Boing Boing Emporium: The Cult of Capsaicin

A few years ago I wrote "The Cult of Capsaicin," an article about the subculture of people who are hooked on incredibly hot peppers. The article never ran in the magazine I wrote it for, but I've shared it with a few friends, and they enjoyed reading about these chileheads who get hooked on the endorphins the body releases to suppress the pain caused by eating hot pepper.

Here's an excerpt:

Try this: put a couple of drops of Tabasco Sauce on your tongue. Hot, right? Tabasco Sauce rates between 2,500 and 5,000 on the Scoville scale, the standard measurement system for chile pepper heat. Now try a drop of Mad Dog Inferno, a ridiculously hot sauce that clocks in at 90,000 Scoville units. As I chewed ice cubes and blinked away tears after touching a miniscule droplet of Mad Dog Inferno to my tongue from the tip of a toothpick, I knew I'd never make it as a chilehead.

That's because I'm not a nontaster, explains Dave DeWitt, author of 30 books about chile peppers and spicy foods, including The Whole Chile Pepper Book and The Hot Sauce Bible. DeWitt is referring to a Yale surgeon's study in the 1970s that identified three types of people: nontasters, medium tasters, and supertasters. Nontasters are born with as few as 11 taste buds per square centimeter of tongue, while supertasters can have as many as 1,100 taste buds crammed into the same area. Capsaicin has no taste, but taste buds not only sense flavor, they also transmit pain and temperature signals to the brain. That's why nontasters can tolerate high doses of spice, says DeWitt, who considers chileheads to be on the far right side of the pepper bell curve. "In any movement you have your fringe element," he says.

For a chilehead, 90,000 Scovilles is pabulum. Andy Barnhart, a recently retired chief scientist for a telecommunications company in Maryland, likes to dump habanero powder (400,000 Scovilles) on his ice cream "until it turns almost black." But even that doesn't turn Barnhart's crank like it used to. "I've now gotten into Pure Cap; that is really hot stuff," says Barnhart, 61. "I blend it with a little alcohol to preserve it and I put it in a bottle with an eyedropper and I carry it around with me." (Pure Cap, a 570,000 Scoville unit extract, isn't the same as pure capsaicin, which, at 16 million Scovilles, is as hot as it gets.) If Barnhart comes across a bowl of soup or a drink that doesn't provide a sufficient jolt, he pulls out the eyedropper and gives it a squirt.

Barnhart's 38-year-old son, Douglas, shares his father's taste (or lack of taste buds) for hot stuff. The burly barbeque grill salesman has been known to polish off eight "Biker Billy" jalapeños (an extra large, extra hot variety) in thirty seconds. Peppers are a part of Barnhart's daily routine. "I'm definitely addicted," he says. "I get a little grouchy if I don't have anything hot. I can't explain it other than that. I just become unsettled. If I don't have hot peppers around, I start looking for the next best thing, and that's black pepper. But you can't get enough heat off black pepper."

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