Mouthful of Fire: Saga of the Ornamental Pepper

This is a funny story that of mine that I posted a brief summary of in response to another user’s comment on the site. I figured since it’s humorous and involves a good chunk of karma (it involves me not paying attention to a family member’s sarcasm and thinking I was a hotshot), I might as well post a more detailed version here.

About fifteen years ago, my grandfather had decided to turn the former site of his house’s air conditioning unit into a small garden. The man had a nuclear green thumb–he’d buy half dead plants from various stores and turn them into what would be prize-winning beauties (if he cared about that). At some point, he decided to grow some ornamental Thai chilis in this garden–while not exactly as hot as a habanero, these things are about twenty or so times as hot as a jalapeno, and they lack anything resembling complex flavor (as they’re cultivated for looks rather than edibility). This means that despite being well below some hotter peppers in heat, they’re less tolerable. He didn’t know this though, and picked a few once they “ripened,” placing them in a basket on the counter once he found out the hard way.

Along I came for a visit. After some talking, he decides to cook dinner for us, and invites us into the kitchen, where among other things he shows me a carton of Lactaid he bought for me (since I have trouble digesting milk), and offhandedly mentions the gallon of rainbow sherbert in the freezer.

Seeing these gorgeous looking peppers on the counter, I make the bold claim about how much I love eating pickled jalapenos. He makes a little smirk, and sarcastically suggests I try one of the peppers. As soon as he turns his back, I grab one of the things, pop the whole thing in my mouth and begin chewing. He turns back to me just in time to see me swallow, and his face goes white as a ghost.

I don’t have to wait long to find out why. In less than a second, my mouth feels like it’s on fire. He quickly grabs the Lactaid out of the fridge, but before he can pour me a glass I yank the carton from his hands and start guzzling. Soon enough, this half-gallon carton is outright gone, my stomach hurts, and my mouth is still on fire.

I reach for a loaf of bread on the counter and just start eating. The bread will briefly quash the heat, only for it to come back in full force. Before I know it, the entire loaf is gone, and I’ve started on the second. At this point, my grandfather is sweating nervously, and he grabs the gallon tub of sherbert and a spoon. A good thing, as I quickly finished the second loaf, and was still in agony. Blisters were now forming on my lips–a testament to how ill-advised this move was, no doubt. I start chowing down on the sherbert, while my mom calls poison control.

As the phone call goes on, my mom gets a sheepish look on her face. She thanks the person on the other end, hangs up, and tells my grandpa to put the sherbert up. She then asks if he has an unused toothbrush. I then was instructed to go into the bathroom, brush my entire mouth thoroughly, and come back out–once that was done, she put petroleum jelly on my lips to sooth the blisters. It worked, but I was now incredibly nauseous from having consumed so much food–dinner was canceled, because I needed to lay down (not that I would have been able to eat it anyway), and I was directed to the couch.

I’m not sure if I had a crash course in hot foods that seriously upped my tolerance and messed with my perceptions, or if my mouth legitimately became less capable of detecting flavor, but non-spicy food seemed flavorless for several years after that. I actually ended up spending the following half-decade adding various hot sauces to pretty much everything I ate, otherwise I’d have found even my favorite foods horribly bland.

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Checking what I thought I knew, it seems to be not true that intense spice chemicals literally kill taste buds - the other part of that myth being that they do soon grow back. No, it just feels like your mouth is literally burning. And thinking of that… how often would we need to feel that, in nature? Maybe we evolved since we discovered fire, to be aware of that.

But the blisters are an extreme reaction. Maybe this plant is related to poison ivy or something??

It’s the capsaicin that causes the burning sensation. It’s an adaptation to discourage mammals from eating the peppers, since the seeds can’t survive our digestive tract. High enough levels of capsaicin can cause blisters (and Thai chilis of any variety have fairly high levels) but you’re right: they apparently don’t kill taste buds. Even if they do, taste buds apparently regenerate every 10 days, so it wouldn’t be an effect that lasts long.

Which means my first guess–that the experience just upped my tolerance that hard–was probably right.

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Which is why I do not eat peppers. Of course, I’m also the only person I know who is my age (75) and has never once experienced acid reflux. . .