Level 1 is not hot (sorry, Sriracha). Level 2 (habanero, scotch bonnet) gets interesting. Then there is Level 3.
I was nine years old when I ate my first hot pepper. It was at a potluck barbecue for my father’s fast-pitch softball team in rural Iowa. The players brought their families with coolers of beer and soda on ice. I was pushing a merry-go-round. I couldn’t ride it; riding it gave me vertigo. I pushed hard so that the other kids would spin out of control. They loved it.
A girl my age ran up to me.
“Wanna try a pepper from my dad’s garden?” She held out a shiny green pod.
“Is it hot?” I asked.
“Not really,” she said.
I took a bite. It was fresh, crunchy, and tasted delicious. The girl watched with a great big smile on her face. Then something happened. I was standing on the hard packed dirt by the merry-go-ground, looking at the slide, swing set, and jungle gym where I had played for all my childhood. Only things were different. My mouth burst into flames and the girl erupted with wild laughter.
“What is that?” I could barely speak.
The girl pointed at me. “He just ate a hot pepper!” she announced to everyone on the playground.
Tears ran down my cheeks. I sprinted to the water fountain for relief. Slurping up huge mouthfuls of cold water, I resolved never to eat a hot pepper again.
I didn’t keep that resolution. I spend a lot of time thinking about hot peppers now. Not about the garden-variety peppers like the one I had years ago by the merry-go-round. (That was a jalapeño.) The peppers in my life now have names like ghost, scorpion, dragon, and reaper. They are superhots.
A quick lesson in peppers. Hot peppers contain capsaicin, a compound that makes your mouth burn. The heat can be broken down into three levels: not hot, hot, and superhot.
Level 1 is what’s in sauce that most people think of as hot sauce. Everyone has a favorite brand. But the sauce is loaded with vinegar and sugar. It’s tangy, but offers little lift. Level 1 sauces are the best-sellers, and are generally made with jalapeño, cayenne, or chili peppers. But the truth is, they are not hot. (Sorry, Sriracha.)
Level 2 gets interesting. It can stop you in your tracks if you are unprepared. Habanero, scotch bonnet, and datil peppers are Level 2. Many people are unable to appreciate a Level 2 hot pepper or sauce, because they cannot get beyond the burn. These people can often be heard saying things like, “I like to enjoy my food,” and “When it gets beyond a certain level . . .” and “I’m into the flavor.” For them, the heat eclipses their ability to taste. As a lover of classical music, I get it. You don’t necessarily want heavy metal in your string quartet. Level 2 is hot.
Then there is Level 3. This is superhot. It can bring you to your knees.
For most human beings, superhot peppers are too hot to eat on their own. So it’s all about the sauce. And this is where things get interesting: the complex flavor profiles are mouthwatering to chili-heads. There are sauces like apricot, carrot and scorpion pepper sauce (Heartbreaking Dawn’s Cauterizer); cherry with smoked ghost pepper sauce (Pablo’s Bullfighter); sun-dried tomato, tomatillo, ginger, curry, cumin, garlic, ginger and reaper peppers sauce (Hellfire’s Fear This). While the range and variety of ingredients is limitless, these sauces all have one thing in common: incredible heat.
My first taste of superhot was a bottle of ghost pepper sauce. I’d heard about a hot-sauce maker named Dave Hirschkop, who wore a straight jacket at food festivals, and (somehow) walked around with a dish of his hot sauce and toothpicks on a tray. The point was: This is insane. I’d gone through bottle after bottle of sauce over the years; the idea that something on a toothpick could be that hot interested me. I ordered a bottle of Dave’s Insanity Ghost Pepper Sauce from hotsauce.com.
A friend and I tried some on a toothpick. (The “toothpick challenge,” as it is now known to late-night weekend guests of my kitchen.) It made my heart beat faster, and perked us up like shots of espresso. Then we poured healthy lines of ghost pepper sauce on vegetable tacos over a lunch by the pool in the Hamptons. We each took a bite. My friend looked as if bad news had just arrived. I stood up from the table and looked up at the clouds. My friend cried out, “I hate this,” then jumped in the pool. I dropped to my knees in the yard, crying, sweating, laughing, and pounding the earth with my fists. That bite changed my life. I was on fire, I was in love. From then on, all I wanted was superhot.
According to IBIS World, the largest provider of industry information in the US, hot sauce is a 1.2-billion dollar industry, and one of the country’s top ten growth industries, along with pharmaceutical drugs, solar panels, and 3D manufacturing. Over the past few years, hot sauce festivals have popped up in New York (The NYC Hot Sauce Expo), Chicago (The Great Chicago Fiery Foods Fest) and most recently in Los Angeles (The California Hot Sauce Expo). Hot sauce shops have opened up in Brooklyn (The Heatonist: “Purveyors of Fine Hot Sauce”) and on the North Fork of Long Island (Greenport Fire: “Everything We Have is Hot”). Both stores allow customers to sample hot sauce as you would wine at a vineyard.
Over two years ago, in April of 2013, I was walking with my parents along the East River in Williamsburg when I stumbled upon the first annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo. I could not believe my eyes. There were dozens of hot sauce vendors lined up in booths with brightly illustrated signs and labels that resembled tattoo art and outrageous names like Defcon and Evil Seed Sauce Company. They squirted out samples of sauce on small white plastic spoons for people to taste. Attendees went from booth to booth, trying multiple sauces. I was tempted, and my parents encouraged me to join the fun, but I was worried about the consequences of tasting a quantity of superhot sauces straight, without food. If it burned that much coming into the body, it would likely burn going out too, right? Would I at some point explode? I was the kid watching the other kids play in the park.
I passed on the superhot that day. But little by little, I was getting hooked. When food came up in conversations with friends, I would steer them toward pepper and hot sauce recommendations. I started googling hot sauce on slow days at work. There was a lot online about superhots: I learned about Scoville units, which is how pepper heat is measured (a jalepeño is about 5,000 units, while a superhot like the reaper comes in around 2 million units); I watched videos of people eating the peppers straight, and, more and more, read news articles about how hot peppers were getting around the world.
I wanted to find the definitive book on hot peppers, and came across Dave DeWitt, aka the Pope of Peppers. DeWitt is a food historian and one of the foremost authorities in the world on chili peppers, spices, and spicy foods. He has published over fifty books, including the James Beard Award-nominated A World of Curries. He was just inducted into the inaugural Hot Sauce Hall of Fame, along with the creator of Tabasco sauce, Edmund McIlhenny. After some friendly correspondence about his work, Dave encouraged me to cover the 2014 New York City Hot Sauce Expo for his hot pepper blog, Burn.
Over ten thousand people attended the second annual expo. A young, diverse crowd came to sample over a thousand varieties of pepper-infused sauces, jams, flakes, crystals, and other fiery foods. I had VIP press passes, and brought my girlfriend at the time. She was into hot peppers too, and we agreed to sample superhot sauces together, come what may. Rock music blasted from the giant speakers, craft beer was flowing, and vodka and tequila sponsors handed out samples. The schedule for the day included spicy-pizza- and hot-wing-eating contests, and a capsaicin-lollipop-licking challenge.
Sweaty-faced couples walked hand in hand. I interviewed a young man with beady eyes, lying on his back in the middle of the crowd, floored by the afterburn of what he called “a death sauce from over there.” Someone cursed after touching their eyes with sauce-tainted fingers, then sprinted towards the bathroom.
My girlfriend and I decided to try a reaper pepper puree, the hottest pure Level 3 pepper experience you can have. (Pepper extracts can get hotter—all the way up to 16 million Scoville units—but these are made by a chemical process.) We found CaJohn’s, a top producer of superhot sauce. The founder, John Hard, was a professional fire-protection engineer before starting the company almost twenty years ago. The reaper puree tasted super sweet, and was hotter than anything I’d ever had before. My mouth burned, my eyes watered, my nose ran. We tasted a couple more superhot pepper combo sauces, and then I felt like I was going to pass out. My girlfriend took my hand and led me to a quiet corner, where I sat down and wept.
I learned a few things at that expo. First, women have a higher tolerance for pain than men. At least my girlfriend did. Second, hot sauce festivals are a lot of fun. There is abundant camaraderie and goodwill. Third, a person can sample dozens of superhot sauces straight and survive. After taking a time-out in the corner for ten minutes, I was able to get back up and enjoy all the sauces I had missed out on that first time with my parents. There may be a moment the morning after when you have to go to the bathroom, and have less than thirty seconds to find one. But then it’s over; the experience is worth it.
Soon I was eating superhot sauces on a regular basis with my lunch, bringing bottles to dinner parties instead of wine. I had been burned by the fire, and was now preaching the fire. A break came earlier this year when Dave DeWitt invited me to be Master of Ceremonies at the National Fiery Foods Show. (In addition to writing, I am a live auctioneer and master of ceremonies.) The Fiery Foods Show has been going on for twenty-seven years, and was ready for my Elvis Presley style of crowd pumping. (“COME GET YOUR TEQUILA TASTINGS AT NOON TODAY!!!”) And I would have an all-access pass to the country’s oldest and grandest hot and superhot sauce festival.
The Fiery Foods Show took place outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, at Sandia Resort and Casino. Set in a pueblo-style building, the hotel and casino are surrounded by a surreal landscape of manicured golf courses with pale green rolling hills, and then a washed-out sepia-toned desert leading to mystical Sandia Mountain. (Sandia means watermelon in Spanish, and refers to the reddish color of the mountains at sunset.) The resort hosted booths from many of the best superhot producers in the country: CaJohns, Hellfire, Heartbreaking Dawns, Born to Hula, PuckerButt, Lucky Dog, High River, and Volcanic Peppers. I recognized familiar faces in the crowd from the NYC Hot Sauce Expo. The superhot community is pretty tight. They tend to be friendly and compassionate folks, perhaps as a result of making people cry all day.
I found my stage and introduced local celebrity chef Matt Yohalem, a New York Jew trained in classical French cuisine cooking a Southwestern version of Italian with a Spanish-speaking kitchen in Sante Fe. There were tequila tastings to announce, salsa-making lessons to hawk to passersby, lectures on the history of spice and peppers to sell to weary families.
After my MC duties for the day, I was able to sample a wide variety of superhot sauces, and began to taste the subtle difference between peppers like the Carolina Reaper, Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, 7 Pot Douglah (one pepper to flavor seven pots of chili), Naga Viper, Bhut Jolokia Ghost, Red Savina, and Chocolate Habanero. Also, I survived the Execution Station, twice.
“Why did you come back here again? Didn’t you learn your lesson yesterday?” asked the kind woman at the CaJohn’s Fiery Foods booth.
“No,” I said.
The Execution Station is a gauntlet of superhot sauce blends, each loaded with tasty fruits, vegetables and spices. It’s the toothpick challenge on steroids; you taste seven squirts of different superhot sauces, in ascending heat index, on innocent little white plastic spoons. (The trick is to flip the spoon upside down so the sauce hits your tongue before your palate.) If you make it through all seven, a CaJohn’s beer koozie and an “I Survived” sticker are your rewards. It’s like a bar that serves really delicious superhot sauce instead of booze. A friend was offered a ride in an airplane from a complete stranger at the Execution Station once. He took the flight the next day, proof that hot sauce gets you high.
Psychologist Paul Rozin defined any phenomenon where extreme sensations like pain and fear are experienced without real harm occurring as a “constrained risk.” This is what the experience of tasting a superhot pepper or sauce is like. It also releases endorphins (excitement) and dopamine (pleasure) into your system. The risk can be qualified as constrained because, even if you feel like you are going to die, everything will actually be okay. People bond over the pepper experience.
The combination of unique flavor profiles and distinct forms of heat take superhot tastings to a whole other level. Sometimes, you have to break to catch your breath, wipe your forehead, or blow your nose. Your taste buds become extremely sensitive, and just when you think your mouth is permanently numb, some incredible sauce with cardamom, lime and coriander caresses your palate (Heartbreaking Dawn’s Mauvais Sang). It’s beyond intense; something new happens.
It had been a long a while since that girl tricked me with a jalapeño on the playground. I’d been doing my homework on hot peppers, and had worked my way up the superhot scale. I was building up my tolerance for Level 3, and I could comfortably eat sauce made from superhot peppers in the 850,000 to 2.2 million Scoville unit range.
But one of my guiding rules throughout this process was to never, ever, not under any circumstances, even on a dare for a lot of money, eat a superhot pepper straight. A superhot sauce is a blend of peppers and fruits, vegetables and spices. They are diluted forms of heat. A raw superhot is practically toxic, simply too hot for consumption.
So why did I eat a whole raw reaper pod, on camera, in front of over one hundred people, at the 2015 NYC Hot Sauce Expo? Because Ed Currie, creator of the Carolina Reaper—the world’s hottest pepper, according to the Guinness Book of World Records—picked me and a friend out of the crowd.
“Hey, you guys are good-looking, and can handle your peppers,” he’d said. “Come with me. There’s a lady who wants to talk to you at the PuckerButt Booth.”
PuckerButt is the name of Currie’s fiery food company, destined to become an empire. He sells his seeds and reaper peppers to most all of the major superhot sauce producers. His Carolina Reaper blew the roof off the superhot world, both in terms of heat index and sales. PuckerButt has contracts coming in from US Foods for 90,000 cases of peppers at a time. My friend, Jeff, and I had met Currie in Albuquerque, where he dosed us with some of his best sauces. But never with a raw pepper pod.
We walked to the PuckerButt booth to find a small crowd gathered around a film crew, along with a beautiful blonde woman holding a microphone. She wore an elegant blue dress and a beauty-pageant smile. Someone was filming a documentary about the superhot movement for cable, and Jeff and I were going to be interviewed. It would be our fifteen minutes of hot sauce fame. That’s when Ed Currie came up to us with two whole raw reaper pepper pods.
“And here are the reapers!” he announced.
Whispers of what we were about to do spread through the growing crowd.
Ed handed Jeff and I reaper peppers, and spoke under his breath. “Just coat your mouth with a lot of saliva, keep doing that while you chew and swallow. You guys will be fine.”
My heart raced. I turned to Jeff, and told him not to do it. He said he would, but not on camera. I looked at Ed Currie, the crowd, the interviewer in the blue dress, the pepper pod in my hand. Nicholas Hunt (no relation to me) described the reaper in The Atlantic as “an evil looking pepper—a gnarled, lumpy pod with a sucked-up belly and a small tail reminiscent of wasp’s stinger. When ripe it is a luscious Crayola red. Its looks are a carefully crafted marketing scheme that screams ‘Danger: Do Not Eat.’” The camera lights were on full blast; there was no turning back.
The first bite tastes like an intensely sweet red bell pepper. For a second you think it’s going to be okay. There’s only a little bite at the back of the throat. And then comes the heat, rising and rising in tidal waves of scorching pain. The reaper’s fire feels deliberate and personal. It’s like the pepper is alive, a diabolical intelligence slowly dismembering you from the inside out. I looked to the crowd for help, but what could they do? There was animal pity and fear in their eyes. The heat kept rising.
The crowd swirled around as I cried, sweat, and blew snot into my handkerchief. The veins in my temples bulged.
After the effects of the reaper began to wear off, Ed claims that I asked for something hotter. I do not remember this. Ed pulled out a vial of Reaper Venom, a special tincture three times hotter than the actual pepper (6 million Scoville units, extracted by a natural process), and put a few drops on a small white plastic spoon. My friend Jeff was bent over a large gray trash can, spitting, but gave me the thumbs up. I took the Reaper Venom.
It tasted like a sweet oily alcohol, and the effects were instantaneous. My hands and feet began to vibrate with electric current. I went out of body, arms and legs numb.
The interviewer asked me questions, and I answered. Somewhere there is a documentary being produced about superhots, which may or may not feature my reaper footage. But to this day, I cannot recall anything I said.
“They’re not that hot,” says Ed Currie.
Earlier this year, PuckerButt leaked information about an experimental pepper known as HP 56 (HP stands for Higher Power). People online are calling it the Death Strain or the Turd. According to reports, it is at least twice as hot as the Carolina Reaper. It’s not on the market yet.
Ed Currie is the Timothy Leary of superhots. He got into peppers in college, while looking for something to cure cancer and heart disease, both prevalent in his family. At first the logic was simple: eating hot peppers made Ed feel healthier, so he decided to grow and share them with others. Now he is the mad scientist-prophet of the superhot movement. His motto is “the hotter the healthier.” His intention all along has been to save lives.
“There is a lot of research going on right that shows capsinoids have the potential to halt and cure cancer,” Currie says. “They cause cancer cells to suicide themselves.”
So far, it’s worked for him. Currie eats his own home-grown superhots with every meal, and has a clean bill of health, something that could not be said for the rest of his family. He also donates peppers, and a portion of his profits from PuckerButt sales, to further research about how capsinoids can fight cancer and heart disease.
“God put me on a mission to help cure people’s diseases with peppers. The Mayans used peppers for religious purposes. And the term ‘ghost pepper’ comes from India. When someone was mentally or physically ill, a shaman would lay them in a room by a fire, and cover them with a blanket. Then the shaman would put dried ghost peppers in the fire, and ask the person to come out from under the blanket. The patient would inhale the pepper fumes, cry a lot, pour snot, and sweat profusely. This was seen as the evil spirit coming out,” Currie says.
Whether you believe him or not, HP 56 will undoubtedly be the next hottest pepper in the world. And while peppers have been associated with healing for ages, they have never been this hot. The new movement is a traveling circus with elements of Greek theatre and Italian opera, where a fire in the mouth is thought to be cathartic to the soul.
I walked out of the 2015 Hot Sauce Expo keenly aware of the reaper pepper in my stomach. The sun shone through some clouds but was not too bright. I felt the cold clawing sensation of something trying to get out from inside of me as I walked down the sidewalk to unlock my bicycle. What was going to happen? How long would the reaper churn in my belly, and intestines, before finally exiting the system?
It occurred that I did not have to endure anymore. I noticed a playground with some basketball hoops and benches. Beside one of the benches sat a trash drum. Several girls around the age of twelve or thirteen sat on the bench chatting. I went up to them.
“Excuse me. I’ve just eaten a superhot pepper, and it is not agreeing with me. Would you mind if I vomited in that trash barrel?”
A chorus of replies came. “No, not at all . . . go ahead . . . no big deal . . .”
Relief swept over me as I went to the barrel and put two fingers down my throat. Out came the reaper, with all its venom. The girls kept chatting. I repeated this procedure until every last seed was out of my system. Now I would not have to pass that fire through the rest of my body.
I felt better, and thanked the girls. In unison, they cheerfully replied, “No problem!”
Lucas Hunt was born in rural Iowa, and is the author of Lives (Vagabond, 2006), Light on the Concrete (North Sea, 2011) and the forthcoming IOWA (Thane & Prose, 2016). He studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop, and MFA program at Southampton College. Hunt has published in The New York Times, East Hampton Star, Clarion, Slice, and received a John Steinbeck Award for poetry. He is the director of Orchard Literary, founder of Hunt & Light, and a professional live auctioneer.