The first time I tasted the heat of chili, I was three years old. I don’t remember it, of course, but my parents say I cooed after the jar of crimson fermented chili paste in my mom’s hands while doddering around the kitchen.
So, like the proud Korean parents they are, they put a minuscule dab of the stuff on a chopstick and put it on my lips. Apparently, I loved the sweet heat of the sticky, jam-like paste, which is a fundamental ingredient in many Korean dishes. It might as well have been a coronation. My obsession with chili spice seems intertwined with my earliest memories of eating delicious food.
These days, it takes exactly three days of abstinence before my craving for a hot chili pepper kicks in. Part of this feels genetic, given my Korean heritage, but I’ve fallen so damn hard for these hot peppers that I now munch on Thai bird and serrano chiles with practically every meal, be it a McMuffin or chow mein. I still mourn the two bottles of superhot “Last Dab” sauce I left behind in the MEL office when everything got shut down for the pandemic. I crave the flavor of all these funky, floral, delicious peppers, sure, but the addiction is really to the ferocious kick of capsaicin, the compound in chilis that makes your mouth feel aflame. No two chilis hit the same — and that’s half the fun.
So I obviously laughed hard when I recently stumbled back onto this meme I first saw on Reddit years ago, depicting a frustrated pepper on the verge of tears while a human mocks its evolutionary defense mechanism.
It feels good to be a bipedal mammal descended from apes and endowed with a big fat brain, huh? The meme hits because it reflects humankind’s ability to transcend wilderness; our near-masochistic brand of resilience; the shared history that brought us to the peak of apex predation.
But then I saw the reply that, in the words of the famed food critic Anton Ego, “rocked me to my core”:
Could it be that the meme’s got it all backward? Are we mere pawns in the ever-escalating spread of hot chilis to every corner of the world?
There’s certainly some truth to the notion that hot chili plants developed capsaicin in order to ward off mammals (although the main reason may be that capsaicin inhibits fungal growth and insects, both of which can ravage chili plants). The key is that while many plants are propagated by mammals that eat their fruits and poop out seeds, recent research observes that mammalian molars grind and destroy pepper seeds during consumption. So the spice helps ward off animals that would just destroy the plant in favor of another creature that has none of that baggage: Birds. It’s no coincidence that birds don’t have receptors for capsaicin.
Humans, meanwhile, encountered wild chilis about 12,000 years ago, but only began cultivating them in 4000 B.C., with the lowlands of Brazil considered a potential birthplace for the practice. The first wild chilis weren’t consistently spicy, and they were far less hot than many modern varieties, because producing capsaicin requires more energy — a tradeoff for any plant that needs to spread quick. Domestication by humans changed that forever, and the export of the first chilis from the “New World” back to Europe kick-started its spread through the Levant, Africa and across Asia, becoming popular in these regions by the 1500s.
We’re still the only mammal, other than the humble tree shew, that craves spicy peppers. And like any other addiction, our tolerance has grown over time; we’re now producing peppers that are almost incomprehensibly spicy, including the current record holder, the Carolina Reaper, from famed chili breeder Ed Currie.
As psychology expert Paul Rozin put it to the New York Times, it’s the culinary equivalent of a horror movie or rollercoaster ride. “Humans and only humans get to enjoy events that are innately negative, that produce emotions or feelings that we are programmed to avoid when we come to realize that they’re actually not threats,” he said. “Mind over body. My body thinks I’m in trouble, but I know I’m not.”
It goes without saying that people’s desire for hot peppers differs dramatically, and most of all, regionally — people in warmer climates eat so much more of the hot stuff, with consumption in Asia, Africa and Latin America wildly outpacing the appetites of most North Americans and northern Europeans. There’s nothing literally genetic about capsaicin tolerance; it’s built up over time, as the chemicals that signal pain in your brain start to warp. The weird part is, Rozin’s research found that even among people with different heat preferences, chili fans most prefer the heat level that’s just below intolerable.
In other words, there’s something about capsaicin that makes us flirt with the border where pleasure meets pain, again and again. It gives us endorphin rushes, and Currie, the grower, swears that switching to super-hot peppers helped him kick a debilitating drug addiction.
So who won the evolutionary battle?
Turns out, this is just another very human story of how we create symbiosis where there is none. We found a nasty plant that happens to help preserve food, treat pain, lower our mortality risk and taste pretty damn good in the right context; in us, the plant discovered a predator that isn’t as useless as all the other predators it grew to repel.
In the documentary The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan argues that while plants like fruit trees and flowers don’t have feelings or desires, per se, they’ve tapped into a distinctly human desire to nurture and celebrate beauty. The hot pepper, then, is the BDSM version of that tale. It is as much a reflection of us, as it is wild biology — a lush, living tribute to our Icarus-like ambition for flavor. No other mainstream food, except maybe some high-proof booze, has the ability to shock and delight us in the same way.
Evolution suggests that the pepper’s love affair began with birds. But in 2020, no creature loves the spicy pepper quite like the human. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.