Love Hurts: Why Do We Love Chile Peppers?
Walk down any street in Naples, and you’re sure to see what look like gold-capped red chile peppers hanging from shop windows, car rear-view mirrors, and danging around people’s necks. So what’s the deal? Do Neapolitans just really love chile peppers? In truth, the crown-capped “chiles” are good luck charms, and they pre-date the arrival of real chile peppers in Europe by centuries. Called “corni” or “cornicelli” (meaning “horns” or “little horns”), the origins of these amulets date back at least as early as ancient Rome and cult of the Greek fertility god Priapus. The shape, which invokes imagery associated with Priapus (and yes, red chile peppers) is deliberately provocative. Chiles have long been thought of as an aphrodisiac, and cornicelli are said to hold particularly protective powers when it comes to fertility.
But Naples isn’t the only place where chiles carry superstitious significance. In New Mexico, beautiful garlands of red Hatch chiles called ristras are hung outside homes as decoration and good luck. In India, it’s not uncommon to find seven chile peppers, and one lemon strung together to form what locals call nimbu mirchi. These represent the spicy and sour flavors which are a favorite of the goddess Alakshmi, bringer of poverty and misfortune. They are hung near the threshold of businesses with the hope that she will gravitate to the hanging citrus fruit and peppers rather than wreak havoc on the finances and lives of shopowners.
For a food that causes physical pain, it’s amazing how chiles have made their way into so many cuisines and traditions around the world. We crazy humans are one of two mammal species in the world known to seek out spicy foods, and we are also by far the biggest propagator of chile pepper plants on the planet. There is evidence that as early as 6,000 years ago, capsicums were being used from Southern Peru to the Bahamas. Following Columbus' "discovery" of chiles in the New World, they were spread throughout Asia, Africa, and Europe via Portuguese trade routes. We have these ages-old trade routes to thank for inventions like Piri Piri sauce, curry, and the popularity of chiles in Chinese, Thai, and Indian cuisines.
So what makes us love chiles so much when ingesting them causes pain? Scientists theorize that part of the reason has to do with the psychological thrill that comes with eating them. Much like riding a rollercoaster or watching a terrifying movie, we know that ultimately eating chiles can’t harm us. The pain we feel is actually the result of capsaicin triggering pain receptors whose evolutionary purpose is to alert the body to the real dangers of heat. The burning sensation caused by eating chiles is not the result of tissue damage, but the brain misfiring: capsaicin tricks our brains into thinking our mouths are on fire.
Scientists have proposed lots of theories to explain the unique presence of capsaicin in chile peppers. Some believe that the evolutionary reason chilies burn is to dissuade mammals from eating them: while mammals generally avoid spicy plants, birds do not as they lack the receptor to feel the capsaicin burn. Therefore birds can consume chiles without consequence, with the added benefit of spreading seeds through their droppings. Mammals, on the other hand, grind up seeds in their teeth, which is bad for the continuation of the plant.
Despite all evolutionary barriers, however, we humans just can’t get enough heat. Every year it seems a new record is broken for the world’s hottest chile pepper, and chile-heads are working around the clock to create (and sell) the newest and hottest variety. As of 2019, the Carolina Reaper is once again the world’s hottest chile pepper, beating its own record as the 2013 winner. It was bred for pure, mouth-singeing heat, with an average Scoville Heat Unit ranking of 1,641,000 and a recorded peak at 2.2 million SHU. To put that into perspective, the Carolina Reaper is 200 times hotter than your standard jalapeno.