The Dumpster: Tasting Ghosts
Let’s say you come home to the apartment you share with Johnny Knoxville and when you open the front door a gallon of paint spills on your head and of course you look up, about to say “What the f—” and paint falls in your mouth.
Your stomach will be heroic. It has a checklist, and paint is not on it. The paint is sent back up like a firehose, because paint is not food. It is poisonous and your stomach is there to help.
Hot peppers are food. They grow on a plant and have seeds and they’re green or some other attractive food color and they have nutritional value. They’re on the checklist.
But peppers don’t act like food. They’re filled with capsaicin, a pepper’s defense system designed to protect its little seeds, as a Detroit mama with a blowtorch will protect her babies.
Imagine that you are eating a raw jalapeño. Think of the satisfying crunch and the floral taste and the sort-of-tolerable after-burn. Right now your mouth is watering, isn’t it? Probably a lot. Not because this food sounds tasty, but because your salivary glands are responding like tiny fire sprinklers. Your brain says you can eat peppers and your stomach checks them off the list, but your mouth is your first line of defense and the first to suffer. It has to act fast. It pushes the big red pain button.
One third of the world eats hot peppers every day. Food made with hot peppers does not need refrigeration, which is to say even bacteria won’t eat them. These people build up a tolerance for the heat, much like Muhammad Ali built up a tolerance for being punched in the face. Still, there is brain damage—which accounts for people wanting hotter peppers.
Peppers are measured using the Scoville Scale, invented in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, who fed human testers hot peppers and then counted their tears. Bell peppers rank 0 on the Scoville Scale. Your average jalapeño hits about 4000 Scoville heat units. A habanero screams 360,000 SHUs. Once a pepper hits six digits, we should stop putting it in our mouths.
Now imagine a pepper that is 1 million Scoville heat units. You can’t, because nobody can imagine more than 35 of anything. Peppers over 1 million SHU have names like Ghost and Scorpion. At these numbers the scale loses accuracy, but we can forgive the human subjects for superlatives like, “Ow ow OWW! It’s a million hots!”
Currently the champion hottest pepper is the Reaper, weighing in at 2.2 million SHUs. For reference, pepper spray is 5 million, and we use that to bring down hardened criminals tripping on meth. There are twenty people who have tried to eat a Reaper, and I know this because every one of them shot a YouTube video of their attempt, which shows they knew in advance how stupid it was. Every video shows young morons laughing nervously, then being vaguely apprehensive, then panic-stricken, then frantically trying to rip off their own head. They try to scream, but only hot air hisses out in the form of “mommy” because their vocal chords have retreated down to the boiling acids of the stomach, where it is safer. The lungs squeeze like fists until there is no more air to push, and the sphincter opens with a capital O. The eyes deflate and tumble back into the skull, which then crackles, hisses and ignites. The rest of the body is wrung like a dishrag as sweat glands raid it for more water.
I hope these people got a lot of YouTube ad revenue so they’ll be happily remembered by their heirs.
“Always open the windows when cooking with peppers,” offers Mike Hultquist, author of 1 Million Plus: Cooking with the World’s Hottest Chili Peppers, “and turn on a fan.” Someone tell your stomach that this same warning is printed on can of paint stripper.
Michael Campbell is a regular humor columnist for Food & Spirits Magazine, where his “Dumpster” essays close every issue. His first book, Are You Going To Eat That, is a collection of 60 essays released in 2009. His off-beat observations have appeared in Reader’s Digest, and he was recently named Humor Writer of The Month by the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Campbell is also a singer-songwriter known for purposeful melody and evocative storytelling in the likes of Marshall Crenshaw, Paul Simon and James Taylor. His newest album is due for release in fall 2014. michaelcampbellsongwriter.com His mom is still waiting for him to get a real job.
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