Boerum Hill

Want to get high? Try hot sauce.

April 12, 2019 Scott Enman
Capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers, can make people feel high. Photo via Pexels

Ed Currie has been clean for many years. As a recovering addict, he can no longer indulge in drugs or alcohol, but he can turn to a different substance to get his fix: hot sauce.

“I’m high as a kite,” the owner of Puckerbutt Pepper Company and cultivator of the world’s hottest peppers announced to an audience at the Brooklyn Historical Society on Thursday.

The source of Currie’s euphoria was a few drops of concentrated chili oil from some of the spiciest peppers in the world. The liquid inside a small vile was a five-gallon pot of peppers diluted into oil.

Currie, known by many in the hot sauce industry as “Smokin’ Ed,” created the Carolina reaper pepper, which the Guinness Book of Records declared the hottest pepper in the world in 2013. It has a Scoville scale level of more than 1.5 million units.

Not content with that record, Currie would go on to make an even hotter one: Pepper X with a Scoville scale of 3.18 million units. (For reference: Tabasco sauce scores 3,750 units on the Scoville scale. Pepper spray is 5.3 million.)

He said that capsaicin, the active component of chili peppers, is the source of his high and replicates the feeling of illicit drugs.

“Capsaicin fills the dopamine receptors in your brain like narcotics do,” he said. “They release endorphins and dopamine into your body in a huge amount. So not only is eating hot food delicious, it’s pleasurable to your body too, and you crave it more.”

A patron samples a hot sauce at the fifth annual Hot Sauce Expo in Greenpoint. Eagle file photo by Andy Katz
A patron samples a hot sauce at the fifth annual Hot Sauce Expo in Greenpoint. Eagle file photo by Andy Katz

Currie recalled the first time he tried a hot pepper from St. Vincent island in the Caribbean.

“This thing turned out to be really, really hot,” he said. “I hadn’t been high in about four years at that point, and it knocked me to my knees because it made me high right away. Being the idiot that I am I tried another one.”

Erica Diehl, a Boerum Hill resident and owner of Red Hook-born Queen Majesty Hot Sauce, told the Brooklyn Eagle that there is an addictive quality to the spiciness.

“I’ve definitely gotten lightheaded,” she said. “I’ve had to sit down from eating some hot peppers. I felt like I was going to pass out. But once I have that feeling, it doesn’t actually stop me from wanting to try it again.

“There is definitely something that must be pleasurable about it. Once you get over the pain and survival mode, the endorphins kick in, and you definitely want to seek out that heat again.”

Steve Seabury, Ed Currie, Erica Diehl and Sara Lohman answered burning questions about spicy food on Thursday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Eagle photo by Scott Enman
Steve Seabury, Ed Currie, Erica Diehl and Sarah Lohman answered burning questions about spicy food on Thursday at the Brooklyn Historical Society. Eagle photo by Scott Enman

Currie and Diehl, along with historic gastronomist Sarah Lohman, came together for a discussion on the condiment for an event dubbed “Heating up History: An Exploration of Spice, Hot Sauce, and Immigrant Foods.”

The panel was moderated by Steve Seabury, the charismatic owner of High River Sauces and the organizer of the NYC Hot Sauce Expo, which takes places this weekend in Greenpoint.

Entering its seventh year, the event brings together hot sauce connoisseurs from all corners of the country and features free hot sauce tastings, a hot sauce hall of fame and the Guinness Book of Records Reaper Pepper challenge.

Samples of the Carolina reaper pepper were also available for daring audience members to try on Thursday.

Currie said that, contrary to popular belief, neither milk, water nor alcohol will cut the spice. Only time will help the burn pass, he said, so it’s better to embrace it.

Attendees try out various hot sauces and the Carolina reaper pepper. Eagle photo by Scott Enman
Attendees try out various hot sauces and the Carolina reaper pepper. Eagle photo by Scott Enman

Currie touted the health benefits of peppers, which, he said, contain properties that can kill cancer and microbes.

“All of the indigenous populations around the equator, they roll their own cigarettes and make their own alcohol and consume vast quantities of both, but they have no heart disease or cancer,” he said. “One of the things that I could standardize from what they were involved in was using hot peppers in everything.”

Lohman, a food journalist, spoke about the stigma surrounding Americans in other parts of the world as conservative eaters unwilling to take risks.

“One of the most prominent stereotypes about Americans is that they don’t like spicy food,” she said. “That idea is xenophobic — because that sentence is defining Americans as white, as people who don’t traditionally cook with chili peppers, and that is not only very narrow, but an incorrect definition about who Americans are.

“I’m sure there are some Americans out there that don’t like spicy food,” she added, “but they certainly don’t represent us all. So let’s get rid of that myth.”

Did you know?

• Tabasco was originally made for Confederate soldiers stationed in the north who needed a little extra kick in their food.

• Cuisines that are traditionally known for their use of hot peppers — like India, China and Thailand — didn’t start using peppers until the 16th century. Before that, the spiciest ingredients those countries could use were garlic, ginger and black pepper.

• Hot sauce is the fastest growing food segment in the U.S., according to Currie, and it’s a $9 billion industry. It overtook mayonnaise, mustard and ketchup as the most-sold condiment in the country, and over the next five years, it’s expected to become a $25 billion industry.

Follow reporter Scott Enman on Twitter.

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