Why do competitive chili pepper eaters subject themselves to such torture?

people sitting at a chili eating contest
Contestants try to finish a bowl of 60 peppers in 20 minutes during the fifth annual ‘Habanero (spicy chili peppers) Eating Contest’ at the Chichen Itza Restaurant in Los Angeles, California on June 21, 2015
Photo: MARK RALSTON / Staff (Getty Images)

I have a confession to make: I love First We Feast’s YouTube talk show Hot Ones. It’s the one-on-one talk show where throughout the episode, a celebrity guest eats chicken wings that are doused in increasingly hotter hot sauces, until they reach a final sauce that’s so spicy they usually can’t finish entire sentences. The interviews themselves can be hit or miss, depending on how lively the celebrity is feeling that day, but by the end of the episode, all bets are off.

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Nearly all of the fun of watching the show is watching the guests lose their minds at the end of the show, either cursing out the host, Sean Evans, or remaining cool even after eating an alarming amount of Carolina Reaper sauce in one bite, eyes watering and all. I may not know what it’s like to be a celebrity, but fuck, I know what it’s like to have my ass handed to me by a chili pepper. This also means I am fascinated by sadistic chili pepper eating contests too. Why do people do this? For me, anything hotter than a Thai chili (aka bird’s eye chili) stops being fun and becomes a battle. The Guardian takes an in-depth look at the characters who challenge themselves to chili pepper eating battles and what motivates them to sear their insides in feats of sheer willpower.

One major character in the pepper-eating contest world is Dustin “Atomik Menace” Johnson, whose existence I learned of through an episode of a show called We Are The Champions on Netflix. I swear, Johnson’s digestive system must be coated in lead; one of his most-watched YouTube streams involves him sitting and methodically eating 122 Carolina Reapers, seemingly with little discomfort or emotion. Seriously, what the hell? The Guardian asked Johnson about his experience during that livestream.

“I would say anywhere after 60, every few peppers I would say, ‘I don’t know if I can keep going,’” he said over Zoom. “And people were like, ‘Nah, just keep going. You look like you’re fine.’ And I’m like, ‘I’m not... but I’ll keep trying.’” Okay. So I understand someone pushing through a challenge to come out victorious, but how on earth does this make his insides feel?

“You can effectively map your GI tract by feeling how it moves,” Johnson explains. It begins with a warm sensation at the base of the sternum, which quickly turns tight, like a sustained, never-ending ab crunch. As it continues down to the right side, Johnson says that’s where it stings the most. The pods have to wind through the intestines, and with every twist and turn comes a sharp, stabbing sensation.

Holy shit.

The top tier in-person competitions net the winner around $1,000. I’m not someone to turn down the offer of money (you should see what freelance writers earn), but in my mind, I’d probably pay that much money to stop having to eat a panic attack-inducing amount of capsaicin. So why the fuck do people do this? Simple. Bragging rights.

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Tony Primeaux, owner of Primo’s Peppers and designer of the 7 Pot Primo, one of the world’s hottest peppers (1,473,480 Scoville heat units), told The Guardian, “I think there’s this innate morbid curiosity and fascination with peppers, just like there is with rock’n’roll. They want to be cool. It’s like getting on a roller coaster ride, you know. They might be getting a little bit more than they think they’re going to get, but they want to show off to their girlfriend or wife.”

But competitors don’t need to look as stoic as Dustin “Atomik Menace” Johnson to stomp another pepper eater. Shahina Waseem, who beat Johnson in a speed-eating round in 2019, goes by the name of “UK Chilli Queen.” Just by looking at her, I’d have no idea how powerful of a chili housing champion she is; she’s small, stylish, and is a far cry from many of her other competitors, who are oftentimes white men from their 20s to 40s.

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The piece from The Guardian goes deeper in depth, as to how some of these competitive eaters get sponsored to live this lifestyle, and the writer even gives a mega-hot sauce a shot (it does not end well), and I highly recommend you read through it, especially if you’re a fan of Hot Ones for the same reason I am.

Staff writer at The Takeout. Also: Saveur Humor Blog Award Winner, professional pizza maker, and insufferable troublemaker.

DISCUSSION

pizzapartymadness
pizzapartymadness

I’m curious what nutritional value or calories one gets from eating these peppers.

I ask, because I’m trying to see if there is some level of benefit from these exhibitions of fortitude. Like, people might seemingly say people who climb the world’s tallest mountains without oxygen or with limited gear or whatever extreme conditions you can think of are equally crazy. However, I suppose there is this idea of what the human body is capable of and if you were subjected to such a scenario could you survive?

So with these crazy hot peppers, imagine you’re stranded in some deserted wilderness and the only source of sustenance is these crazy hot peppers and you need eat them in order to survive so you can make it out. Could you survive a month of eating these peppers as your only source of calories?

That might be a more interesting challenge than these speed eating or quantity eating challenges. Who can go the longest period of time eating just these peppers and drinking just water? That sounds torturous.