Brendan Borrell on “What’s So Hot About Chili Peppers”

Brendan Borrell
Brendan Borrell has a PhD in biology and is currently a freelance writer. Tomás Carlo

Brendan Borrell, with a PhD in biology from Berkeley in his back pocket, started his science writing career at The Oregonian. He eventually broke out on his own and has freelanced for Scientific American, Slate, Nature, Audubon, the Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian and The Scientist, where he is a regular correspondent. For Smithsonian, he has written about Bolivia.

What drew you to this story? Can you describe the genesis of it a bit?

A while ago now, a friend of mine had seen Josh Tewksbury give a talk. So, on a lark, I just called Josh up. This guy was just a maniac. He was talking on the phone super fast. It was like a fire hose coming at me about all of the exciting things going on: how they are going to Bolivia, they’re doing this experiment and they’re doing that, and so in so is coming. It just seemed like there was a lot going on. I couldn’t stop him from talking. When I got off the phone with him, I had no idea what he said, but thought I got to make sure I go with this guy in April to Bolivia.

Tewksbury – with his slick ideas – sounds like an intriguing character. What did you find most interesting about him?

He definitely has his own sort of lingo. In the story I mention, “that would be slick.” And that’s not something he says just once. There were days when we played this game where I would write down every time he said “slick” and then we would count them up at the end of the day. It was close to 20 one day. He had so much energy. I never met anybody like that. When we would go to a census site, everyone would be mulling around, not really sure what to do, and then suddenly you would hear Josh yelling, “Hey, guys. Come over here. I found some chilies.” You’d see him on this ridge. It was just constant. He was really fascinating. I can’t imagine anybody without that kind of energy surviving and getting so much data out there.

What was your trip like?

I was with those guys for about two and a half weeks. Bolivia is about the size of Texas, but there aren’t that many paved roads and getting anywhere takes forever. They wanted to do this gigantic loop of basically a quarter of the country. It involved going all the way down to the southeast of the country, down to the border of Paraguay, to the border of Argentina, then up into the Andes and back around. It was 2,000 miles. Every single day it was like we were racing to collect some data and then get back on the road and rumble along. It was a pretty rough trip in that sense.

You say in the story that “Travel is never easy in Bolivia….” What complications did you have in your travel?

There were a couple of obstacles that we faced. The roads are really rough and bumpy. There weren’t enough seats in the car so a lot of times you’d sit in the back with the luggage. It would just be frightening. You would come around a corner and there would be a 5,000-foot cliff and your stomach would just drop. Sometimes you’d turn a corner and there would be a bus coming right towards you, and these roads were only big enough for one car. So you suddenly stop and try to back up and get out of the way of this gigantic bus. You’d laugh about it and be covered in dust.

The other issue was food. Josh had no interest in bringing any camping supplies because he insisted that it was so easy to get food anywhere, camp anywhere, to find hotels in every town. But he hadn’t done such a wide-ranging trip before. A lot of times we couldn’t find food, or we had to wait very long times before food. Josh didn’t seem to need food. Then, when we would finally find food, it was a very disappointing experience because it would be this old, twice fried piece of chicken or else it would be a cow’s stomach. You’d be sort of scared about the food, but the good news was that most places had crushed chilies so you can just douse your food in the chili pepper. And chilies have these antimicrobial properties. They can kill a lot of bacteria. You sort of feel like it’s a little bit safer.

What surprised you the most about chilies or the way they are studied?

All I knew about chilies when I went down there was that they are something that you eat, that they’re long and pointy and that they are spicy. And when I got down there I realized that wild chilies are just these little round berries. They’re just nothing like I imagined. That, on top of the fact that sometimes you taste them and they aren’t spicy, and that’s just a natural part of their biology. The most shocking thing was how small a real chili pepper is. It just makes you realize how much humans have been able to select and manipulate the foods that they eat, to create something like the bell pepper, which is just so different from what a real chili pepper looks like.

Did you partake in the Russian roulette of tasting the chilies?

Definitely. I was a spare mouth. Sometimes you go to a census spot and you find five to ten chili plants no problem. But there were certain areas where you would do this 50 or 100 acre plot and there would be 100 chili plants there. After you’ve eaten about 10 chili peppers, you can’t tell the difference between a hot pepper and a not hot pepper because you’re mouth is just burning so much. And these peppers in this one area were just the hottest things ever. I would trail along and have to taste these peppers. It was really fascinating because you start to realize it’s not just that a pepper is hot. There’s so many different ways that it can be hot. It’s almost like you’re quaffing a glass of red wine because you put it in your mouth and begin to sense this wave of heat hitting your tongue and then you’re waiting to see how long it takes to peak and when it’s going to go away and what sort of aftertaste it has. We started to realize that even calling chilies hot or not hot is not enough. Sometimes the heat is just totally different and you get strange sensations. There were a lot of times when we couldn’t agree whether a chili pepper was actually spicy or not. We would just stand around and share the pepper, not really sure. We couldn’t figure out where the boundary was. I didn’t realize how complex it is. It was pretty interesting.

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