The New Yorker, November 4, 2013
Like computers, superhot chilis are evolving at a rate that embarrasses the phenomena of just a few years ago. As a leisure activity, they offer some of the pleasures of mild drugs and extreme sports without requiring one to break the law or work out. They are near-death experiences in a bowl of guacamole.
In mid-December of 2011, Brady Bennett went out drinking at Adobe Gila’s at the Greene, a Mexican restaurant in Dayton, Ohio. After two beers, the bartender offered him a free shot. Bennett chose Patrón tequila with apple schnapps. Soon, he recalled, his throat began to swell. He struggled to breathe, and his nose, mouth, and lungs “felt as though they were on fire.” He called for an ambulance, moaning, and was taken to the hospital. A year later, Bennett filed a lawsuit against Adobe Gila’s, claiming that the bartender had spiked his drink with extract of the bhut jolokia, or ghost chili. (Adobe Gila’s denies the allegations.) “It wasn’t as if they gave him a little Tabasco,” Jeff McQuiston, Bennett’s lawyer, told the Dayton Daily News. “This stuff is lethal.” The bhut jolokia is a hundred and fifty times hotter than a jalapeño. Gastromasochists have likened it to molten lava, burning needles, and “the tip of my tongue being branded by a fine point of heated steel.” Yet, at more than a million Scoville heat units—the Scoville scale, developed by the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912, measures the pungency of foods—the bhut jolokia is at least 462,400 SHU short of being the world’s hottest chili pepper.
“Chili pepper” is a confusing term, another of Christopher Columbus’s deathless misnomers. (Columbus and his men classified the spicy plant they had heard being referred to in Hispaniola as aji—farther north, in Mexico, it was known by the Nahuatl word chilli—as a relative of black pepper.) Chilis belong to Capsicum, a genus of the nightshade family. Horticulturists consider them fruits, and grocers stock them near the limes and cilantro. Most chilis contain capsaicin, an alkaloid compound that binds to pain receptors on the tongue, producing a sensation of burning. Sweet banana peppers are usually neutral. Pepperoncini (approximately 300 SHU) produce just a flicker of heat, while cayennes (40,000) are to Scotch bonnets (200,000) as matches are to blowtorches. Capsaicin is meant to deter predators, but for humans it can be too little of a bad thing. Because capsaicin causes the body to release endorphins, acting as a sort of neural fire hose, many people experience chilis as the ideal fulcrum of pain and pleasure.
To be continued on the New Yorker website...
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