It’s like being face-f–ked by Satan himself. “There’s no shame in throwing up, brother,” says Ed Currie, a soft-spoken 50-year-old who fed me a new variety of superhot chilli pepper he’s developed called the Carolina Reaper.
Three minutes ago I popped the bright red, gumball-sized pepper into my mouth, chewed thoroughly, and swallowed. Without warning a numbness shoots through my right pinkie, then up into my biceps. Strangely, a mellow head rush sets in. My pupils dilate as a tear trickles down my cheek.
“It looks like you blew a blood vessel in your eye!” says Currie.
We’re at ZestFest Midwest, a fiery-foods show in Columbus, Ohio, where Currie is selling sauces and snacks made by his PuckerButt Pepper Company. Outside the 5,000-capacity Ohio Expo Center, the parking lot is dotted with vanity plates: 2SPICEE, HABANERO, and SAUCY RV. Inside, an eclectic crowd of frat brothers, beer-bellied dads, and silver-haired grannies walk the floor among die-hard “chilliheads” sporting pepper-patterned Hawaiian shirts and chilli-themed tattoos.
Each year, tens of thousands of chilliheads buy tickets to expos like this all across the US to experience a plethora of sauces, glazes, jams, candies, and beef jerky with punishing heat levels and names like Instant Regret, Sudden Death, Edible Lava, Colon Blow, and Satan’s Flaming Hemorrhoids. During ZestFest there will be a jalapeño-eating contest, a spicy- wing-eating contest, and an impromptu battle between Steve “the Machine” Smallwood and Chuck “the Biz” Cook, two thirtysomething pro pepper eaters who each finish 10 superhots in under two minutes.
Like connoisseurs of craft beer, fine wine, and “medicinal” marijuana, pepper people talk shop with a geeky enthusiasm and specificity: There are flavour profiles, experimental strains, and body highs like the one I’m getting from that furious little Reaper.
“I’ve had about 25 today. I’m high as a kite, brother!” laughs Currie. “More dopamine receptors get filled than using morphine or heroin. It’s mean stuff.”
Today at ZestFest, 19 showgoers will attempt to eat an entire Carolina Reaper… 17 will vomit. After 20 minutes, I too exorcise my demon. I’m told the next probable side effects include ring sting, “fire-rhea”, and capsaicin cramps, named for the chemical compound that produces a pepper’s heat. (Capsaicin is used to manufacture everything from pepper spray and arthritis cream to anti-barnacle nautical paint.) The higher a pepper’s capsaicin concentration, the higher its heat rating on the Scoville scale. Jalapeños peak at 10,000 Scoville heat units (SHU); the hottest habaneros hit 350,000; anything classified as superhot, like the Carolina Reaper, must register above one million.
To date, only six superhots have been discovered. The first was the Ghost Pepper (aka the Bhut Jolokia), which didn’t become widely known until 2007, when its 1.001 million SHU rating landed it in Guinness World Records. From 2007 to 2012, Guinness fielded 25 different claims of “world’s hottest”.
Since 2012, several new contenders have cropped up, including hybrids like the Jigsaw, Infinity X, and the Carolina Reaper. The most hyped of these is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which became the first pepper to break the two million SHU mark last year, shattering the record of 1.4637 million set by the Butch T. Scorpion pepper in 2011. Nevertheless, Guinness has not changed its record book.
The race to grow the next “world’s hottest pepper” has ignited a heated debate among chilliheads – one that raises deep questions about science, ethics, and honour. Economics aren’t the only incentive, but that’s a big part of it. Hot sauce is one of the 10 fastest-growing industries in the US – worth an estimated $1 billion. Claiming the record can make or break a new product. After the Naga Viper took the title in 2010, its grower says he made $40,000 in one month selling sauces and seeds.
“It’s critical for Ed to get that record,” says John “CaJohn” Hard, the CEO of CaJohns Fiery Foods. “But there are educated chilliheads who doubt his pepper is different from anything else out there.”
Which is to say, I didn’t travel to Columbus just to burn my face off. I came here to meet the men vying for the throne.
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