Getting sauced

What separate man from beast? Not intellect, but a willingness to ingest fiery peppers

September 25, 2010

This is the time of year when men make hot sauce. Gallons of it. Much of it named "nuclear" or "killer" or, in case of John "Boog" Powell, a habanero pepper sauce that he calls "Not a Child's Playting."

The lure of hot sauce has as much to do with derring-do and a tolerance for pain as with taste, and according to recent scholarship out of Yale, it may be the one thing that truly separates man from beast. Anecdotal evidence suggests that "man," in this instance, is the operative word.

Mr. Powell developed his passion for peppers back in the 1960s when he was a young first baseman for the Baltimore Orioles and would enjoy a pregame snack of cheese, crackers and a jalapeno pepper jelly with pitcher Dave McNally. "It was a bond between us," Mr. Powell said of his relationship with the late Oriole left-hander. "Other guys would drop in the locker room and try it maybe once or twice, but Mac and I were tearing it up every night."

While his playing days are over, Mr. Powell's hot-pepper pursuits continue. He grows about 40 pepper plants at his home on Maryland's Eastern Shore. He makes a variety of sauces, ranging from a mild garlic and pepper sauce to a fiery version made with scorpion peppers, one that is so potent it can burn the tarnish off old coins. He often carries some of the hot sauce with him when he cooks at public venues, although he does not offer it at his barbecue operation at Camden Yards.

He says that while some pepper-heads make sauce for the experience of "nailing a recipe," others are interested in the challenges of creating something so hot that it is painful to swallow.

"Every once in a while you get a smart aleck who says you can't make your sauce too hot for me," Mr. Powell said. In those instances, he responds by upping the amount of habanero peppers he puts in his mixture from 10 to 25. That usually brings the doubter into submission.

The lone exception to this tactic occurred a few years back, when Mr. Powell and his son, J.W., were demonstrating how to cook Brunswick stew at the Timonium Fairgrounds. A woman bragged that there was no sauce too scorching for her gullet. Mr. Powell gave her a dose of his extra strength scorpion sauce. "She swallowed a big spoonful then asked, 'Is that all you got?'" recalled Mr. Powell, adding that the woman must have had iron innards.

Mick Kipp, who makes the Whiskey Island line of sauces sold online and at various locations around Baltimore, distinguishes between concoctions that have fire combined with flavor and those that are simply "super hot." The latter develop volcanic heat by adding extracts of fiery peppers to already potent mixes, he says. Super hot sauces are made for entertainment, he contends, and the group that finds them amusing (Mr. Powell's example to the contrary) is men.

"As a group, we males are fascinated with proving how tough we are," Mr. Kipp said.

Restaurants and television shows are capitalizing on the penchant of men to swallow, or attempt to swallow, the inflamed and the inedible.

Cluck-U Chicken is one of many local restaurants that tout the dangerous heat of their chicken wings. An illustration of a "sauce meter" on the Cluck-U menu shows the offerings range from "mild" to "(dial) 911," a serving so hot that the customer has to sign a waiver releasing the restaurant from liability. The most popular signers: men.

The testosterone is also heavy in "Man v. Food," a Travel Channel show that features the burly host, Adam Richman, being overcome by "Suicide Wings" in Brooklyn, "Fire in Your Hole" wings in Sarasota, Fla., and the "Stupid Wings" in Richmond, Va. Watching a man choke down incendiary wings — now that's entertainment.

Scholars say that we humans are the only mammals that attempt to eat searing food. Animals don't nibble on hot peppers, as most gardeners know. Indeed, Mr. Powell reports that he vanquished a troublesome squirrel by sprinkling hot sauce in his bird feeder.

In his new book, "How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like," Yale psychologist Paul Bloom addresses why men and not beasts are drawn to painful eating.

"Philosophers have often looked for the defining features of humans — language, rationality, culture and so on. I'd stick with this: Man is the only animal that likes Tabasco sauce," Mr. Bloom writes.

"The broader point is that we seek out pain as a cue for later pleasure," Mr. Bloom said in a brief telephone interview. This kind of "safe play," he said, both shows "how tough we are" and "prepares us for worst case scenarios."

Paul Rozin, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist, views eating fiery fare as "benign masochism." In a 1999 article, "Preadaptation and the puzzles and properties of pleasure," he likens eating chili peppers to riding a roller coaster. "Our body is scared … but we know we are safe."

The pleasure that comes with playing with danger has been around for a long time. Mr. Rozin notes that 19th century philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote about the allure of a "might that has no dominion over us."

In today's world, Kant's observation would probably translate into: "Watch me chug this hot sauce."

—Rob Kasper

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