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Food & Drink

How the quest for fire led me to the punishing Four Horsemen

Photo: , License: N/A

the author’s father during a ghost pepper encounter.

Photo: Photos by Brandon R. Reynolds, License: N/A

Photos by Brandon R. Reynolds

Bhut jolokia, sweat, and tears


More than 6,000 years ago, fledgling civilizations from Peru to the Bahamas were cultivating chili plants alongside such staples as maize and yam. And while those ancient peoples couldn’t know that research conducted millennia later would suggest that the chemical that makes chilis spicy can protect against cancer and heart disease, treat ulcers and burn calories, they knew that it made yam stew taste a lot better. The chilis, for their part, had no idea what was going on; they’d evolved the chemical capsaicin as a defense against both nasty microbes and hungry mammals, while wisely leaving birds unaffected so they could spread the seeds hither and yon. Humans ate them too, precisely for that burning effect -- though humans did a lot of things that didn’t make any sense to nature.

But humans did spread the chili across the world (the chili perhaps playing an important part in the survival of the species) and this spread accompanied the great evolution of human civilization across thousands of miles and thousands of years, and which culminates, some may say, at Chunky’s Burgers, with my own father trying not to regurgitate a burger into a tin bucket brought out for that very purpose.

The relationship with pain is a personal one. Like many addictions, it both grows and consumes. After my father first introduced me to hot foods, searching out my upper limit of tolerance became an unstated goal. After a while I outgrew jalapeños. Then I blew past serranos and habaneros. Then came the ghost.

In 2007 the Indian-grown bhut jolokia, also known as the ghost pepper, was named the world’s hottest chili. Since then, they’ve been popping up all over. Other chilis have since been named hotter, but these are inconsistently so; the ghost is still enjoying its supremacy of the palate. For comparison: the ghost measures about one million Scoville Heat Units, 250 times hotter than a jalapeño. And demand has brought it, for better or worse, into our grasp.

That San Antonio may well be home to the hottest burger on the planet is itself a sort of natural selection process. People eat spicy here; that means, as Chunky’s owner Joey Prado discovered after opening in 2004, there’s an entire culture here seeking its pain threshold.

“We had customers coming in, they want it spicy, they wanted serrano peppers, they wanted something hotter than jalapeños,” he said. “And every time I’d come up with something. There’s always somebody that would say, ‘That all you got?’”

Prado’s a bit of a trickster, so when he caught wind of the ghost pepper, he immediately sought out a distributor. “You know what?” he remembers thinking at the time, “Let’s shut these guys up.”

Simply adding a pepper the Indian military is using against terrorists and criminals wasn’t enough, however. The burger Prado devised includes chopped jalapeños and serranos, plus a habanero salsa, along with several of the ghosts. “And we all tried it, and we all ran in separate directions, thinking, ‘Let them eat that!’”

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