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!’”
And they did.
Chunky’s started burning through upwards of 20 pounds of ghosts a month once the Four Horsemen Challenge was established in early 2009; during those first six months, he says, not a week went by without a visit from the EMS. Then the Travel Channel called, and in August 2009 we saw Adam Richman weeping through his challenge on Man vs. Food, making Chunky’s a pilgrimage site for those seeking redemption through pain. Many people don’t understand this; much less how one culture could produce a meal that another uses as a grenade. “That thing’s weaponized right now in India,” he says. “I’m like, well, it’s a condiment over here, for the most part.”
Mike Rodriguez, owner of San Antonio-based online supplier Alamo City Pepper Products and its sister site, Bhut-Jolokia.net, has seen ghost sales rise 20 percent since he started the company in 2009. “There are a few select people called ‘chili-heads’ who are just die-hard fanatics,” he said. “Then, there are those who want to be able to say ‘I can eat anything hot,’ mainly on a dare. Most fail miserably.”
That something so blatantly designed for pain beckons people is evident; why is less so. Certainly once I started on that burning road, the joys were many: Food is more flavorful, for one, but perhaps more important is the rush, from endorphins released in response to the pain. It’s a runner’s high, and it leaves me, at the end of the meal, feeling pleasantly empty — not gastrically, but psychically. Quiet maybe, like a secret garden... growing silent grenades.
My father and I have developed a fascination with the ghost. We order seeds and hot sauce. But the plants are hard to grow; right now everything is imported. But soon enough, I think, the ghost will be a local favorite. And just when we thought we were ready for it, my father bit into the Four Horsemen, and it was clear he had broken through the ceiling. With his face, evidently.
“That creates a different sensation than any other hot food I’ve ever eaten. It takes you to a different dimension,” he tells the family, through sweat and tears. “It overwhelms the palate, the eyes, your throat. I ate two-thirds of it [sniff] and the first two-thirds were fine, but then it has a cumulative effect, and it begins to overwhelm you... I mean it’s right here,” he says, gesturing to his entire head.
I ate the Chunky’s Ghost Burger, a very hot burger, but not insanely so. It’s a regular cheeseburger — lettuce, tomatoes, pickles, onions, mayo and mustard — just with a few ghosts tucked under the hood, kind of like rattlesnakes in a sleeping bag.
The Ghost Burger is a more realistic vision of the bhut jolokia’s culinary potential, an exhausting but satisfying marathon of capsaicin which I do not regret, though it may have left me curled naked in a fetal position on the bathroom floor, mumbling cosmic revelations to myself.
Still, I like to think that as we and the chilis continue to evolve, we will develop a tolerance and appreciation for one another; we will grow stronger together.
But first, we have to learn how to survive.
“You don’t know what the peak is,” says my father, gobbling ice cubes after, remarkably, finishing his Horsemen. “And as you’re moving up that peak you say, Well, where is it gonna stop?”
Nature created the chili to repel us. And we, contrary to the end, embraced it. Now it grows ever hotter, challenging and changing us down at the neural level. As the chili marches across the globe, it becomes harder to say whether we’re engineering it, or the other way around. •
4602 Callahan Road
10619 Westover Hills Blvd
Smite your tongue
The hot burger seems to be kind of a culinary outlier for heat. The preferred avatar for palate pain is the chicken wing, and the hottest I’ve had is at Cypress Creek Cafe in Wimberley (320 Wimberley Square, (512) 847-0020). Their very good Devil’s Breath Wings are heavy on the ghost chilis and come with a waiver to sign, but at least the lovely drive will give you a chance to think about what you’re doing with your life. Mike Rodriguez of SA’s Alamo City Pepper Products recommends three spots: Wing-Station (9355 Culebra, (210) 706-9464), Stiky Steve’z Winghouse (4121 Naco Perrin, (210) 654-7794) and The Filling Station (701 S St. Mary’s, (210) 444-2200). None of these offers a ghostly kind of punishment, so if you’re a DIYer you can peruse Rodriguez’s wares on alamocitypepperproducts.com or Bhut-Jolokia.net. He’s selling ghosts, alright, but Rodriguez says many customers are already moving on to new record holders: the Trinidad Scorpion, at nearly 1.5 million Scoville Units, Trinidad Douglah, Moruga Scorpion and 7 Pot, all such Caribbean-born nightmares that, when put up against even the ghost, “there really is no comparison in the heat level.” All of which Rodriguez will be unleashing on the public in the next few weeks. So, you know, fetch your buckets.