Ed Currie swears he is not trying to hurt you. He only wants to help. As the inventor of the Carolina Reaper hot pepper, he holds the title (and blame) for developing the hottest chili in the known universe, officially measured at more than 1.5 million Scoville units and certified by the folks at Guinness World Records. To put this number into perspective, that habanero your friend “accidentally” slipped into his salsa, thereby ruining your day? A mere 350,000 Scovilles. The jalapeños that your girlfriend makes you leave off your nachos if she’s gonna share them: 2,500. Other tests have clocked the Carolina Reaper at close to 2.2 million, but at this point we’re just splitting (burning) hairs.
So when Currie crossed a Pakistani Naga Viper pepper with a La Soufrière from the island of St. Vincent, he was creating an experience that is akin to using military pepper spray like Binaca. “Eating one is hell,” Currie avers. “It’s not a pleasant experience, I’m gonna be honest. I eat a lot of them because I have to.” Currie and his team sample each batch of peppers, mash and powders that his South Carolina–based Puckerbutt Pepper Co. uses to create the line of salsas, mustards, sauces and tinctures sold on the company’s website.
Tinctures? That’s right. Currie first created the Carolina Reaper in 2012 as part of a medical research project that involved looking for cures for cancer and heart disease. “Cancer runs in my family,” Currie explains. “I believe that peppers can be the key to the cure, so I was looking for new capsaicinoids [the compounds that give peppers their heat]. I wasn’t actively chasing Scoville units.”
Whether it was his original intent or not, Currie has created a cult product among pepperheads that has made him a rock star in the world of spicy foods. At this weekend’s NYC Hot Sauce Expo, fans will line up to shake the hand that burns them and buy bags full of his retail products, including a few new ones that the company will roll out at the event. Currie realizes he is riding a wave. “In 2004, hot sauce and salsa overtook ketchup, mustard and mayo as the top global condiments. Since 2006, they have been the fastest-growing food products.”
Although pioneers like Dave’s Insanity Sauce and Mad Dog 357 popularized what are classified as “super hot” sauces, Currie believes there were other societal influences at play in the growth of the segment. “As we opened immigration from places like Africa, India, the Caribbean and Asia, they introduced Americans to new ethnic flavors and really brought the heat. As opposed to ‘vinegar water’ sauces like Tabasco, Texas Pete and Frank’s, the hot sauces from these regions were intended as preservatives instead of additives. Since those cultures often don’t have access to refrigeration, their food can be rotten by the time they get it. The sauces mask the bad flavors, and peppers can actually fight botulism,” claims Currie.
Hopefully, the average American consumer isn’t using his Reaper Squeezins in lieu of proper food-safety practices, but is there a real culinary use for a pepper this intensely hot? Currie says yes. “Each pepper has distinct flavors, and you can breed sweetness into them. If you watch those YouTube videos of people trying to eat a Carolina Reaper, they almost always start out by noting that it is sweet before they can’t speak anymore. You’ll notice that most ghost pepper sauces contain a lot of fruits and vegetables mixed into the sauce. That’s because the peppers taste like crap. They’re very bitter.”
Some chefs have learned how to use the Carolina Reaper in their cooking, but great care is required. Currie mentions a restaurant that uses a few drops in a five-gallon batch of soup to give it the perfect fiery finish. In Nashville, Isaac Beard has discovered that the Reaper is the perfect addition to his proprietary recipe for the hottest level of his award-winning version of Nashville hot chicken, which he serves at Pepperfire Hot Chicken.
“The Carolina Reaper is a wonderful pepper,” gushes Beard. “Only a few of our regulars can truly handle the heat produced by this pepper, but we love how it enhances our top-end hot chicken dishes. It has a great flavor and is a great value when it comes to adding heat to our dishes at Pepperfire. Value seems like an odd thing to say about something that costs so much per pound, but when you look at the cost per heat unit, it’s hard to beat.”
That’s an important point that not everybody understands, and Currie is growing tired of hearing folks complain about the cost of his product, which can run $20 to $30 for a five-ounce bottle. “The people who know, know. The people that don’t, don’t. A bottle of Tabasco contains about 1 percent peppers, and the rest is vinegar. My Reaper Squeezins are 93 percent pepper. There’s no comparison; they’re two different products!” Putting his money where his mouth is, Currie often takes three or four drops of his Reaper Venom raw essence of Carolina Reaper as a pick-me-up, which he claims is the equivalent of “a quadruple shot of espresso from Starbucks.”
As someone who actually eats Carolina Reapers professionally and recreationally, does Currie have any secret methods for dulling the intense, fiery pain of the capsaicin assault, which can last as long as an hour? “I believe everyone should take the whole ride,” he says. “It starts out with a quick heat of sweet and then attacks. Then it just builds and builds. If you want to try to neutralize the heat, I find that citric acid works best. The molecule is small enough to get down to where the heat reaction is taking place on your taste buds and displace the capsaicinoids. I recommend chewing on a whole slice of lime, because after you’ve already done this to yourself, a little bitter lime rind isn’t going to make the experience any worse.”
Although Currie isn’t planning to release a new pepper at this year’s Hot Sauce Expo, he is definitely working on more products. “We tested something hotter, but I haven’t decided if or when to roll it out. I could care less about having the hottest pepper. I didn’t want to set records. I want to cure cancer. Besides, even if somebody takes the record, I could take it back.”