Copyright 2021, from Leigh Cowart’s Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose.
PublicAffairs, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., has granted permission for this reprint.
I’m sitting in the driver’s seat of a rental car in a dusty lot of the county fairgrounds in Auburn, California, my hands trembling subtly.
In the cup holder, there’s a cold bottle of water sweating, a one-use relic of end-stage capitalism that will outlast us all.
My lungs are thudding with excitement as I record the preamble to my pepper-eating video over and over again.
(I’m terrified.) I feel like I’m in a spaceship because the chairs are deep and dark, and all of the lights beaming through the icons on the dash are red.
This seems ominous yet fitting, given the journey I’m about to embark on. I’m stalling with multiple takes, chipperly talking to my phone and wriggling it in and out of the steering wheel.
I’m hesitant to fully relive the cruel outlines of the Carolina Reaper pepper sensation I was about to bite into just now, even as I write this.
This, the hottest pepper on the planet, is a marvel: its green stem between my fingers, its body as innocent as a strawberry, with which it shares both size and color.
When I look at it, it reminds me of holding a tab of acid, a test tube of exceptionally virulent Pseudomonas, or a superlatively effective plastic flogger.
A thing’s potential, radiating outward at a frequency only those with ears tuned to its call can hear.
I’ve ingested mushrooms on purpose and unintentionally, and I must tell that while I was aware of its Precious Cargo, I regarded the modest thing conveying the experience with far more reverence.
This pepper is familiar to me. I can tell you who grew it: Greg Foster holds the world record for eating the most Reaper peppers in a minute (120 grams, which came out to sixteen peppers, if you want to give it a shot).
I know this pepper is hot: I know its Scoville heat unit rating (2.2 million, or 600 times hotter than a single jalapeno pepper), and I know what it will do to me (very bad things).
I’ve read innumerable writings about what it’s like to eat the world’s hottest pepper, watched a YouTuber smoke one in his bong,
and watched episodes of Hot Ones, in which celebs like Idris Elba and Paul Rudd chomp down molten-hot chicken wings while being interviewed and crying.
I’ve talked to world-class hot pepper eaters, read stacks of capsaicin-related scientific papers,
and know that cheese and alcohol can help ease the agony. I suppose I’m as prepared as I could be.
But I didn’t bring any alcohol, milkshakes, or anything else that would decouple the capsaicin molecules from my mouth’s receptors.
Humans are bumbling idiots. I’d like to have a complete experience.
71 SPICY PEPPER
“No matter what you do, if you keep them in, you’re going to have the worst night of your life,” says Shahina Waseem, the UK Chili Queen.
She claims that she has failed to throw up after 11 of the 71 hot-pepper-eating events she has joined,
indicating that she suffered from the dreaded cap cramps, or gastrointestinal distress induced by capsaicin in the GI system.
“You can’t get up; you’re palms up on the floor, begging, and you’re getting cold sweats, heat sweats, everything, and you’re genuinely begging for death.”
She gives me a serious look, as serious as the nightmare she’s describing. “It’s that excruciating. It feels like I’ve been stabbed numerous times, and it’s the worst.” She claims she learned her lesson after it.
Whatever happens, she’ll have to vomit. “It also burns coming back up. But then you think to yourself, ‘Well, that’d be a lot better than twelve hours on the floor, hunkered down, crying and screaming in pain.’
The 2019 Pepper Festival is now open.
Shahina and I are talking in a small, stand-alone structure on the California state fairgrounds,
surrounded by volunteers looking for their orders, musicians hiding from the sun, single-serving chip packets, wet beers from the ice tub,
and pepper eaters. Pepper eaters who compete. They’re among the best pepper-eaters on the globe.
Shahina, one of the main event’s headliners, is seated across from me. She is vivacious, incisive, and captivating.
Today’s broadcasters will all focus on her little stature as if her lack of bearishness will put her at a disadvantage in this battle of wills.
It’s something that American cis guys enjoy doing: acting as if being short entails a competitive disadvantage, even when the competition has nothing to do with stature.
This is a chili-eating contest, not a football match, sir. The Atomik Menace acquired his name from downing super hots, not because he’s a large person.
Shahina is tense. She claims that her opponent today, Dustin “the Atomik Menace” Johnson, is immune to the pain of chili peppers in his mouth.
He exploded onto the international pepper-eating circuit with his win at Ed Currie’s Inaugural International Pepper-Eating Contest a month ago, despite being a relative newbie to the scene.
For anyone unfamiliar with the chili pepper community, Ed Currie is the originator of the Carolina Reaper pepper,
which is currently the world’s hottest pepper, as I shall soon discover personally.
Dustin, on the other hand, denies the rumor. “I can feel the heat. When I inquired if he liked spicy cuisine, he answered, “I honestly couldn’t image caring at all if I didn’t.”
“I almost think entering contests without any feeling is narcissistic,” he adds, adding that he is only “relatively gifted” and doesn’t have huge reactions.
He doesn’t generally cleanse after tournaments, though. He explains, “I don’t get cramps too much until they’re almost fully digested,” though I’m not sure how much of his stoicism is a finely polished act to frighten off future opponents.
In-person, he is quiet, but in writing, he is well-spoken, and in the competitive pepper-eating circuit, he terrifies people.
Later that day, Dustin the Stoic and Shahina the Emotive will face off at a plastic picnic table, gorging themselves with superhot peppers and suffering in front of a cheering, rapt audience.
A modest number of individuals wander around the event outside. There are food trucks and a stage for the bands; individuals selling vacation packages, snow cones, and T-shirts; and, heartbreakingly, a cannabis delivery service that can’t deliver in Auburn.
Rick Tracewell, the event’s organizer, stands in a white tent in front of a sea of plastic-lined cardboard boxes brimming with brilliantly colored peppers.
The primary event, at least for the time being, is the hot sauce expo, which is held within the hollow, one-story building that stands low and long by the bouncy house.
This indoor activity is a blessing, albeit it’s paradoxical that the hottest events are coolly shaded from the scorching September midday sun.
Inside, the walls are crowded with booths of hot sauce dealers offering free samples and mingling with pepper heads.
From honey-sweet pepper jams served on buttery crackers with gobs of cream cheese to concentrated capsaicin tincture spicy enough to make you weep, there’s something for everyone.
As my mouth waters from a particularly potent habanero sauce, I inquire as to why the man behind the table wields a sword.
He offers to swallow it and allow me to take it out of his throat, and I can feel his throat muscles flex around the blade as I do so.
The person next to him then pulls out a whole bed of nails and wants me to stomp on it while they lie on it.
I make the decision that I adore the pepper festival.
Everyone is here today for one obvious reason: to relieve suffering, whether it is their own or someone else’s.
For the time being, it’s here in this room: couples with different capsaicin tolerances trying salsa and falling into slapstick; people becoming crimson and acting casual; others turning crimson and not acting casual.
There are just a few actual onlookers who have abstained from the peppers and their sauces, yet they are still here, witnessing the agony on so many people’s faces.
The discomfort, on the other hand, will be a spectacle at the pepper-eating event later.
Regardless of whether the pain is public or private, it is today caused by one small molecule: capsaicin.
There are a lot of misconceptions concerning capsaicin and capsaicinoids, which is a class of chemicals in which it is a major component.
It’s been said that it can burn a hole in your throat or stomach, however, this is not the case. It’s also not implicated in heartburn or gastric reflux.
I’ve heard claims that it can make you vomit blood, spit blood, or cause other graphic harm,
but this isn’t true unless you’re drinking pure, crystallized capsaicin, which is quite dangerous in that form.
(I will say that if you have a bleeding stomach ulcer and puke after eating a pepper, there will be blood in your puke, but the blood will not be due to the pepper.)
Capsaicin allergies are uncommon, affecting less than 1% of the population,
although they can cause contact dermatitis in some people, just as laundry detergent, poison oak, and nickel jewelry.
Eating hot peppers, on the other hand, isn’t detrimental for most people—it merely aches.
Moreover, the burning sensation you get after eating a steaming platter of buldak or Nashville-style hot chicken has nothing to do with your taste buds.
Capsaicin, if we were to anthropomorphize molecules, would be a cunning little shit.
Capsaicin is a chemical that is structurally related to vanillin, the molecule found in rare orchid pods that gives vanilla its creamy, classic flavor.
It does not affect the taste receptors in your mouth that detect sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami flavors.
Capsaicin, on the other hand, messes with TRPV1 temperature sensors. Capsaicin, in particular, is a heat mimic.
It triggers sensory neurons in the brain, alerting it to the presence of true heat, not just heat in the sense of flavor, but real, kinetic energy heat.
Capsaicin connects to a special receptor when you consume an extremely hot pepper, the same one that alarms your brain when your coffee is too hot.
When today’s competitors start eating handfuls of the world’s hottest peppers, their brains will detect the presence of a molten, deadly substance—lava, scorching coals, actual fire, whatever.
However, there is no genuine danger. The object of the game is to sit there and endure the very real pain while avoiding the not-so-real danger.
(Mint operates similarly, giving the impression of being cold.) Mint and hot peppers, on the other hand, work on separate receptors.
If you eat an Altoid and a habanero at the same time, you’ll have developed an edible Icy Hot arthritis cream in your mouth.)
How do people determine the level of spiciness in a pepper? After all, the title of “world’s spiciest” is both a sought honor and a shifting target.
As a result, peppers are graded on the Scoville scale. This scale is used to determine a pepper’s spiciness,
and it corresponds to a value expressed in Scoville heat units or SHU.
This test can be completed in a few different ways. The first method is drying the pepper in question,
then combining smaller and smaller amounts of dried pepper powder in a solution of water and sugar until no spiciness can be detected by taste testers.
The amount of dilution necessary to reduce the heat corresponds to the pepper’s Scoville score.
In 1921, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville devised the first and notoriously subjective version of the test.
High-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) is a cutting-edge method for separating, identifying, and quantifying the constituents of a liquid sample.
Researchers can measure capsaicin concentrations using HPLC instead of relying on the human mouth’s nonstandard and relative sensitivities.
So, how does this scale appear? Bell peppers are at the bottom of the list, with a score of 0 SHU.
They contain the sweet and vegetal flavors of peppers, but none of the heat.
Poblano peppers have a mild, emerald flesh and have a SHU of roughly 1,250.
Original Tabasco sauce has 3,750 SHU, while jalapenos have a rating of 5,000 to 8,000 SHU, which is as fiery as many people can tolerate.
We reached cayenne peppers at 50,000 SHU as we progressed up the scale.
Three of them are habaneros (150,000 SHU). The bhut jolokia peppers, which the Indian army uses as the foundation for chili grenades (hand grenades that incapacitate capsaicin), have a SHU rating of 1,000,000.
The Carolina Reaper, however, is the world’s hottest pepper, with a whopping 2.2 million SHU.
For those who appreciate a little back-of-the-napkin math, that’s 44,000 percent hotter than a jalapeno pepper.
Pepper spray can have a SHU of up to 5.3 million, while pure, unadulterated crystalline capsaicin has a SHU of 16 million.
I’m surrounded by amateur and expert pepper sufferers alike at the pepper festival, gobbling down taster spoons of pain-relieving condiments.
Every day, around one-quarter of the world’s population eats meals seasoned to make their lips pain a little,
their eyes weeping over steamy supper plates of phaal curry, buffalo wings,
or Som Tam served Thai spicy with brilliant red curls of peppers strewn throughout.
Hot sauce is rising; sales of hot slurries are estimated to reach $1.65 billion in the United States alone by 2021.
So, why do individuals eat items that are meant to be painful?
“Pain may be enjoyable!” The gruff voice of Dr. Paul Rozin glistens with delight.
“I believe there is a strong case to be made that it is extremely frequent. You have a couple of million individuals doing it daily.”
Now, unlike Rozin, who claims to be averse to unpleasant stimuli, I am a self-proclaimed masochist who sees masochism everywhere.
I’m hunting for it, discovering it, and I’m completely obsessed with it. As a result, Rozin’s work is one of the basic works that has helped me make sense of it.
He is the academic father of benign masochism theory. It’s Rozin standing in the wings, nodding wisely,
when I remark “many, many people find pleasure from agony.” Because pleasure from pain isn’t always created by the suffering itself; it might also be induced by the relief of the agony ceasing.
“Of course, some individuals don’t appreciate those things, but they enjoy the release from them,” he explains, “so they’ll do something terrible on purpose because the ending is quite pleasant.”
“Enjoying pain isn’t the same as enjoying suffering. Right?” Is that the case?
The question remains unanswered. It’s a major one, and it reverberates across the entire novel.
After some thought, I don’t believe the concept of liking suffering is so black-and-white.
I believe that a flavor of masochism exists when a person purposefully engages with suffering, not because they enjoy the sense of pain,
but because they enjoy the sensations that occur after the agony has passed.
I believe this because, anecdotally, and based on the hundreds of other people who dabble in deliberate suffering who have told me about their experiences,
when people talk about pain on purpose, they almost always talk about what happens next, how they feel after the pain.
The power over one’s own body. The endorphin surge, that blast of homemade morphine,
the lactic acid that tightens muscles and gives them a pleasant burn long after the workout is over.
There are thrill-seekers out there who use their bodies to push themselves, to test limits, to experience something wild.
Some masochists seek pain solely for the pleasure of experiencing it,
but in my experience, there are many more who utilize pain as a tool to experience something else.
It is necessary to feel awful to feel better.
Rozin examines the junction of pain and pleasure in his 2012 study, “Glad to Be Sad, and Other Examples of Benign Masochism.” Or, to be more precise, the extremely vast overlap.
Rozin and his colleagues asked participants to score the pleasurability of 29 fundamentally negative feelings (such as grief, mouth burn, fear, and tiredness) on a scale of 1 to 100.
Yes, you read that correctly: Rozin and his colleagues wanted to know how much people enjoyed bad situations.
They also discovered that roughly half of the participants enjoyed these experiences, giving them a rating of about the middle of the scale.
That is to say, it is quite natural and usual to appreciate unpleasant things. “Masochists appreciate suffering,” he continues,
“but the type of misery they enjoy is determined by their level of masochism.”
But wait, there’s more! Rozin and his colleagues questioned participants when they found unpleasant experiences the most enjoyable.
And, wouldn’t you know it, the nicest part of an unpleasant experience for anywhere from a quarter to two-thirds of participants was the most extreme point they could stand.
That is, for a lot of people (including myself! ), the enjoyment of feeling bad reaches its limit. It’s amusing until it’s no longer amusing.
“Benign masochism denotes the enjoyment of the struggle that develops when these simultaneous positive and negative emotions are activated,”
argues social scientist Brock Bastian in his book about the role of suffering in happiness.
Everything happens on a sliding scale of masochistic engagement, whether you’re beating yourself for Jesus or sex, running marathons for self-esteem or penance, or eating spicy cuisine for the taste or the pain.
(Attentive readers will notice the fallibility of these “or” assertions as if such practices aren’t based on a mix of reasons and rewards!)
“A true masochist might even love the pain that isn’t harmful to his or her body,” Rozin says.
But who is a true masochist, then? How can you tell the difference between sexual masochism, benign masochism, and intentional pain?
I tell Rozin, “I’m not attempting to make any big, broad definitive statement about the nature of things.”
“I’m just trying to get people to think about the role of suffering in their own lives by looking at it from a variety of perspectives.
But I’m not attempting to create a self-help book or formulate a major masochism theory.”
I’m just attempting to investigate some of the causes for this.
So, why do people enjoy spicy food? “I don’t believe there is a single answer,” Rozin says.
“I believe benign masochism is part of it, but it’s also the reality that this experience has been linked to great things in their lives, such as their parents and siblings.
You know, it’s got a lot of good things going for it. And I don’t believe there is a single account.”
When I ask Rozin why so many people say they feel better after eating peppers, he responds that there isn’t much research on the subject.
He claims, “I don’t believe anyone has measured.” “Endorphin surges can be found in people. You can look it up on the internet.
So that may be what’s going on… Before returning to peppers, his voice fades off,
and he briefly recounts attempts to investigate the endorphin rush of a runner’s high.
So, what are the benefits of consuming hot peppers? “You know, we have no idea. It’s just a fascinating region of ignorance.”
“AT APPROXIMATELY 3:30 THIS MORNING, I TASTED A PEPPER.”
Ed Currie poses behind the counter of his retail store in Fort Mill, South Carolina, for his pepper empire, Puckerbutt Farms.
I did say Puckerbutt. Currie claims to consume ultra-hot peppers every day. Throughout the day.
He even makes his coffee with pepper tincture. It’s peak season at the farm,
and it’s a race to harvest all the peppers and fill orders as they come in, which is why he’s been awake since the bartenders mopped the floors with all the lights turned up.
I can’t imagine how it feels to have capsaicin in my mouth first thing in the morning.
Currie tells me, “It’s exhilarating.” “I eat just a mouthful of the first one I see that looks like it’s going to hurt.
But that’s enough to put you to sleep.” They’re exceptionally rough and crenulated, and Currie, a world-class pepper breeder, is all too familiar with them.
What does he think after that? “Oh, I’m a recovering addict, so I’m in fairly good shape.”
Currie, the creator of the world’s hottest pepper, is a recovering addict, which is no surprise.
“I get a buzz from it. It gives me a pleasant feeling. It invigorates me.”
Currie is delightful and easy to talk to, and his eyes shine when he talks about his peppers.
He has the sneaky, fidgety brain of a bright rabbit. “So, sure, I’m searching for a variety of things.”
“I was on the lookout for a way to avoid death.” Puckerbutt Farms’ founder and owner, Ed Currie
We proceed to the store’s rear office, where his employees are busy. I’m flushed because I tried approximately six of the hottest spicy sauces on the market before the interview, including one made with 94 percent Carolina Reaper pepper.
It was so thick that you had to use a small plastic spoon to get it out of the bottle.
The aromatic flames of a thimble full of Reaper paste transport me back to the pepper festival’s parking lot, and the heat here, while intense and making me cry, is nothing compared to the heat there.
My new pepper pain threshold has been warped by my dalliance with the Reaper for the rest of my life.
Currie claims to have been an addict since he was a teenager. He found hot peppers when he arrived at college.
“I was looking for a means to avoid dying,” he adds, emphasizing peppers’ antioxidant capabilities and their potential to help prevent heart disease and cancer.
Currie began creating spicy sauce only after he had sunk to the depths of addiction and clawed his way back out.
He wooed his future bride with a jar of peach salsa. She was the one who urged him to start selling his sauces,
and it was the ladies at church who came up with the name for his business: Puckerbutt.
Capsaicin “releases a significant amount of endorphins and dopamine into your system,” adds Currie, echoing what many others have said.
It essentially gives individuals a runner’s high.” Though science has yet to establish this,
I believe it is reasonable to claim that because pain generates an endorphin reaction, and hot peppers cause pain, eating hot peppers will almost certainly result in an endorphin surge.
It was, without a doubt, my experience with them. However, as of the writing of this book, we are still unsure. I eagerly await your findings, scientists!
He informs me that eating superhot peppers helps you feel happy.
“It gives you a rush. I’m a recovering addict, just like you. I’ll admit it: peppers get me high.
He smiles when he says, “Sometimes I take too many peppers.” “You know, I had to discuss it with my sponsor. But it isn’t going to hurt me in any way.
A pepper contains no harmful ingredients. It is impossible to burn a hole in anything.
You can’t break something that can’t be fixed. It’s a sensation,” says the narrator.
Currie isn’t immune to the vexing effects of his favorite peppers. Capsaicin cramps are still a problem for him.
He says, “There’s no way around it.” “That’s one of the physiological reactions that everyone experiences, regardless of tolerance.
Cramps, sweating, a runny nose, sobbing, being out of breath, and spitting.”
He claims that after handling super hots all morning, his face is on fire and that he’s just sitting there scorching.
Then he says that the peppers represent an extension of his religion for him.
Currie is a committed Christian who expresses profound and sincere thankfulness for his faith in a way that feels inviting and complete,
in contrast to so many of my religious encounters in the American South.
He seemed to value his life, his peppers, his faith, his business, and his family.
He boasts about his team, many of whom have access to his home. He informs me that it’s a family matter here, whether blood-related or not.
When he talks about the emails people send him explaining the misery he’s caused them, he giggles like a small boy.
I ask him if he enjoys knowing that his peppers are causing people pain, and he smiles broadly.
“Oh, yeah, it always makes me laugh.” Currie beams with happiness as he looks at me. I’m silently wondering if this qualifies Currie as a mild sadist.
I ask Currie what he thinks about people manipulating the body’s pain response and endorphin system to feel good later,
following a long chat about hot pepper breeding, thrill-seekers, and physiological responses to the results of his labor.
“I don’t understand the folks that pierce their bodies and hang, okay?” he says after a brief pause.
It’s just that I don’t get it. It’s not that it’s wrong, or that it’s awful. I’m not sure what’s going on.
I’m not interested in doing that. But I’m confident they’re experiencing the same high as I am.”