Treebeard's Homepage : Stumpers

Treebeard's Stumper Answer
10 December 1999

Pyrophagy! (eating fire)

One of my official duties at today's Dunn Middle School El Mercado celebration is to judge the salsa contest. I can take it! I love fiery hot chile peppers. Chile stumpers abound. What was Thai food like before Columbus brought chiles from the New World? What's the best antidote? My chile stumper is a natural history question. Chiles are brightly colored fruit like others that attract animals to eat and pass their seeds for dispersal. But the very hottest part of the chile surrounds the seeds. Doesn't this picante heat defeat the whole purpose of the fruit?

Mild bell peppers after a frost. Vince's winning salsas.
All chile peppers, even these frosted mild bell peppers in a field
near school, turn bright red and yellow colors when ripe to attract
animals and birds to eat them and pass the seeds with a bit of
natural fertilizer. See my Birds and Berries (14 Nov 97) stumper
for more information on endozoic seeds.
Vince won the Dunn Middle School El Mercado salsa contest with
these fine homemade salsas. That's a mild salsa fresca on the left
made with fresh tomatoes and onions, and a tasty tomatillo salsa
on the right. The front bowl is a picante salsa made with hot
habanero chiles. Vince had a warning sign on this one!

Plants scatter their seeds in many ways. They blow in the wind and hitchhike in our socks. Endozoic seeds like chiles are eaten and literally pass through an animal. Mammals would chew and digest the seeds, so chiles add the powerful chemical capsaicin. It's the main ingredient in police pepper spray. But birds aren't affected by capsaicin. Hot chile extracts are even used to treat birdseed to keep mice and squirrels away. As a naturalist, I figure that every wild fruit we find distasteful or toxic is a delicacy for some other critter!


"It doesn't matter who you are, or what you've done, or think you can do. There's a confrontation with destiny awaiting you. Somewhere, there is a chile you cannot eat."
-- Daniel Pinkwater, "A Hot Time in Nairobi"

I have a small bottle of NALI PERI-PERI SAUCE from Limbe, Malawi in Africa that comes close. It says on the bottle "Abale samalani. Friends take care." Good advice. Thanks Jim, I still have 1/4 bottle left! What is it about these hot chile sauces?

Is "hot chile" an oxymoron? At least as spoken, and sometimes as spelled! The Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary lists chili, chile, and chilli (singular) and chilies, chiles, and chillies (plural). I like that combination of hot chillies!

The spelling is confusing. The conventions on the Web (e.g. at The Chile-Heads home page) are:

The Word97 spell checker wants "chilies" for the plural of "chile", but "chiles" is universal on the Web. Micro$oft and the dictionaries don't always get their way!

Chiles in the genus capsicum aren't the only hot spice in world cuisine. There's also mustard, horseradish, black pepper, and even raw ginger and garlic. I'm sure Thai, Schezuan, and Curry were always spicy and brought a sweat to the brow even before chiles were introduced. But it was a different heat before Columbus brought the first chiles from the West Indies for Europe and the World.

I give my thanks to the creators. The native Americans had a genius for domesticating plants. Try to imagine living without sweet corn (maize), potatoes, peppers, chilies, sweet potatoes, string beans, squash, tomatoes, avocados, vanilla, and chocolate! Gruel, cabbage, and fava beans are no substitute!

Chiles are unique. After a while, food seems bland without them. I used to backpack in the High Sierras for weeks at a time with nothing but freeze-dried hash and an occasional trout. I never complained as long as I had dried chiles to add. It's the same with our staple "beans and torts" at home.

Chiles excite nerve receptors in the body called nociceptors that normally respond to heat and pain. The result is the release of natural endorphin pain-killers. The capsaicin in chiles causes a long-lasting desensitization to further sensation, so we can eat even more chiles and feel even better! Aren't "habit-forming" and "tolerence-building" positive signs of physical addiction? On the other hand, we might miss chiles, but we don't get sick without them.

Kellye Hunter and Dave DeWitt have an interesting page on The Question of Chile Addiction. They state:

Interestingly enough, chile is a substance that most mammals (birds and reptiles seem to be unaffected by its heat properties) will avoid as they would a poison. Through a series of studies, Dr. Rozin [Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania] found that it is practically impossible to induce a preference for chile peppers in rats, and subsequent experiments with dogs and chimpanzees have had limited success. A study he conducted in 1979 states that humans are the only mammals that "reverse their natural rejection" to bitter "innately unpalatable substances" such as nicotine, coffee, alcohol, tobacco...and chile peppers. They can learn to prefer the flavor and physiological effects of these ingredients to the point of choosing to eat them regularly....The only animals Rozin found during the course of his studies who exhibited true, laboratory-proven preference for chile, were two chimpanzees and a dog, all of which had strong relationships with humans....people like chile peppers for the same reasons they like roller coasters, scary movies, and stepping into hot baths. All of these activities provide methods of exciting the body by making it respond to a dangerous situation, while the mind is certain that circumstances are safe.
Our dog Mojo puts up with salsa in a handout, but I wouldn't say he likes it. The connection with danger is interesting, but I think salsa tastes really good and brings out the flavor in foods. Even the hottest habanero chiles have a distinctive fruity taste as well as heat. Some boutique salsas with funny names go for sheer heat, but I can't imagine actually eating them.

Tomatoes are ok in a salsa fresca for chips, but I figure they have no place in real salsa. Here are my usual favorites that I can find in local markets:

Most sources say the best remedy for chile-overload is a dairy product like milk or yogurt or sour cream. The casein protein in milk may help neutralize the chile's capsaicin. It's interesting that sour cream is often part of Mexican food. My choice is usually salt and another chile. Maybe that desensitizes the nerves even more, so I don't mind the heat. But high concentrations of capsaicin are more than a spice - it's a weapon!

Why do chile-heads like me love hot salsa so much? Do any other animals develop a taste for it? A secret pleasure of mine is an occasional liverwurst sandwich, but I would never think of adding salsa to liverwurst even though I add it to every other meat. Why not?

Hot chiles are increasing in popularity around the world. I wonder if the Internet doesn't have something to do with that? I found too much information when I did a Web search on this topic! Here are a few starting links for your own research. These links are fun!

Back to Stumper

Last modified .

Copyright © 1999 by Marc Kummel /