Capsaicin… So hot right now

Hanson, T. 2015.  The triumph of seeds.  Basic Books.  New York.  ch. 9.

This chapter from The Triumph of Seeds is, in usual Thor Hanson fashion, a smooth and delightful blend of history, biology, and storytelling. This particular chapter is regarding the history of chili peppers. First Hanson describes Columbus’ journey to Costa Rica in search of spices, and then, with some help from Noelle (the “mycobiolost who likes spicy foods”), he goes on to describe the botany of chilies and their spicy active ingredient, capsaicin.

Although I am no history buff, I am still a little embarrassed to admit that I was not actually aware that Columbus’ voyages were in search of spices and foods, and not just for the sake of finding new lands. After this reading, I learned that Columbus basically popularized chili peppers! And for that reason, and that reason alone, I have now become a fan of Christopher Columbus because I can’t say it enough: I LOVE HOT SAUCE!

I actually DID read all three assigned chapters, but I knew that I just had to write about this chapter because I am such a huge fan of spiciness (I’d give up coffee for hot sauce without question!) and I could not imagine enjoying (most) foods without it! I completely identified with Noelle the mycologist (and Josh, too!) as I have also always been one to stash a bottle of hot sauce at my work place or even go so far as to carry a small bottle in my bag when travelling. My boyfriend rolls his eyes at me every time we are at a restaurant and I end my order with, “And can I get some hot sauce on the side, please?”

I obviously really enjoyed this reading, not just because of the general topic but because I actually learned so much about something that I hold so near to my heart and just realized I was essentially clueless about. My absolute favourite part of this chapter was Hanson’s summary of how we taste (more like feel) capsaicin and its physiological effects. Our bodies literally translate capsaicin contact with actual cell-damaging heat. While this isn’t really surprising from a biological viewpoint, it still blows my mind and it will be something I think about with every spicy bite I take in the future.

I am serious about hot sauce and I must be excused now because I can’t stop daydreaming about how AWESOME it would be to be a part of something called the “Chili Team” and having the job of finding chilis in Bolivia! Some people have it allll figured out!


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