Our friend Peter is what some people would call a pepper head. He loves hot chili peppers. What we call hot he considers barely warm. What he considers spicy is for most people a nuclear meltdown of the mouth. Dinner at Peter's is always exciting. On the surface he looks like a mild-mannered, middle-aged professor-type, with a slight paunch and a little gray around the temples. He is the opposite of macho. But just put him in the kitchen with his favorite combination of hot peppers and he gets a gleam in his eye and is likely to challenge his guests to a fire-eating contest.
The last time we ate at Peter's, he introduced us to his latest discovery _ Scotch bonnets, also known as habaneros or Bahama Mamas. They make jalapenos taste like bell peppers. Even Tabasco seems mild after a few flakes of the hellish habanero.
Peter's latest culinary creation was a curry that would have done justice to an erupting volcano. He had us sweating, gulping beer and gasping for breath while he smirked with each heaping forkful.
Rather than rely on crude comparisons such as hot, hotter and hottest or two- vs. four-alarm chili, scientists have come up with a scientific measure of spiciness. Capsaicin, the active chemical responsible for the fire in hot peppers, can be measured in something called Scoville Units, named after the pharmacologist Wilbur Scoville who invented it while working at Parke Davis.
If you think jalapeno peppers, like the ones you find sliced up on nachos, are hot, think again. They are only about 5,000 Scoville Units. Cayenne peppers, which most people think of as extremely hot, can reach 50,000 Scoville Units. But Peter's Scotch bonnets can reach 300,000 units.
Why would an otherwise normal man subject himself and his guests to tongue torture? According to Peter, the hotness "hurts so good" he has become addicted to hot peppers. He also touts the health benefits of these fiery foods.
Capsaicin has been used as a medicinal herb for centuries. Herbalists have employed it to aid in digestion, to combat sore throats, colds, bronchitis and rheumatism. Nutritionally, hot peppers are high in both vitamins C and A.
Capsaicin is found in a number of over-the-counter arthritis rubs, including Heet Liniment, Omega Oil, Sloan's Liniment and ThermoRub Lotion. It is also available in a cream called Zostrix, used to treat the lingering nerve pain after an attack of shingles.
It is thought that capsaicin on the skin depletes nerve endings of something called Substance P, needed for the transmission of pain messages to the brain.
Aside from its uses in treating nerve pain, capsaicin cream is being tested for its effectiveness against skin problems such as psoriasis and vitiligo. Football players have been known to use a product (WarmFeet) containing hot peppers and other herbs in their socks to keep their feet warm in cold weather.
Researchers are looking into capsaicin's ability to dissolve blood clots and prevent heart attacks. Animals studies show it may also lower cholesterol.
Although many people assume that hot chiles will aggravate stomach upset and ulcers, scientists have shown that capsaicin is not damaging to the digestive tract and may actually help protect the lining of the stomach from irritation caused by some drugs.
We have not yet graduated to Peter's Bahama Mamas, but we're in training for his next peppery party.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon is a medical anthropologist and nutrition expert. Their newest book is Graedons' Best Medicine (Bantam Books).