What We Eat: The Story of Chili Peppers - #103

BURT WOLF: What We Eat, the true story of why we put sugar in our coffee and ketchup on our fries.

Originally, all life that lived on land lived on one giant continent.  Then forces inside the earth started breaking that land mass into the continents we have today and pushing them apart.

Slightly over 500 years ago a counter force appeared and started pulling everything back together. Only this time it wasn’t a geological force, it was the force of human culture and the point man was Christopher Columbus. During the ten years between Columbus’ first voyage in 1492 and his final trip in 1502, new forces totally changed the course of history.

Millions of people moved from one continent to another, governments changed and religions were exported. But surprisingly, the most important changes were not the result of politics or religion; they were the result of plants and animals being exchanged between two worlds.

 BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: We call them the Old World and the New World, but I think what we really had were two old worlds. After all, people have been living in the America’s for 35,000 years. Even to a man my age that’s a considerable length of time. I think what Columbus did was introduce the two Old Worlds and in the process create one new one.  And the exchange of plants and animals that took place altered the way people ate and that changed everything on the planet. What our series does is look at those changes and how they continue to affect our lives everyday in ways you wouldn’t imagine.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When Columbus set sail from Spain one of his objectives was to get King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella into the pepper business. So when he arrived in the Caribbean and the natives gave him a taste of a pungent fruit, he decided to call it pepper.  And he had two good reasons.  First, it did something to his mouth that felt like pepper, and second, and much more important, he was getting paid to find pepper, and so he found it.

BURT WOLF: The small round dry black pepper that we grind in a mill is native to India and was brought to ancient Greece and Rome by Arab traders.  It was so valuable in Europe that both the Spanish and the Portuguese spent fortunes sending out expeditions to try and break the Arab monopoly

BARBARA KETCHAM WHEATON ON CAMERA: The king and queen of Spain were anxious to get a new route to the, spice islands of the East Indies, by sailing West.  Because, due to political disruption in Asia, the traditional spice routes were breaking down, and it was getting increasingly complicated to get spices from the West.

BURT WOLF: Columbus made an entry in his diary that described the chili pepper as more valuable than the black pepper and pointed out that the natives constantly used it and thought it had health-giving properties.  He estimated that each year, 50 ships filled with chili peppers could be sent back to Spain and they would prove to be exceedingly profitable.

BARBARA KETCHAM WHEATON ON CAMERA: The spices were used more, because they fitted in with the, that period's idea of what was proper nutrition.  People had four different temperaments.  Choleric, sanguine, melancholy, and phlegmatic.  Ideas we're still familiar with.  And, they, if you were melancholy, or phlegmatic, more spices would sort of "ginger you up," so to speak.  I mean, in fact we still sort of think of that, and people are now eating ginger and thinking they're doing healthy things.  No ideas in food ever go away.

BURT WOLF: The birthplace of the hot pepper was probably central Bolivia and over the centuries it became the spice most used by Native Americans. You can usually tell how far down the evolutionary line a particular pepper is by looking at its size—the smaller it is the closer it is to its wild ancestor.

Today Mexico raises the largest variety of peppers. There are over 1600 different varieties of pungent pepper with new forms constantly being developed.  Annual rainfall, soil chemistry, and daily temperature patterns affect the development of each species. The peppers grow on plants that are two or three feet high. They start out green and color as they ripen. 

In general the hotter the climate a pepper grows in, the more pungent it will be. But it’s not just the annual temperature that counts. Long hot nights are necessary to really give the pepper a pungency. And if it’s stressed by lack of water or bad soil it will get even hotter.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Archeological evidence indicates that the natives of Mexico have been using chili peppers for 7,000 years. At one point they were used to pay taxes, probably in a building just like this. And even after the Spanish conquest of Mexico, they were used as a tribute. Antonio de Mendoza, the first viceroy of what he liked to call New Spain, demanded chili peppers from the people he conquered. 

BURT WOLF: These are the ancient buildings of the Maya, who have lived on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula for centuries; they eat one of the hottest peppers of all—the habanero.

Amal Naj, who wrote an excellent book titled PEPPERS, believes that the habanero is a symbol of Maya independence within Mexico. The habanero is the pepper of choice for the Maya who were never completely subjugated by the Spanish. They see their pepper as a badge of their self-determination. At the same time they feel that the jalapeño— which is more popular with mainland Mexicans—symbolizes the European invader.


BURT  WOLF ON CAMERA: A key moment in the history of hot pepper came with the signing of the papal Treaty in 1494.

BURT WOLF: At a point that was 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands; the Pope took his magic marker and drew a longitudinal line that divided the world in two. The Spanish had the right to explore and trade in the area to the west; Portugal got everything to the east, which included Africa and Asia.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But they didn’t get around to drawing a second line in the Far East. So in 1529, the pope had to come all the way back and construct the Treaty of Zaragoza, which gave Spain the Philippines and Portugal the Spice Islands.  As a result the Portuguese and the Spanish  spread hot peppers around the world.

JESSICA HARRIS ON CAMERA: The transatlantic journey took months, certainly, weeks, and yet and still, by the 16th Century, there ‘re chilis in India.  And people are not only using them but adapting, adjusting and loving them.  And much of that gets attributed to the Portuguese.  I sort of have this mental picture of those black-robed Jesuits with deep pockets and sort of seeds and things coming out of these pockets.  And part of it was the whole virtual mandate after Prince Henry the Navigator. The Portuguese were the world explorers.  I mean, they're the ones who circumnavigated the globe.  The whole idea of the Treaty of Tordesillas and East and West in that division and who owned the East, and of course that line is the line that makes Brazil speak Portuguese. 

BURT WOLF: African slaves were the primary source of labor in the Portuguese and Spanish colonies. The Portuguese ended up traveling around the world looking for new sources of slaves and as they traveled they brought along their hot peppers. By the time the British came to dominate the slave trade in the middle of the 1600s, American peppers where so important to Africans that the British included them in their rations onboard the boats that carried the slaves to the Americas.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: But strangely enough, when Columbus brought hot peppers back to Europe they were not well accepted except in Hungary.  At the time Hungary was controlled by the Turks who had learned about hot peppers from Arab and Indian traders and brought them back to the Hungarians. The Hungarians loved the flavor but not the heat.  So at harvest time they would cut out the seeds and the veins where the heat was concentrated and dry out the rest of the pepper.  They’d grind it into a powder which was called paprika…the flavor of Hungary.

BURT WOLF: The micro-climate needed for growing the pepper used to make paprika is so specific that only Hungary has been able to produce the highest quality on a commercial scale. But even without the ability to produce paprika the rest of the world is doing quite well with pungent versions of the chili pepper.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA:  It appears that one out of every five people on the planet eat hot peppers everyday.  Most of the people say they do that because they like the taste but there may be an additional reason that’s even better.  Scientists have discovered that people who eat hot peppers are generally healthier than people who don’t.  Especially in hot climates.  There’s something in a hot pepper and in garlic that helps kill the microorganisms that spoil food.  So societies that have developed without refrigeration over the last three or four thousand years have incorporated hot peppers into their diet.  And they’re healthier for it.

BURT WOLF: In general, poor people eat more hot peppers than the rich. If a diet is based on plain and bland foods, which is often the case in poor communities, hot pepper will bring flavor to the meal because it has the ability to open the mouth’s flavor receptors and make your taste buds more sensitive. Almost everything you eat will taste better with pepper.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Hot peppers actually came late to North America kind of late.  Mexican colonists brought them up into the American southwest; slaves and immigrants brought them from the Caribbean into the American South. But by and large North Americans got along without them.

BURT WOLF: These days, however, pungent peppers in the United States are becoming a hot business. They have the greatest profit of any legally grown cash crop.

NASA ANNOUNCER: Three - Two - One - and we have lift off of the space shuttle Columbia on an international life science and micro gravity mission.

BURT WOLF: The United States is becoming a nation of pepper lovers. People who had no interest in pungent foods are beginning to try them and those who are already into the hot sauce want it hotter.  In 1982, hot sauce was part of the basic rations for American astronauts in space, but astronaut William Lenoir took a fresh jalapeno along just to play safe.


BURT WOLF: The most popular branded use of chili peppers in the world is probably Tabasco Sauce, which is sold in over 100 countries.  It’s made on Avery Island which is a twenty-two hundred acre cap that sits on top of a giant salt dome that rises up from an ancient seabed about 140 miles west of New Orleans.  

Since 1862 the family that owned the island has been quarrying the salt in the dome. During the War Between the States they supplied it to the Confederacy, which led to the Union Army invading the island and destroying the salt works.

When the war was over the family went back into the salt business. At this time Edmund McIlhenny, a prominent local banker who had married into the family, began to experiment with a pepper sauce. Edmund had been introduced to Tabasco Peppers which had been brought up from Mexico or Central America. Edmund planted the peppers in his garden and used them to add flavor to the monotonous food that was available after the War.

Around 1866, he started using the peppers to make a hot sauce. The peppers were crushed, mixed with Avery Island salt and aged for thirty days in jars or wooden barrels. At that point, French wine vinegar was added. The final blend was aged for another thirty days and regularly hand-stirred throughout the period in order to blend the flavors. Edmund poured the finished sauce into small cologne bottles which he corked and sealed with green wax. And that’s just about the way it’s made today -- except today the pepper mash is aged for three years instead of only two months. And a McIllhenny examines the mash and decides when it’s ready for processing and bottling. A member of the family still walks the fields and marks the peppers that are ready for harvesting. The pickers spot a ripe pepper by comparing its color to a stick that has been painted with the color of a perfect ripe pepper.


BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: In 1877, a British scientist working in India discovered the substance in a hot pepper that makes it hot.  Inside the pod and concentrated in the seeds and the white pith is a substance called Capsaicin.  But it’s not the amount of capsaicin in the pepper that makes it hot, it’s its molecular chain.  The shorter the molecular chain the more powerful the pepper.

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: Capsaicin produces an irritation response in the mouth, burning sensation, and also in the nose, and if you happen to get it in the eyes, it's very, very irritating. And it is interesting because people eat it. And, what are they doing eating something that causes so much distress.  Little infants don't like it, little children in Mexico, where it comes from, don't like it. And yet it's now probably the most popular spice in the world if you don't count garlic as a spice.  And it's eaten by, probably, a billion to two billion people every day.  So it's one of those remarkable turnarounds.

PAUL ROZIN ON CAMERA: When you continually get pain, there's reason to believe your body mobilizes its own opiate system called endorphins in the brain which modulate the pain.  Now normally, if you do something painful you'll stop doing it.  But in the peculiar case of chili pepper, or by the way smoking, where there's a lot of social pressure to keep it up, you keep inflicting pain on yourself. It's not a normal event. And in that case, it's possible that the body's endorphin response builds and builds and builds, and even overshoots what it has to do and ends up producing a pleasure experience, even though it was originally there to simply modulate the pain.

PAUL ROZIN CONTINUED ON CAMERA: So, it's pretty clear that people get to like the very same thing that they originally don't like. That is, their mouth doesn't change, they're just become ... the same ... the same message goes to their brain.  It was originally get this out of my mouth, and now it's boy, that tastes good.

BURT WOLF: In 1912, the pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed a technique for measuring the heat of a pepper. The Scoville scale ranges from zero for the green bell pepper to 210,000 for the habanero.

IRWIN ZIMENT: It’s one of the hottest peppers known and people who are not used to taking it could probably suffer a terrible choking sensation.  I certainly would not advise anybody to indulge lightly in peppers if they’re not used to them.  On the other hand, if somebody is used to pungent peppers and they’re building up their need for the bigger thrill then habanero is up at the top along with a few other Asiatic peppers nowadays.  It’s quite probable that people who get that incredible sensation of burning, that firey feeling are releasing all sorts of hormones in response and maybe the pepper high is equivalent to the bungy jump.

BURT WOLF: Different peppers impact different parts of the mouth. Since each part of your mouth is sensitive to different tastes, where you get hit is important.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: Which brings me to the question of first aid. Capsaicin does not dissolve in water, so if you’re mouth is burning and you drink a glass of water all you do is spread out the pain.  It does however dissolve in alcohol.  So when you’re in pain, you get a glass of vodka and use it as a mouthwash but don’t forget to spit it out.


BURT WOLF: For thousands of years, hot peppers have been used in Mexico, Central and South America for their medicinal effects. The Aztecs rubbed hot peppers on sore muscles. The Maya made a drink of hot peppers which they used to cure stomach pains. And they rubbed hot peppers on their gums to stop toothaches.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: When Columbus first sent hot peppers back to Spain they were treated more as a medicine than a spice. During the 1500s, doctors recommended them for an assortment of illnesses.  Sailors took them on board to prevent scurvy. They were also thought to improve eyesight.

BURT WOLF: Dr. Albert Szent-Györgyi was the first scientist to discover the hot pepper’s medicinal value.  Albert’s wife loved peppers; and Albert didn’t.  One night he took his plate of hot peppers to his lab so he could not eat them and not offend his wife.  Out of curiosity, he studied the peppers and found them to be a great source of vitamin C.  In 1937, he got a Nobel Prize for his work.

Recently, scientists in the United States have been studying hot peppers as a possible cure for a number of diseases. Dr Ziment has become a leading authority on the subject who may end up as the ultimate Dr. Pepper.

IRWIN ZIMENT: Almost all the expectorants that are in popular use today are old herbal remedies.  When I looked into these remedies I was amazed to find that there’s very little evidence that they work.  And yet to me it was common experience that if I take horseradish or hot pepper in my mouth it made me cough, it made my nose run.   And so I recognized a long time ago that the routine medications utilizes expectorants of the treatment of cough were unproven and hard to demonstrate as being effective.  Whereas peppers and other pungent spices are extremely effective.

BURT WOLF: When you have a cold mucus becomes thick and stops flowing, coughing begins and breathing problems develop. The medicines prescribed for these conditions, like Robitussin, Sudafed, and Vicks Formula 44-D, are designed to thin the mucus and get it flowing again. The capsaicin in hot peppers acts in the same way as the medicines.

IRWIN ZIMENT: And it’s interesting to know that the Food and Drug Administration approved the use of Capsaicin for the purpose of treating pain and arthritis and it’s available as a prescription drug.  I think I’m right when I say that chili peppers are the only spice which have given rise to a drug which has been approved by the FDA for prescription by orthodox physicians.

BURT WOLF: Dr. Ziment thinks that Columbus may have suffered from a respiratory illness which might explain why Columbus made such a strong pitch for hot peppers. People are often interested in anything that has to do with their own medical problems.


IRWIN ZIMENT: Columbus was a magnificent neurotic-deluded neurotic.  And I like to think that probably he also had bronchitis and had a strong personal interest in looking for a better cure for his bronchitis.  And ideally finding the right type of peppers would have been an adequate treatment.   And I don't say this entirely lightly because there’s good evidence from earliest history that peppers were not just used as food flavors  they were used as medicines and one of the major things they were always used for in history as hot remedies they were utilized for treating cold diseases.  Namely, the common cold and bronchitis.

BURT WOLF ON CAMERA: It appears that chili peppers were the first spice used by human beings and they changed just about every cuisine on the planet from Indian curry to Texas chili.  Looks like Columbus discovered a spice that was more valuable than the one he was looking for and one that might turn out to be an important medicine.  For What We Eat, I’m Burt Wolf.