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.
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!