This is the 3rd in my series on plants in popular culture where I talk about some of the biology of plants and their deeper meaning within that piece of culture. The first and second in the series are here and here.
The Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango.
In season 8, episode 9 of “The Simpsons”, ‘El Viaje Misterioso de Nuestro Jomer’, Homer has an encounter with another (but fictitious in this case) member of the nightshade family. Tomacco was a hybrid of two members of that family separated by millions of years of evolution. In the phylogenetic tree in this paper (a branched diagram showing the DNA sequence relatedness of species), the capsicum genus is in between that of tobacco and tomatoes. Capsicum species are native to The Americas (the tropical parts, not so much the temperate parts of North America).
In this episode, Homer, a highly critical chili connoisseur, goes to the annual Springfield Chili cook off, despite Marge trying to keep him away because of how he behaves (drinks too much beer…this could be another post in itself, though I swear, not all of these posts will be about “The Simpsons”). Homer catches a brief smell of the cook off and Marge allows him to attend on the promise that he won’t drink any beer.
Homer shows up and stares down the chili cook-off stalls like in a Western movie and he draws his wooden spoon— “carved from a larger spoon” as Lenny notes. Homer proceeds to go through all of the stalls critiquing the various chili concoctions and deeming them all wanting and not hot enough.
What makes a chili pepper hot? Or not? It’s largely down to a molecule called capsaicin. The more that a pepper produces, the spicier it’s going to be perceived. The way capsaicin concentration is often presented in the Scoville Heat Units (SHU), named after Wilbur Scoville who devised it in 1912. Scoville’s method is a dilution based test where capsaicin oil is extracted in alcohol from dried fruit and the extract is diluted until heat (pungency) can just barely or no longer be tasted. This is a subjective test (everyone’s taste buds are not the same, nor are our tolerance for spiciness in food). It does provide a sense of how hot something is though from a score of 0 (a bell pepper) to the current champion cultivar is the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion pepper with a Scoville heat unit measure of ~2,000,000.
Chief Wiggum is prepared this year with ‘The Merciless Peppers of Quetzalacatenango’…
“… grown deep in the primeval jungle by the inmates of a Guatemalan insane asylum.” In the lore of ‘The Simpsons’, these have become known as ‘Guatamala insanity peppers’. Wiggum even dons a welder’s mask to add an additional pepper to his chili.
When Homer just barely puts one of these peppers on his tongue, it burns so much he has to find something to drink; beer is at hand, but he doesn’t drink it only dipping his tongue in it to remove the heat (capsaicin is not water soluble, but is in fat, so milk or drinking straight up butter is the way to go, alcohol actually makes it worse), he nearly drinks a candle and has an idea. He coats his tongue (and throat?) with candle wax and returns to Chief Wiggum’s booth and eats every one of the insanity peppers in the chili in rapid succession. Marge sees Homer with the beer and stalks off angry. Homer, thinking he’s been triumphant walks away, but suddenly starts hallucinating and winds up in a dream world with a tortoise who guides Homer to his spirit animal; a wolf voiced by Johnny Cash who tells Homer to find his soul mate and puts doubt in his mind that it’s Marge.
Chemical properties of Capsaicin
Can Capsaicin make you hallucinate? Yes, apparently so. I am shocked to learn that this is real. The best part; the guy sitting next to the reporter who’s used to the pepper he bred barely reacts to having eaten an even bigger slice. The story is a few years old and this pepper is on the order of 1.5 million SHU. Deadly nightshade (Atropa belladonna), another member of the nightshade family, is not only poisonous, but also hallucinogenic. It does have medicinal uses, however (atropine is derived from it). All of these compounds that induce hallucination are alkaloids, a large class of plant secondary metabolites. Nightshade is distantly related to chili peppers (native to old vs. new world, respectively), but clearly they have potential hallucinogenic properties; and probably different mechanisms. It should be noted that enough capsaicin or extract from deadly nightshade or even the fruit of potato plants can be lethal.
So where does the Gautamala insanity pepper rate on the Scoville scale? My guess is that it’s up near the 3,000,000 range, basically on par with pepper spray (where capsaicin is the main irritant) and pure capsaicin has an estimated SHU of 15,000,000. It’s a cartoony level of capsaicin.
Where is Capsaicin made and what’s it for?
Like all metabolites, there is a biosynthetic pathway for capsaicin that has been identified. It is expressed mainly in the placental cell layer of the pepper (adjacent to the seeds) and thus most of the capsaicin is produced inside the chili fruit (you have to bite into it to get a real dose of heat). Capsaicin is thought to serve as an anti-herbivory chemical (particularly to deter mammals), but it may also have some anti-fungal and anti-insect effects as well. Birds are not affected by capsaicin and so can eat the fruit of the Capsicum plant and spread its seeds around. For those of us who like spicy food (or have gotten our nerve cells that perceive it desensitized, there are some potential health benefits to it as well; it’ll release endorphins, act as an anti-oxidant, and if used as a topical agent, can deaden pain on the skin.
After a lot of exploring (Moe: I’m not your soul mate. I’m a well-wisher in that I do not wish you any specific harm), Homer does find his soul mate is Marge at the end of the episode (Phew!). And the town of Springfield gets to enjoy a shipment of short shorts that fell off a ship that nearly ran aground except for the quick work of Marge and Homer to replace a lighthouse lamp. Through burning his soul (by literally burning his body and mind), Homer has a revelation about who his soul mate is (I’ll just editorialize here and say it’s not as if any of us have just one person we’re compatible with out there— so if you’re single, don’t despair! It may be bleak, but it’s not that bleak!). There’s something really interesting about food being able to get inside and access the deepest parts of ourselves (The movie ‘Chocolat’ may be another example of this, look for it in a future installment of this series)— particularly ones that have capsaicin to drive mind altering hallucinations.