The Man Behind The World's Hottest Pepper
According to a mastermind breeder of the Carolina Reaper, this pepper is actually not that hot.
When Byline announced that its July issue's theme would be "Heatwave," I knew there was only one person I’d like to get on the phone: "Smokin’" Ed Currie, the mastermind breeder of the Carolina Reaper, a gnarly red cultivar that the Guinness World Records deemed the world’s hottest pepper in 2017. Far exceeding the humble Jalapeno, the try-hard Tabasco and the has-been Habanero on the Scoville Scale (a measurement recording the pungency of chilis), the Carolina Reaper has been the subject of numerous clickbait YouTube challenges, at least one NPR-documented ER visit, and even a spicy longform New Yorker piece, which gleefully quotes the writer Steven Leckart’s description of eating the Reaper as "like being face-fucked by Satan."
But don’t write Currie off as a vindictive stunt-botanist – the 60-year old Michigan native is also a recovering addict, a loving father and husband, and the CEO of PuckerButt Pepper Company, the largest organic pepper farm in the United States (and the provider of many of the hottest late round sauces featured on the popular wing-centric web series Hot Ones).
I caught Currie by phone on a Monday morning, while he was mashing peppers at the PuckerButt headquarters in South Carolina, to chat a bit about God, celebrity, stomach cramps, holistic medicine, and, of course, hot sauce.
Lily: So what makes a pepper hot?
EC: Everybody thinks peppers are hot. There is no actual heat in peppers. What it is is a chemical reaction with a nerve receptor that sends a signal to our brains we perceive as heat. It’s a poison to our body akin to arsenic. Only whereas it doesn’t take a lot of arsenic to kill us, you’d have to eat twice your body weight in capsaicin all in one sitting to really die from it. It’s essentially a defense mechanism plants come up with for mammals so we won’t eat the fruit. But there is no actual heat. It cannot burn a hole in your esophagus. It can’t destroy your taste buds. It can’t hurt your stomach. It doesn’t cause ulcers. Nothing can happen to you other than temporary discomfort from a pepper unless you have a predisposition to allergies for nightshades. If you’re allergic to tomatoes or eggplants, do not eat a pepper.
Lily: Do you need to put any sort of health warning on your sauces?
EC: No. It’s a fruit. Unless you’re predisposed to an allergy to nightshades, there is nothing that can happen to you once that chemical reaction we perceive as heat is done. People have tried to sue for eating something hot. There is nothing they can sue for because it is just temporary. Any physician will tell you nothing can happen from it – unless they’re getting paid by a lawyer to say something can.
Lily: Wait, have they tried to sue you? Or is this just something that can happen in the business?
EC: I’m not allowed to talk about any lawsuits we might or might not have been involved in (that we won). Simply by proving science, they never went to court.
Lily: So if part of this is psychological, is there a way to talk yourself down from an extreme reaction to heat?
EC: Basic human nature, there’s two things that can happen – a fight response or a flight response. The people who have a flight response are the ones who are going to the hospital from eating charcoal. I eat a lot of really super hot stuff – the side effects I do not like are the stomach cramps I get from my stomach extruding the capsaicin into the smooth muscle. I know those cramps are temporary – you would recognize those cramps as a menstrual cramp. When the guy is laying there on the ground saying his stomach ruptured and he’s dying, really all that’s happening is he’s having a menstrual cramp and any woman would smack him in the head and call him names.
Lily: Do you have a taste tester squad?
EC: If you work for me, you’re a victim. If I tell you to eat something, you eat it. I don’t hurt people — well, I do hurt a few of them, because they’re arrogant. But I don’t hurt people… okay, I do hurt people, but I’m mostly looking for feedback when I’m asking employees what to do. I don’t want them to be done working for two hours because of a flight response.
Lily: Do you sell mostly hot sauce, or is it more like raw peppers or byproducts?
EC: We sell pepper mash to other manufacturers of other hot sauces, also salsa makers. We sell some peppers in the summertime, but there’s not a big market for fresh peppers. Most of what we sell is pepper mash or powder to manufacturers.
Lily: Wait, what’s pepper mash? Is that like a paste?
EC: It’s the base product of pretty much anything hot. If it’s in the grocery store and it’s hot, chances are it either has pepper powder or pepper mash in it. If it doesn’t have one of those two things, it has a chemical that causes the same reaction — that’s garbage, and shouldn’t be in it.
Lily: So Tabasco or Cholula - do you contract with major manufacturers like that?
EC: We contract with major manufacturers to sell them pepper mash, but that’s as deep as we can get into that. Everyone’s got NDAs.
Lily: Do you have a favorite hot sauce?
EC: My favorite hot sauce is the Reaper Squeezings, extra hot. I use it almost every day. My favorite all-around sauce right now is the Chili Maple Classic that we do for Hot Ones. You can put that on anything, and it’s delicious.
Lily: You make the classic Hot Ones sauce, right?
EC: We make a lot of the Hot Ones sauces for them. Chances are, if it says Hot Ones, it came out of our manufacturing facility. Most of the people on Hot Ones are our friends. The only place where there is competition in this industry is on the internet. In real life, all but the 200 people who are negative on the internet are friends.
Lily: I never really watched Hot Ones, but it’s such a big phenomenon!
EC: The big phenomenon has to do with [the fact that] over half the households in America identify as eating spicy food. We also have an addiction to celebrity. So you’re putting two things that are really prevalent in today’s society on the same page. I think it’s hilarious. I was involved with Hot Ones before it became so hot. They saw what was coming with the hot sauce industry and paired it with what most people already love about celebrity. It’s a perfect mix of two ingredients that people can’t get enough of.
Lily: What’s something you’d put hot sauce on that’s unusual?
EC: I put hot sauce on ice cream.
Lily: What flavor?
EC: Any flavor. I was doing something with Epicurious and I decided to make hot sauce that was specific for ice cream. So I made a chocolate strawberry, a brandy chocolate cherry, a pineapple goji Berry - all these hot sauces that you can put on your ice cream so you can get the heat and sweet, the hot and cold. It’s a unique experience.
Lily: Since it’s summer right now, are there hot foods that are especially good to eat in heat?
EC: Any of the curries.
Lily: Including Ed Currie?
EC: I’m talking about with a Y. But any of the curries will make your body sweat and cool you down. Eating a straight pepper will do the same, if you can handle a straight pepper. It has more to do with making you feel better than anything I tell you, because I do crazy shit all day long. I start my morning with pepper oil and coffee. But if you’re hot, eat something hot and you’ll sweat — it’ll cool you down faster. That’s simple science.
Lily: Do you think we can learn something from peppers?
EC: You can learn from everything that’s in nature. I’m not apostolizing, but I believe that everything we need to survive and to overcome all illness is out in nature. Everything we need to learn to survive is also out in nature. All we need to do is pay attention and be open to learning instead of thinking that we’re the apex of the system. Look at mushrooms — people say: “Mushrooms are the best!” “Mushrooms are it!” People for years said: “Don’t eat mushrooms.” Mushrooms turn out to be the largest living organism in the world. It’s crazy that we always look to ourselves instead of looking to the things that God’s already provided.
Lily: For sure. What are some of the medicinal uses for peppers?
EC: They’re studying cancer, heart disease, ALS, obesity, addiction. I just talked to a doctor who’s using it to cure a stomach ailment. It raises your metabolism, which helps with a whole lot of things.
Lily: If you had a million hours in the day, and all the money in the world at your disposal, what’s one thing you’d grow or make?
EC: If I had all the money I needed, I would give it away. There’s people who need money a lot more than I do, because we already know what the next product we need is — we just need to find a way for pharmaceuticals not to shut it down.
Lily: What’s the product?
EC: I want to deliver a high-quality capsainoid supplement to everybody so that they can reap all the benefits of peppers. But the pharmaceutical industries here in the United States don’t want something that doesn’t make them too much money.
Lily: Could that replace something already out there, or would that be in addition to current drugs?
EC: In addition to. There’s gotta be a healthy balance between holistics and medicine. If you look at the ratio of disease from 100 years ago to today, the ratio of disease now is much, much higher. What we’ve gotten away from is whole foods and holistic medicine. There was actually a time where a lot of cancers were cured by hydrogen peroxide. But there’s gotta be a healthy balance — I don’t think there’s anything nature provides that can help with, say, spinal bifida. But if you have a cold and take honey, acacia and cayenne peppers, you’ll feel a lot better a lot sooner. It’s about choices.