The first time Steven Leckart had a Carolina Reaper is an experience he’ll never forget. He says he popped one into his mouth, chewed it thoroughly, and swallowed. Without warning, he says, a numbness shot through his right pinkie, then up into his biceps. Strangely, a mellow head rush set in and a tear trickled down his cheek. And then (as he described in real time):
All hell just broke loose in my mouth. My tongue is burning. My upper lip is stinging. My eyes are bloodshot. It’s like being face-fucked by Satan himself.
He had just eaten a sample of the hottest chili pepper on Earth, as declared by the Guinness Book of World Records. When you first bite into a Carolina Reaper, you’ll find it sweet with a fruity essence. But within moments the astronomical amount of capsaicin takes over. The results are not pretty and might include vomiting and severe abdominal distress, to put it nicely.
The Carolina Reaper is the creation of Ed Currie of Fort Mill, South Carolina. He had been crossbreeding plants since his boyhood in Michigan and eventually used his skills to produce some potent marijuana plants. He began crossbreeding peppers after he read scientific papers suggesting that their chemical compounds might reduce the risk of heart attacks and cancer, two diseases that run in his family.
It took 12 years of crossbreeding for Currie to produce his world-famous chili pepper. He tested hundreds of hybrid combinations before he crossed a LaSoufrière pepper from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent and a Naga pepper from Pakistan to create Smokin’ Ed’s Carolina Reaper. The company describes its effect as a tidal wave of scorching fire.
Pepper aficionados measure the heat of chili peppers in Scoville Heat Units (SHU). The Carolina Reaper has an official heat level of 1.5 million SHU (the hottest individual Reaper was measured at 2.2 million SHU). By comparison a jalapeño pepper ranges from 3,000 to 10,000 SHU. Currie’s employees at the PuckerButt Pepper Company (the actual name) have to wear two pairs of protective gloves while peeling the chilis and scraping out the seeds. The chili oils will eat through one pair of gloves in 15 minutes.
Demand for Currie’s peppers shot up after the Guinness Book named the Reaper the world’s hottest pepper. Americans are eating more peppers than ever, in fact, and a lot of those peppers are made into salsa. But only a fraction of fresh peppers eaten in the US are grown in the US. Most chili peppers (more than 70 percent) are imported from Mexico. Pepper production in the Southwestern US has been plagued by drought and plant diseases – and concerns about labor costs, naturally.
Ed Currie says he never doubted that he could grow the hottest peppers in the world in South Carolina. He grows most of his peppers in greenhouses, which allow him to fine-tune the microclimate for each crop and variety. All of his products (he also grows onions, tomatoes, garlic, herbs, and spices) are organic and are grown in either greenhouses or irrigated fields.
No research has confirmed Currie’s beliefs about the curative powers of the subcapsinoids in chili peppers, but he eats Reapers throughout the day, every day, and swears to their health benefits. His wife doesn’t know how he stands it.
What’s going to happen to the average person who tries a Carolina Reaper for the first time? “You’ll be crying for an hour,” Currie answers. “Literally crying for an hour.”
Lauren Laubach reported on what Currie calls the strangest reaction anyone ever had to trying a Carolina Reaper. A young woman tried one at the New York City hot sauce show in 2013. Currie recalls:
She put it in her mouth, looked at me and gave me the finger, took five steps back and planted herself flat on the concrete. For 20 minutes straight the string of expletives that came out of her mouth was unbelievable. After 20 minutes she stopped, came over to me and gave me a big kiss and said, “I love you. Let’s do it again.”