“Ladies and gentlemen, your time starts now!”
The event itself is surprisingly low-key. The mood is one of stoic grimness. No one is screaming in pain. No one will be scarred by the heat. That’s not how capsaicin works. It only feels hot. The human tongue has pain receptors that respond to a certain intensity of temperature or acid. These nerve fibers send a signal to the brain, which it forwards to your conscious self in the form of a burning sensation. Capsaicin lowers the threshold at which this happens. It registers “hot” at room temperature. “It trips the alarm,” says Bruce Bryant, a senior researcher at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. “It says, ‘Get this out of your mouth right now!’” The chili pepper tricks you into setting it free.
The whole affair is beginning to seem like an anticlimax when I look up from my notes to see Pu Zozam headed my way. I have seen people stagger in movies, but never for real directly in my sightline. Zozam’s legs buckle as he tries to keep walking. He goes down onto one knee and collapses sideways onto the floor. He rolls onto his back, arms splayed and palms up. He’s making sounds that are hard to transcribe. Mostly vowels. After a minute he rolls back onto his side and raises his head to retch. A doctor prepares a hypodermic of dicyclomine. The drug is more typically administered to people with irritable bowel syndrome, to relieve cramping. Cramps and regurgitation are body responses to gastrointestinal irritation. (This is why people throw up when they drink too much, too fast; alcohol is an irritant.) “The cramp is quite severe,” Catherine Burns, the contestant from Liverpool, told me later. She recalls sitting cross-legged with her fellow contestants afterward. Not good enough, her body informed her. “I suddenly just had to recline.”
Someone has unbuttoned Zozam’s waistband and shirt. Cold water bottles are pressed to his bare mounded belly. Others are cracked open and emptied over his head and his feet, now bare as well. Capsaicin is vasoactive. It opens up the peripheral circulation, dilating vessels in the skin and creating the sensation of being flushed. Pu Zozam is having the mother of all hot flashes. This is one reason capsaicin is used topically, for muscle pain. It’s a natural heating pad.
Zozam managed five chilies. The winner, Namlui Rongmei, finished 14. He’s crouched on the floor, glassy-eyed. I see him reach for the hem of the doctor’s white coat. A man behind me squats in the shrubbery, checking his smartphone while he waits for the vomiting to commence. He has been through this before. Incredibly, many contestants are repeat customers. Rongmei was last year’s runner-up. Surely there’s a better way to pay the rent. To quote a billboard just outside town, “Take up bee farming.”
Out in the arena, beyond the stage, the festival has moved on. The squeals of a greased pig contest provide soprano counterpart for the low tones of digestive torment. Backstage, the carnage has reached a peak. A paisley of curled up, writhing youth covers the floor. The drinking water cheerfully dispensed a half-hour ago is coming back up. The Christmas elves are abandoning their posts. From the far corner, Aaron, the photographer on the story, yells without taking his gaze from the lens. “Mary! Is my camera bag on high ground?”
In the tradition of the post-game interview, a chat with the winner seems to be in order. He’s now lying against a wall in the fetal position, his head supported by the caved-in cardboard Nestlé’s box. He speaks little English, but manages to convey his state: “Very no.”
Catherine Burns ate five Naga King Chilies, like Pu Zozam. Yet Zozam was taken away in an ambulance. I ran into Burns shopping for souvenirs 20 minutes after the competition. A vegan, she said that the most difficult part, for her, was the milk powder.
What accounts for the seemingly vast range in people’s tolerance for capsaicin? Some of it, of course, is genetics. Just as the number and density of taste receptors varies from tongue to tongue, so does the pain receptor count. (But not in a correlative way; so-called supertasters are not necessarily more sensitive to capsaicin.) According to Bryant, tolerance is more built than born. Just as bagpipes and muskets may damage auditory nerves, capsaicin gradually destroys the pain receptors that respond to it. Bryant gives the example of Mexican children introduced to capsaicin as young as 4 or 5, in the form of chili candies. By the time they’re adults, their receptor load has been devastated. “What would scorch your palate off is a pleasant burn to them.”