative experiences. And wouldn’t you know it, for anywhere from one-quarter to two-thirds of participants, the best part of a negative experience was the most extreme point they could stand. That is, for lots of folks (myself included!) the fun in feelin’ bad peaks right at the limit of what we can stand. It’s fun until it definitely is NOT anymore.
As social psychologist Brock Bastian writes in his book about the role of suffering in happiness, “Benign masochism characterizes the enjoyment of the conflict that arises when these simultaneous positive and negative emotions are activated.” Whether you’re whipping yourself for Jesus or sex, running marathons for self-esteem or penance, eating spicy food for the taste or the burn, it’s all happening on a kind of sliding scale of masochistic engagement. (Careful readers will also note the fallibility of these “or” statements, as if such practices aren’t built on a combination of many types of motivations and rewards!)
“A real masochist might actually enjoy pain, which is not threatening to his or her body,” Rozin tells me. But who, then, is a real masochist? How do you delineate between sexual masochism, benign masochism, and other kinds of pain on purpose?
“I’m not trying to make any huge, overarching declarative statement about the nature of things,” I say to Rozin. “I’m just trying to look at this interesting thing from a lot of different angles and get people thinking about the role of pain in their own lives. But I’m not trying to write a self-help book or make a grand theory of masochism.” I’m just trying to look at some of the reasons why.
So why, then, do people like spicy food? “I don’t think there’s one answer to it,” says Rozin. “I think benign masochism is a piece of it, but it’s also the fact that this experience has been associated with the positive, the people they care about in their life, their parents, their siblings. You know, it’s got a lot of positive stuff associated with it. And I don’t think there’s one account.”
I ask Rozin about why so many people report feeling so good after eating peppers, and his response mirrors the dearth of research I have found on the topic. “I don’t believe anyone has measured,” he says. “You can find endor- phin rushes in humans. You can look that up. So it’s possible that’s what’s happening … ” His voice trails off, then he briefly mentions attempts to study the endorphin rush of a runner’s high before coming back to peppers. So, what do people get from eating hot peppers? “You know, we don’t know. It’s just an area of amazing ignorance.”
“I tasted a pepper at approximately 3:30 this morning.” Ed Currie stands behind the counter at his retail store for his pepper empire, Puckerbutt Farms, in Fort Mill, South Carolina. Yes, I said Puckerbutt. Currie eats ultra-hot peppers every day, he tells me. All day. He even puts pepper tincture in his coffee. It’s peak season for the farm, and it’s a race to harvest all the peppers and fill the orders as they come pouring in, which is why he’s been awake since bartenders have been mopping the floors with all the lights turned up. I can’t imagine what it would be like to bathe my mouth in capsaicin first thing in the morning. “It’s exhilarating,” Currie tells me. “The very first one I see that looks like it’s going to hurt, and I eat just a bite. But that’s enough to knock you out.” The mean ones, they are extra bumpy and crenulated, and Currie, a world-class pepper breeder, knows them all too well. And how does he feel afterward? “Oh, I’m an addict in recovery, so I feel pretty good.”
It’s no coincidence that Currie, the inventor of the world’s hottest pepper, is an addict.
“I get a rush. It makes me feel good. It gives me energy.” Currie is charming and easy to talk to, brimming with the sly, fidgety intellect of a very clever rabbit, and his eyes twinkle when he talks about his peppers. “So yeah, I’m looking for all those different things.”
We move to the back office of the store as his staff bustle about. I am flushed because, prior to the interview, I sampled about six of the hottest hot sauces on offer, including one that was 94 percent Carolina Reaper pepper. It was so thick that you had to dig it out of the bottle with a little plastic spoon. The pungent flames of a thimble full of Reaper paste take me back to the parking lot of the pepper festival, and the heat here, though formidable and making me cry, is nothing like the heat was there. I have a new baseline threshold for pepper pain, forever skewed by my dalliance with the Reaper.
Currie tells me that he was an addict by the time he was a teenager. When he got to college, he discovered hot peppers. “I was looking for a way not to die,” he says, also mentioning the antioxidant properties of peppers and their potential ability to help stave off heart disease and cancer. It was only later, after reaching the depths of addiction and clawing his way back out, that Currie began making hot sauce. In fact, he wooed his would-be wife with a jar of peach salsa. Later, it was she who encouraged him to begin selling his sauces, and it was the ladies at church who came up with the description of his wares that would become his company name: Puckerbutt.
Currie says what I’ve heard many people say: capsaicin “releases a huge amount of endorphins and dopamine into your system. It gives people essen- tially a runner’s high.” Though science is regrettably behind in confirming this, I think it’s fair to say that, because pain causes an endorphin response, and hot peppers cause pain, by the transitive principle, eating hot peppers probably causes an endorphin rush. It was certainly my experience of them. But as of the writing of this book, we’re still not entirely sure. Scientists, I eagerly await your research!
“When you eat superhot peppers, it actually makes you feel good,” he tells me. “It gets you high. Like me, I’m a recovering addict. I get high off of peppers, I’ll admit it. Sometimes I take too many peppers,” he laughs. “You know, I’ve had to talk to my sponsor about it. But it’s not something that’s gonna harm me. There’s nothing in a pepper that can harm you. You can’t burn a hole in anything. You cannot damage, you know, anything beyond repair. It’s a sensation.”
It’s not like Currie is immune to the painful effects of his beloved peppers. He definitely still gets the capsaicin cramps. “There’s no way around that,” he says. “That’s one of the physiological reactions that happens to everyone, no matter what your tolerance is. Cramps, sweating, runny nose, crying, out of breath, spit.” He tells me his face is on fire after handling superhots all morning, that he’s just sitting there burning. Then he tells me that for him, the peppers are an extension of his faith.
Currie is a devout Christian and shows a deep and earnest gratitude when talking about his faith, in a way that feels welcoming and whole, unlike so many of my personal experiences with religion in the American South. He seems full of reverence for his life, his peppers, his faith, his company, his family. He proudly brags on his staff, many of whom have keys to his house. It’s a family affair here, he tells me, blood-related or otherwise. He also giggles like a little boy when talking about the emails people send him describing the pain he’s caused them.
I ask him if he likes knowing that people are out there hurting because of his peppers, and he smiles big. “Oh yeah, it makes me laugh all the time.” Currie grins at me, delighted. I wonder quietly to myself if this makes Currie a benign sadist.
Later, after a winding conversation about hot pepper breeding and thrill seekers and physiological responses to the fruits of his labor, I ask Currie what he thinks about people using the body’s pain response and endorphin system to feel good. Thinking for a moment, he tells me, “I don’t understand the people who pierce their bodies and hang, okay? Just don’t understand it. Not saying it’s wrong, not saying it’s bad. I don’t understand it. I have no want to do it. But I’m quite sure they’re getting the same high I am.”