Some like it Hot

While it’s not necessarily the best economic development, it is fantastic news for those of us who think the domestic palate needs radical de-sissification. For too long we’ve lived in a desert of blandness where food is prepared to coddle the most sensitive tongues. So I have to admit I was delighted to see hot sauce production rank as the 8th fastest growing U.S. industry in a recent IBIS World Special Report.

During our travels we’ve noticed the changes too. From the growing number of hot sauce bars, like Peppers of Key West, to spicy menu options that actually have some spice, our nation’s taste for heat is definitely on an upward trend.

That trend is easily explained by the glorious proliferation of ethnic cuisine making its way through the U.S. along with an expanding population of immigrants from spice loving regions. But what explains our taste for spicy food more generally?

Surprisingly, that question still confounds scientists. Spice isn’t a flavor like sweet or sour. It is pure pain, indistinguishable by the body from the kind caused by a physical burn.

peppers of key west, Hot Sauce Bar

Peppers of Key West hot sauce bar

And that burning sensation is no accident. It’s a defense mechanism employed by some peppers specifically to prevent mammals from eating them.

It’s been discovered that mammals crush and destroy the seeds of the peppers they eat, which is a very bad thing from the pepper plant’s perspective. Birds, on the other hand, pass perfectly viable seeds. It also turns out that birds lack the receptors needed to register the pepper’s heat. So the pepper doesn’t burn birds the way it does us. Over the millennium, pepper plants have developed a very selective chemical agent to protect themselves from the destructive mammalian digestive system without discouraging the birds that effectively disperse the plants’ seeds.  

For the most part, it works. We humans are the only mammal that eats spicy peppers. The rest of the animal kingdom is smart enough to avoid burning itself.

Evolution has yet to explain why we crave a sensation universally understood to mean grave danger. Maybe intelligent design offers a better answer. To adopt a quote often attributed to Ben Franklin: spicy food is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy. Along with beer, of course.

Whatever the reason, bon appetit. And Fire in the Hole!

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11 Comments on “Some like it Hot”

  1. Ingrid June 11, 2012 at 9:56 am #

    Hum, could it be birds are smarter? Just returned from a family visit in Illinois. Every meal I cooked the family commented on the spice. I guess we’ve lived out west long enough and adopted the palate….Caliente 🙂


    • Brian June 11, 2012 at 4:39 pm #

      Caliente, muy bueno. 😉


  2. customtripplanning June 11, 2012 at 9:58 am #

    We found that as we ate more spicy hot foods, like when we lived in Colorado, our tolerance increased and we enjoyed stronger hots.


    • Brian June 11, 2012 at 4:43 pm #

      Capsaicin, the chemical that makes peppers hot, is like heroin. To get that original heat you first enjoyed you need a little more the next time. And then more, and more, and more . . . We’re getting to the point where we may eventually run out of peppers strong enough. I guess then we’ll have to go on some kind of detox so we can start all over again. LOL.


  3. P. C. Zick June 12, 2012 at 6:44 am #

    Your taste buds become adjusted to the heat. I’m always amazed when eating with others and they’ll say something is too hot for them to eat. I try it and I wonder if I’m having the same thing. By the way, last year we were overloaded with cayennes and jalapenos. I strung the cayennes and they decorate the kitchen even as this summer blooms. And I still have five jars of jalapeno chips in the basement. Our sweet peppers did not do well last year but we were inundated by the hot. Hopefully this year it will reverse a bit.


  4. The Wandering Gourmand June 12, 2012 at 11:10 am #

    I recently read that the endorphins released from the spice make us happy which is why we eat spicy food and why Thai people are so happy.


  5. benjamin rualthanzauva June 16, 2012 at 12:54 pm #

    Like the chilies


  6. A.E June 24, 2012 at 11:38 pm #

    In this context it is “palate” not a shipping “pallet”


    • Brian June 25, 2012 at 10:35 am #

      You are correct. But please share. Is internet grammar police a paid position or just a hobby?


  7. charleyabraham July 21, 2012 at 9:41 pm #

    That Beef Vindaloo – with “Caveat Emptor” & 4-star markings next to it on the menu – that we ordered back in the day at the then-newly opened Chola in New York City, remains to this day my gold standard of honest-to-goodness ‘hot’ food. Glad to see Brian still equates heat with happiness, and even gives a gentle nod of recognition to Intelligent Design! 🙂


  8. Phil February 28, 2013 at 10:23 am #

    The best argument against intelligent design is spicy food… was it really necessary to feel the burn on the way out as well? I think not!


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