Ghost peppers

via WikimediaCommons

Tom Snyder knows his limitations.

The chef at Seventh & Dolores in Carmel can grill up a perfect steak. When it comes to that other kind of culinary heat, however, he’s pretty much out of the kitchen.

“I go to Thai restaurants, I’d be sweating out of the eyeballs,” he says of the wrath wrought by chilies.

And there is reason to tremble before the hot-headed little beasts. They boast threatening names, like Scorpion, Viper, Ghost Pepper and the much feared Carolina Reaper. And they fuel dishes eager to take you down.

Only five people have survived the Dynamite Challenge at Jitlada in L.A. Four avenging chiles ride The Four Horsemen Burger served at Chunky’s in San Antonio, Texas, including the Ghost Pepper. A fired-up version of hot chicken at Nashville’s Pepperfire is called XX and delivers a knockout blow with the Carolina Reaper.

You have to sign a waiver if you want to test yourself against some of these dishes—which might seem like a bit of restaurant bluff until you recall that tragic day in Scotland.

It started as just a routine eating contest in peaceful Edinburgh. Twenty people sat down to try Kismot restaurant’s Killer Curry. But the dish launched a sudden attack, ripping through the unprepared line with a Medieval fury that left a trail of writhing bodies and gore. The remaining contestants fled in terror.

Remember the chilling moment when the radio announcer cried “Oh, the humanity!”? Probably not, because that’s from a different tragedy.

The point is, these peppers are brutal. The Carolina Reaper packs an arsenal of 2,200,000 Scoville Units, a scale developed to measure the heat of chilies. The ghost pepper is a relatively mild 1,041,427, according to Pepperhead, a website that keeps precise track of the latest—including unconfirmed ratings of two new entries that may even out-scorch the Reaper, known as Dragon’s Breath and Pepper X.

By comparison, the habanero rates a tepid 500,000. The jalapeño? A baby-food mild 5,000 or so.

With fiends developing new chilies each year, “how hot is too hot” seems a fair question. But Snyder observes that it’s also a relative question.

“It depends on the person,” he says.

Seems logical enough. Although at some point for anybody—even those capable of downing an entire habanero or ghost pepper—the seared lava flow of capsaicin obliterates all other flavors in a dish.

Chef Hector Berumen at Villa Sombreros in Carmel explains that balance is the key to delivering both a spicy kick and the nuances of seasoning.

“All the sauces have a different pepper,” he says.

Chilies ignite in different ways. Some blitz the palate, others build up slowly. Some threaten then back down, while others give the taste buds a constant pounding. So for chefs, it’s about controlling the rage and using it properly.

Berumen never ventures into super hot territory. But when he does bring modest heat, he prefers to brace it with tomato.

The experts—people like Dr. Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University—have palates sturdy enough to withstand the blaze long enough to discern nuances in the chilies themselves.

According to the institute’s website, jalapeños lend an herbaceous note to dishes, while the more fiery habanero offers a hint of apricot. In the super hots, tropical flavors prevail.

Yeah. But your taste buds will have been slaughtered by then.

Not so, Bosland has said. Writing in the academic journal Appetite, he patiently explained that “Capsaicinoids are not sensed by our taste buds per se. Heat sensation from capsaicinoids results from the irritation of the transient receptor potential channel TRPV1.” And if you missed that day in class, TRPV1 are receptors to sense heat and pain “positioned on the peripheral terminals of nociceptive neurons.”

Oooh-kay. I think he’s trying to say that sensible consumption of chilies doesn’t really do any permanent damage to taste buds. The palate may be flayed and numbed, but everything seems to recover just fine given time and a big glass of water.

No!—never try to kill the pain with water. Milk or milkshakes work best. Maybe a beer milkshake is even better.

And that’s all good to know, especially as more people welcome the spicy onslaught.

Kalsec, a giant in the flavoring industry, reports that consumer demand for heat has increased every year for the past decade, as evidenced by new product introduced to the market. There were 22,000 new spicy hot labels added to shelves in 2017 alone. Growth in the market for searing condiments measured at 17 percent between 2007 and 2018, with consumer craving for Sriracha leading the charge.

But let’s not be so fast to forget the lessons of Edinburgh, a day that will live in infamy. It’s possible for capsaicin to cause inflammation in tissues and damage the stomach, or so said Dr. John Prescott, the editor of Food Quality and Preference, in a 2011 interview. And Bosland told Katharine Gammon of the science site Life’s Little Mysteries that “Theoretically, one could eat enough really hot chilies to kill you.”

So there. But how hot is too hot?

Well, a research report published in Toxicon back in 1980 provided a dire warning. Titled “Acute Toxicity of Capsaicin in Several Animal Species,” the study revealed the fatal dangers of chili pepper consumption.

If only we had paid heed.

As it turns out, a mere three pounds of powder from super hot chilies will send a 150-pound person to a grisly death.

Wait...that’s three pounds downed at one time. Who’s insane enough to attempt that?

So except for some temporary agony, eyeball sweats and maybe some tissue damage if you try to withstand too much, it seems our tolerance to heat can pretty high. It's just up to the individual.

Geez. And the guy on Man v Food makes it look almost deadly.

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