Fear this Reaper
Dec 27, 2013 at 1:00 PM
Ed Currie holds one of his world-record Carolina Reaper peppers by the stem, which looks like the tail of a scorpion.
On the other end is the bumpy, oily, fire-engine red fruit with a punch of heat nearly as potent as most pepper sprays used by police. It's hot enough to leave even the most seasoned spicy food aficionado crimson-faced, flushed with sweat, trying not to lose his lunch.
Last month, The Guinness Book of World Records decided Currie's peppers were the hottest on Earth, ending a more than four-year drive to prove no one grows a more scorching chili. The heat of Currie's peppers was certified by students at Winthrop University who test food as part of their undergraduate classes.
But whether Currie's peppers are truly the world's hottest is a question that one scientist said can never be known. The heat of a pepper depends not just on the plant's genetics, but also where it is grown, said Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. And the heat of a pepper is more about being macho than seasoning.
"You have to think of chili heat like salt. A little bit improves the flavor, but a lot ruins it," Bosland said.
Some ask Currie if the record should be given to the single hottest pepper tested instead of the mean taken over a whole batch. After all, Usain Bolt isn't considered the world's fastest man because of his average time over several races.
But Currie shakes off those questions.
"What's the sense in calling something a record if it can't be replicated? People want to be able to say they ate the world's hottest pepper," Currie said.
The record is for the hottest batch of Currie's peppers that was tested, code name HP22B for "Higher Power, Pot No. 22, Plant B." Currie said he has peppers from other pots and other plants that have comparable heat.
The science of hot peppers centers around chemical compounds called capsaicinoids. The higher concentration the hotter the pepper, said Cliff Calloway, the Winthrop University professor whose students tested Currie's peppers.
The heat of a pepper is measured in Scoville Heat Units. Zero is bland, and a regular jalapeno pepper registers around 5,000 on the Scoville scale. Currie's world record batch of Carolina Reapers comes in at 1,569,300 Scoville Heat Units, with an individual pepper measured at 2.2 million. Pepper spray weighs in at about 2 million Scoville Units.
Pharmacist Wilbur Scoville devised the scale 100 years ago, taking a solution of sugar and water to dilute an extract made from the pepper. A scientist would then taste the solution and dilute it again and against until the heat was no longer detected. So the rating depended on a scientist's tongue, a technique that Calloway is glad is no longer necessary.
"I haven't tried Ed's peppers. I am afraid to," Calloway said. "I bite into a jalapeno — that's too hot for me."
Now, scientists separate the capsaicinoids from the rest of the peppers and use liquid chromatography to detect the exact amount of the compounds. A formula then converts the readings into Scoville's old scale.
The world record is nice, but it's just part of Currie's grand plan. He's been interested in peppers all his life, the hotter the better. Ever since he got the taste of a sweet hot pepper from the Caribbean a decade ago, he has been determined to breed the hottest pepper he can. He is also determined to build his company, PuckerButt Pepper Company, into something that will let the 50-year-old entrepreneur retire before his young kids grow up.
The peppers started as a hobby, grown in his Rock Hill backyard. The business now spreads across a number of backyards and a couple dozen acres in Chester County. As his business grew, Currie kept his job at a bank because he promised his wife, whom he wooed a decade ago by making her a fresh batch of salsa, he wouldn't leave the lucrative position until they were out of debt. She released him from that vow in February.
Currie has about a dozen employees. Even with the publicity of the world record, he still gets nervous about making payroll. He said the attention has helped him move closer to the goal of making PuckerButt self-sustaining.
Currie's peppers aren't just about heat. He aims for sweetness, too. He makes sauces and mustards with names like "Voodoo Prince Death Mamba," ''Edible Lava" and "I Dare You Stupit" with a goal to enhance the flavor of food.
And the hot pepper market is expanding. In less than five years, the amount of hot peppers eaten by Americans has increased 8 percent, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics.
Currie's world record has created quite a stir in the world of chiliheads, said Ted Barrus, a blogger from Astoria, Ore., who has developed a following among hot pepper fans by videotaping himself eating the hottest peppers in the world and posting the videos on YouTube under the name Ted The Fire Breathing Idiot.
Barrus said Currie's world record is just the latest event in a series of pepper growers to top one another with hotter and hotter peppers.
"That's the biggest bragging rights there are. It is very, very competitive," he said.
The reason people love super-hot peppers isn't much different than any other thrill seekers. Barrus talks lovingly about trying the Carolina Reaper, even though the peppers usually send him into spasms of hiccups and vomiting.
"You only live once. This is safer than jumping out of an airplane," he said.
Barrus said Currie's news has other growers sending him peppers that seem hotter than the Carolina Reaper on his tongue, although they will await scientific testing.
That's fine with Currie. He knew the record would be challenged quickly and has sent off what he thinks are even hotter batches to the students at Winthrop University to test.
"Nobody is going to grow hotter peppers than Ed Currie," he said.
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