Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ed Currie and the World's Hottest Pepper

Ed Currie- Founder, President, Mad Scientist, and Chef

Carolina Reaper- Peak Level 2,200,000 SHU
"...I have given every green plant for food"; and it was so. God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. Genesis 1:30-31

Sometimes an answer comes before we have the question, and if we are paying attention we catch it. Wilbur Scovill was good at paying attention. While working for Parke, Davis & Co., Dr. Scovill was asked to solve a problem with one of their products- a muscle salve called HEET. It seems the salve would sometimes cause skin irritations and burns. One of the active ingredients in HEET is Capsaicin (currently HEET contains .025%), the active HEAT component of chile peppers. Wilbur Scovill caught the answer- not all peppers are created equal... now, he had a question. How do you measure the 'hotness' of a pepper? The world knows Dr. Scovill's solution as SHU- Scovill Heat Units.   

   I don't remember when I discovered the world of hot peppers but I do remember discovering there is a world of hotness beyond my understanding. In graduate school I was introduced to the Habanero pepper- at the time touted as the hottest pepper out there. Then, years later, I found the Ghost pepper. I like hot... the hotter the better. So, when a friend showed me an article about the breeder of the Guinness World Record Hottest Chile Pepper my saliva perked up. Imagine my surprise to discover that Ed Currie, the breeder, operated a pepper shop in my town! 

   Ed Currie owns and operates the PuckerButt Pepper Company in downtown Fort Mill, SC. His pepper, The Carolina Reaper, has been the talk of chili heads around the globe. With interviews from NPR, ABC, and CBS to name a few, I was excited when Ed agreed to answer a few of my questions. The day I arrived in his shop he had just returned from the South Carolina House of Representatives where he was presented with House Resolution 4546, which reads in part:

Whereas, due to wide press coverage of his story, orders for his pepper seeds and other products now have reached more than fifteen hundred orders a day, and Ed is considering expanding his operations. For his success, he gives full credit to the blessing of God; and
Whereas, looking to the future, Ed has some peppers in development he believes are even hotter than Smokin' Ed's Carolina Reaper. He is also studying the medicinal powers of peppers, his medicinal research comprising the work of one of nine companies housed at Rock Hill's technology incubator; and
Whereas, the House of Representatives is pleased to pause in its deliberations to applaud Ed Currie on his latest achievement...


Did you enjoy spicy hot as a kid or did you discover it as you grew older?

   As I got older, in college. I grew up in an Italian family so I thought I knew hot but I had no idea what hot really was until I started doing research.

Who was the research done for?


Out of curiosity?

   I became aware that all the male members of my family died at a very young age, so I decided I was not going to die. It wasn’t for altruistic reasons- I wanted to party.

What did your research involve? A laboratory, microscopes?

   There wasn’t internet, so just textbook research originally. Hours upon hours upon days in the library, reading about cancers, peppers, reading about odd populations around the world.

But at some point it became about more than the health benefits- there is an aesthetic consideration.

   Yes, it’s about the whole experience of peppers.

So, how do you breed a new pepper?

   You take a male and a female and you make them mingle- you take the pollen from one and put it on the stamen of another and you have cross-bred a plant. About 1 out of every 10 succeeds and breeds and about 1 out of every 20 of those gets to the 2nd and 3rd generation. There are over 1100 we’re working on now.


   I know- it’s crazy! I didn’t realize we had that much out there until Justin made a list for me. 

Justin: It took a week.

   It’s a lot more than other people do. I might be obsessive compulsive in a few ways. I’m really not a scientist- I’m a mad scientist.

If the peppers are getting hotter, is it possible to breed a pepper so hot no one can eat it?

   No, absolutely not. I have taken laboratory grade capsaicin and eaten it, and, even though it was painful and stupid, and I wouldn’t recommend anybody do it, that’s as pure as it gets.

And you didn’t die.

   I didn’t die. I was in pain for a long time. It made me cry, it made me sweat- the experience was not pleasant in any way.

In your interviews you give praise to God. As a believer, what are your thoughts regarding GMOs and the argument against plant manipulation.

   Number one- I don’t think anybody can manipulate a plant without Divine Intervention, and Two- the people who are touting ‘GMO stuff’ are eating Better Boy tomatoes which are the epitome of GMO but now it is Heirloom so it’s OK- It’s a fad! Cross-breeding cannot fit the definition of GMO unless you and I are GMO because all we are doing is taking pollen and stamen (sperm and egg) and putting them together. So, if your Mom and Dad made you that makes you GMO. Let’s get off the political fad and talk about what your real fear is. You don’t want steroids in your kids. Now, there are some things- I don’t want inter-species floating around- I’m not the Creator, my ‘creation’ came through Him, but there are certain boundaries you shouldn’t cross. I don’t want to see a pig-fish, and that’s my personal opinion. Some people might see the benefit of Salmon-Bacon, which sounds really good to me now that I think about it.

 Where did the name Carolina Reaper come from?

   We sat in a brainstorming session in this very room, which is what I do with everything. God provides wise counsel for you to follow. If I listen to the counsel that is in my head, 99% of the time it is wrong. I’ve learned to ask questions of the people I trust and usually we come up with the right answer between us. And then I pray on things and we come up with what we’re going to do. Nothing is accomplished here at PuckerButt Pepper Company without prayer behind it.

Does the process ever get faster as you breed new plants or does it just take what it takes?

   It just takes what it takes. Everybody tries to do things faster than they need to be done. To get a pepper stable takes about eight years.

What do you mean by ‘stable’?

   There are different definitions- from a horticulturist to a geneticist to a botanist to an allergist to the world out there. Stability means that the plant will produce same and like DNA from each successive seed planting. There’s a percentage the geneticists use. People like to talk about ‘pod variation’ in the pepper world. Well, I dare them to find a Habenero that has 50% like pods on a plant. It just doesn’t happen. Eight generations is generally accepted as stability for a plant. But, we have a lot of stuff in the mix. We’re not trying to find the end game and just quit and ride on laurels. We’re trying to change the whole thing.

Are you still working with the medical community?

   Yes. Whenever anybody reaches out to me I do whatever they need.

Ed Currie in his shop
235 Main Street
Fort Mill, SC

   Ed didn’t have a Carolina Reaper pepper for me to sample but I did try the Reaper Mash- the next best thing. And so, the answer to my question, "What does the world's hottest pepper taste like?" was answered in downtown Fort Mill, SC.

   It is hot…

CBS THIS MORNING report on Ed Currie and
the Carolina Reaper


Watch NPR Reporter Marshall Terry eat one of Ed's peppers


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