Some Like It Hot

(Credit: Divily from Pixabay.jpg)

Years ago, I went on a date with a short, dark, and handsome architect who had the colossal arrogance of anyone who thinks he can decide what sort of giant building the rest of us have to look at for the next five decades. He wanted to introduce me to sushi (this was a long time ago). But he was so friggin’ condescending when he warned me only to take a teeny-tiny taste of the bright green mound of wasabi that I popped a huge dollop into my mouth.

Blinding fast so the tears just made my eyes shiny, I smiled. “It’s great!” My reward was his dropped jaw.

I do like heat, and spice, and intensity, though not always by the forkful. That is why I rolled my eyes when I heard Dr. Paul Rozin, a food and psychology researcher from the University of Pennsylvania, insist that craving chili-pepper heat was a form of benign masochism.

Oh, for God’s sake. The pain of a chili pepper is a temporary offering to the gods of endorphin release. The heat lingers far longer, jazzing up the entire dinner. Life itself, for an hour or two, has more savor.

I looked up Rozin’s research. In 1980, after what must have been an amusing few months trying to teach rats to like chili peppers, he refocused on humans. What he observed was “a clear hedonic shift,” as some of us came to like the burning sensation that drove others away. Maybe there were enough positive associations, he wrote, with an enhancement of taste or social rewards. But “it is also possible that the initial negative response to chili pepper is necessary for the eventual liking. Chili stimulates an innate sensory ‘warning’ system but is not harmful. The enjoyment of the irritation may result from the user’s appreciation that the sensation and the body’s defensive reaction to it are harmless.”

That sounds like asking a nonpoisonous snake to bite you just so you can relax about the venom.

Rozin sees eating chilis as thrill-seeking behavior that is enjoyable because of its “constrained risk.” If he is right, there is definitely a continuum: I grew ghost peppers last summer, took one small taste of the harvest, and gave all the peppers away to my friends, saying only, “L’il hot.” It is always more interesting to experience things for oneself.

Making a gift of those ghost peppers might well have been sadistic, but I would hardly call eating their less bellicose cousins masochism. I grew up with Irish cooking: meat boiled gray and rubbery, green beans boiled gray and mushy, salt the only seasoning. When I discovered spice, the world exploded into kaleidoscopic color. This is about pleasure, not pain.

Granted, the line between the two can wobble.

We court pain daily. We dive into sweaty, exhausting DIY projects; do weekend sports we know will leave us sore and blistered; grimace as we train for marathons; wait to be kicked in karate class; jam our feet into narrow, pointy-toed heels; tweeze and wax; drink too much; provoke a fight just to keep a relationship lively.

Some of this is about social identity, like my wasabi. We want to be seen as brave, daring, tough, fit, gorgeous, fun, formidable. Or we just want to be noticed, period.

But at other times, the point is that the reward matters more than the pain. Freud just might have been wrong about this one, too. A calculus of pleasure versus pain is not our only math.

There are also forms of pain that morph into pleasure. We call them acquired tastes, like drinking bitter coffee until you like it or smoking enough cigarettes that you stop choking. Apparently kids recoil from such intensity until age five or so, but those who start on chili peppers soon after are much happier eating spicy food for life. Chef Bill Phillips, a spicy foods expert on the faculty of the Culinary Institute of America, points out that “children in Mexico actually snack on jalapeno-laced lollipops.”

There is something a little addictive about intense flavor. The craving ratchets up: You want that kick, and you need more spice and heat to get it. I sprinkle crushed red pepper flakes the way other people sprinkle salt. I am not always seeking pain and the attendant endorphins; sometimes I just want a bit of extra flavor, not a hot jolt to the cerebellum. While my hunger for novelty has lessened a bit over the years, my desire for taste has not.

As for the truly hot chili peppers, they provide almost an Aristotelian catharsis, causing the same flush, rapid heartbeat, sweat, adrenaline jolt, and startled, breathless tears that strong emotion might. The appeal could definitely be psychological. Not only is there catharsis, a feeling that takes over and knocks away any niggling worries or sensations and leaves you with no doubt that you are alive, but there is also the reward of feeling brave and the camaraderie with other hotheads, as though we are sailing off to an adventure on the high seas while our friends wave from shore.

Paradox is at play, though. Capsaicin, the molecule that makes peppers seem to burn us, can also relieve pain. It used to be used for toothache, and it is an active ingredient in all the best arthritis liniments. We now know that it selectively stimulates, then blocks, nerve fibers that contain Substance P, depleting the stuff. And Substance P is a key player in the transmission of pain.

We know very little, relatively speaking, about capsaicin. Only in 1997 did pharmacologists finally identify its receptor. Called TRPV1, it is activated by both capsaicin and dangerously hot temperatures, so this is guilt by association: Your tongue has not been scorched; it just feels afire. Some of us may have more sensitive TRPV1 receptors; scientists are not yet sure.

Liking hot peppers could even be prudent: Capsaicin is a natural antifungal, so when we taste a pepper’s heat, we know we are being saved from contamination. On the other hand, peppers may be trying to dissuade us. Some evidence suggests that pepper plants use capsaicin to repel mammals, because our strong stomach acids break down the pepper seeds and lesson their fecundity. (Pepper seeds pass through a bird’s system unscathed, and birds, it turns out, are unfazed by capsaicin.)

The Chinese tree shew is the only other animal that actively likes hot peppers—and as it turns out, the Chinese tree shew does not feel their heat either. Another point for benign masochism, I suppose. Studies show that those of us who love chile peppers are far from insensate: We feel the burn just as acutely as those who recoil.

The question is, would I love spicy/hot food if it did not cause any discomfort at all? Of course—just as I love the tartness of lemon curd and the velvety bitterness of dark chocolate and the zing of a good balsamic and the rush of rich fudge. The pain of the pepper is a necessary evil, not a goal in itself. Like the runner’s high, it comes with that rush of endorphins that makes anything bearable.

As for the wasabi, that just spread the power a little more evenly. Revenge is far sweeter than horseradish.