Love hurts: Asheville hot-pepper enthusiasts cry with joy


Ryan Deegan, chili-head. Photo by Max Cooper

Two grown men sit side by side on a sofa with tears pouring down their cheeks and dripping onto their collars. Right now, they're in a state of endorphin-induced bliss, but in a few minutes, they will be doubled over with pain, throwing up in a trash can. Perhaps they are daring. Maybe they are foolish. But most of all, they are lovesick.

The object of their affection? The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion, which the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University declared the hottest pepper in the world in 2012.

These men are chili-heads, explains Joel Mowrey, owner of Smokin' J's Fiery Foods in Candler. “Chili-head is your official terminology for somebody who's way into chili peppers,” he says. “People like the challenge.”

Beyond their shared pepper affection (or affliction, perhaps), they don't have much in common. Ryan Deegan is a Web developer who enthusiastically follows the Miami Heat. Daniel Stonestreet is a vegan chef for Eden-Out meal-delivery service (formerly Veg-In-Out). If not for the Moruga, they might never have met.

Mowrey grew the peppers that Deegan and Stonestreet have just eaten. They swallowed heaping spoonfuls of a glowing red puree, a mash of skins, pulp and membrane, flecked with seeds. Mowrey is happy to provide enthusiastic chili-heads with fodder for their fixation, but he doesn’t partake. He enjoys diluted versions of the peppers he grows on his Candler farm in the hot sauces and marinades he manufactures.

Stonestreet and Deegan, on the other hand, love the Moruga for its heat. “Some people might classify that sensation directly under pain, but to my brain, it's like a different thing,” Stonestreet says. “It's pleasure for me.”

Deegan feels pain when he eats the pepper, but he endures the burn. It boosts his confidence. “You could call it love/hate because the second I put it in my mouth, and it starts to hurt, I can't believe I did it,” he says. “I like knowing that I can do it because I don't think there's a lot of people out there who can. I excel at some things, but this is the first thing I've ever done where no one else will even try to touch it.”

About a year ago, Deegan graduated from cooking with jalapeño and habanero peppers, easily found in grocery stores, to 7-Pots and Ghost Peppers, which he must grow himself or buy from Mowrey. He's also had run-ins with the Moruga, which packs more than 2,000 times the heat of a jalapeño, according to researchers at NMSU.

Internet forums, such as thehotpepper.com, spurred him on. The peppers that were once components of recipes became, in their pure forms, the focus of YouTube videos, in which Deegan chronicles his sufferings. “It's absolutely a hobby,” he says. But, he adds, if hot peppers were suddenly outlawed, he wouldn't mind.

From certain angles, Deegan and Stonestreet's pepper obsession seems irresponsible. Deegan says capsaicin cramps have left him doubled over behind the wheel of his (parked) car. But at the core of their indulgence, both men find a deeper purpose. “It's like an inner journey because, while you're sitting there, everything else kind of blanks out, and you're just focusing on getting through the next moment,” Deegan says. “That's one of the only times I remember that nothing's going through your head except for making it through this.”

Deegan challenges himself to endure the burning in his mouth, throat, lungs and stomach for at least five minutes after swallowing a pepper. After that, he turns to ice cream, milk or dark beer for relief, although he sometimes sticks out the burn for upward of 10 minutes.

Stonestreet endeavors to harness a hot pepper’s intensity to enhance meditation. “I do believe, in deep meditation, that eating something this spicy could trigger an event like astral projection,” he says. And while he jokes about bringing an alien back from outer space, there's a legitimate angle to Stonestreet's curiosity about the connection between his mind and his mouth.

The Moruga is not for those of weak constitution, Deegan cautions. He says he only stomachs about half of the hot peppers he eats; the rest come back out the way they went in. For the curious, he endeavors to describe the flavor of each one. He likens the Moruga to a habanero with far more heat and extra fruit flavors. “It kind of reminds me of a raspberry,” he says. “A violent, killer raspberry.”

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