Last night I had the opportunity to cook for someone, which was great because generally I cook only for myself and chow down in front of the TV (like I did tonight). My dining companion is a fellow fan of spicy food and so I liberally included Mexican flavors and various forms of heat-inducers into the meal. Cayenne and cumin on the roasted sweet potatoes; red pepper flakes with the sauteed spinach; and a healthy dose of enchilada sauce on the broiled tilapia.
As we sat feasting, I wondered what it is about spice and heat that entices so many people while it repulses many others. Derived from the chemical compound capsaicin, the heat of chile peppers is measured in Scoville units and ranges from the innocuous bell pepper to the raging habanero and naga jolokia. Known to alleviate pain, regulate blood sugar and stimulate weight loss, an over-consumption of hot peppers can lead to stomach cancer and some people can lose taste buds, but that hardly deters the devoted.
So besides a few medical benefits and risks, what is it about a temporary numbness in our mouths that leads some people to become "chile-heads" and others to run in fear?
According to those geniuses at Wikipedia, "When consumed, capsaicinoids bind with pain receptors in the mouth and throat that are normally responsible for sensing heat. Once activated by the capsaicinoids, these receptors send a message to the brain that the person has consumed something hot. The brain responds to the burning sensation by raising the heart rate, increasing perspiration and release of endorphins."
Hmmm... sweating, heart racing, endorphins? Sounds like a fun night to me.
Like those enamored of rare cheese, wine, scotch, die-hard fans of spice will go to great lengths to enjoy the thrill of the heat as it hits their mouths. What's different and rather wonderful about the pursuit of chiles is their democracy. A nice bottle of scotch can be damn expensive. But even at $3.99/pound at Whole Foods, most of us can afford a 2-ounce habanero. Various types of hot sauces routinely retail for less than $10 and if you plan it right, a little can go a long way.
The rush is also readily accessible and more socially acceptable than heroin or bungee jumping. Why bother with a sketchy dealer when you can just visit your local grocery store or farmer's market? Why risk death from sky diving when the worst you'll get from peppers is an ulcer? Besides, the chocolate companies have now figured out what the Mayans knew a few hundred years ago - chocolate plus chile equals awesome.
With its promise of cheap thrills, widely available fixes and a physical reaction reminiscent of an orgasm, it's almost harder to understand why anyone would NOT love a little spice in their life. Besides, with winter and an official recession upon us, we all could use some warming up.