I’m neither sadist nor masochist, but I like to inflict pain on myself, and I encourage others to do the same. The pain in this case comes from capsaicin, the powerful chemical that makes chiles hot.
I need the flavorful gusto of chiles just as I need a certain level of hops in beer. I crave the full-bodied flavor of chile-enhanced foods, “la comida picante” in Spanish, but why is the pain so satisfying?
Dave DeWitt in his impressive “Chile Pepper Encyclopedia” quotes Dr. Andrew Weil on the mind-altering properties of chiles: “The chile lover knows that pain can be transformed into a friendly sensation whose strength can go into making him high.” A theory in 1990 by Dr. Frank Etscorn, then experimental psychologist at the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, said that the “warm afterglow and constant craving for chile are due to capsaicin triggering the release of endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers.” Etscorn invented the nicotine patch, notes DeWitt.
Paul Rozin, Ph.D., a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania when DeWitt published his book, said chile does not meet the criteria for true physical addiction: it doesn’t become a physical necessity, you experience no loss of control or withdrawal sickness, and you can adjust to higher heat levels but don’t need increasing amounts to feel normal.
DeWitt describes capsaicin as a crystalline alkaloid, the active principle that causes heat in chile peppers. Unaffected by cold or heat, it retains potency despite time, cooking or freezing. It is so powerful in its pure state that chemists who handle the crystalline powder must work in a filtered “tox” room in full body protection with closed hood to prevent inhalation. The pharmaceutical chemist Lloyd Matheson, who once inhaled some capsaicin accidentally, said, “It’s not toxic, but you wish you were dead if you inhale it.” “One milligram of pure capsaicin placed on your hand would feel like a red-hot poker and would surely blister the skin,” said capsaicin expert Marlin Bensinger.
DeWitt’s articles on antidotes and tolerance confirmed some things I learned through experience: 1. You can build tolerance to chile-fired food. This can happen to me in one sitting. Once I ate a homemade burrito that I had oversauced and had to stop eating until the pain subsided. Once the pain passed, the other burritos were deliciously tolerable. My wife’s Asian-Indian friend says the heat level in foods that Americans consider hot is comparable to what Indians put in their babies’ bottles. 2. To quote DeWitt, “… with abstention, desensitization wears off, and when you attempt to return to your heat plateau, the chiles on the way there will seem to be hotter.” 3. Few foods or drinks act as antidotes. Some people think alcohol works, and I tried drinking beer while the pain was firing my mouth, but the pain returned when I swallowed. I learned long ago in Boy Scouts that the pain of burns can be lessened by covering the burn, and that’s all the beer did. Some say bread helps, and it does a little, but the best antidote is a milk product, which is why you wimps who really can’t tolerate hot food douse your so-called Mexican food with sour cream, an adulteration that robs the food of its Mexican heritage.
So go ahead. Start with mild “hot” sauce and progress to medium. Medium is a good plateau for occasional chile eaters; the bottles marked “hot” require regular indulgence. And leave the sour cream behind. After all, it’s just spoiled milk that spoils the true flavor of la comida picante.
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