On a January night in 1999, a few weeks after he got divorced, Ed Currie sat alone in his condo in Rochester Hills, Michigan, a half hour north of Detroit. He was drinking whiskey. Outside a snowstorm raged. Just after midnight, he opened the windows and doors and disrobed. He was 35 years old, and, he recalls, “I had decided I didn’t want to live anymore.” He was going to freeze himself to death. Suddenly a white apparition began floating toward him—an angel. She told him to get dressed: There was a place he had to be. Currie obeyed. Outside in the snow, in the middle of the night, he set off in his blue Camaro for Brighton Hospital. The angel had given him the name. It was a rehab facility.
Currie spent the next six weeks at Brighton and another two and a half years in outpatient treatment there, attending therapy, living with sponsors. At one of his sponsor’s houses, he planted peppers: habaneros, ghost peppers, bird peppers. “God relieved me of that burden of addiction,” he says, “and it was on my heart that I was supposed to be growing peppers again.” In November 2002, Currie moved into his parents’ house in Fort Mill, South Carolina. “It was humbling,” he remembers. “I had to ask them for rides to AA meetings. But I had faith that something was gonna happen, and I started growing peppers in their yard.” One day he fell for a woman at an AA meeting, “a beautiful blonde” who wouldn’t give him the time of day. At the next meeting, Currie gave her a jar of peach-mango salsa he’d made from his peppers. Nine months later they were married.
Currie had no intention of making a full-time career out of growing peppers; he’d gotten a job in the trusts department at First Union bank, in Charlotte, North Carolina, half an hour north of Rock Hill, South Carolina, where he was living. But life is funny: In the fall of 2003, he started a company. A devout Christian, he named it for the way his wife and her “ladies in church” described the physiological effects of his peppers: PuckerButt. He sold his goods in Fort Mill, first at a flea market, then from a storefront on Main Street. In 2011, he quit his job at the bank and started cultivating peppers full-time. There were growing pains—one year he had to lay off 24 workers. But eventually, Currie, who calls himself Smokin’ Ed—a nickname bestowed by a middle school band teacher for Currie’s drumming chops—would create humankind’s hottest pepper, the Carolina Reaper, and the one he claims will take its place, a mysterious variety known only as Pepper X.
On a hot fall day, around noon, Currie and one of his PuckerButt employees stand over a table inside an open-air shed in a wooded section of Fort Mill, sorting peppers. Currie, bespectacled and unshaven, wears a baseball cap, a T-shirt, khaki shorts, and camo Crocs with high socks. A few gas masks hang on the wall, unused despite the pungent air. Scrambling to fulfill PuckerButt orders, Currie began sorting at 3:30 in the morning—when he went home last night, 39 out of 131 bins of freshly picked peppers still needed to be organized. There’s nothing particularly unique about this rush; the company is constantly slammed. “We’re the largest organic hot-pepper farm in the United States,” says Currie, whose official title is Founder, President, Mad Scientist & Chef. “We literally get in every day what most farms harvest in a whole year.”
Currie, who is 55, founded PuckerButt with $400,000 of his own money. “I cashed out every credit card I could find,” he recalls. Today, with a dozen full-time employees and 50 field workers on 29 acres in Fort Mill—including 35 acres behind his house where, worried competitors will steal his plants, he grows peppers in secret—he says the operation brings in over $1 million in annual revenue. The team sells to nearly 100 countries; outside the U.S. the top buyers are England, Germany, and Australia.
In the shed, the baskets brim with pepper varieties: yellow, red, green, purple, and white—all packing heat, a rainbow of agony. They need to be separated by variety—the first step in making mash, the base ingredient for any hot sauce and, Currie estimates, about 40 percent of PuckerButt’s business. He’s sorting alongside Heidi Cratty, a former nanny for his two kids who’s become a loyal PuckerButt employee. “She knows all my secrets,” Currie says, his gloved hands moving quickly through a basket. “Well, almost all of them.”
An older man named Bubba Edwards, Currie’s crop manager for the past six years, rides over on a John Deere Gator. “Bubba knows more about farming than I ever will,” Currie says. “We’re only successful because he and his brother took a chance on us.” Edwards is wearing blue jeans, sunglasses, and a baseball hat. His arms are thick and tanned. “Been farming all my life,” he volunteers. In a gravelly drawl, he shares some tips on raising peppers. “They don’t like wet feet,” he says, then adds, “I don’t eat ’em. I got more sense. They’ll tear you up.”
Currie’s obsession with peppers, which began when he was a student at the University of Michigan, had an existential motivation: Close relatives had suffered from heart disease and cancer—thyroid, lung, and stomach—and he’d begun seeking a way to strengthen his immune system. Spicy food, he felt, could do that. Using seeds he’d collected locally and others brought to him by friends from abroad, Currie learned how to grow and crossbreed different peppers to make them spicier, which he believed would strengthen their medicinal qualities. It was during this process, tinkering on his porch and devouring botanical data at the university library—“trying to figure out how not to die,” as he puts it—that he came across a study claiming that capsaicin, the alkaloid compound found in peppers that creates the sensation of spiciness, possesses anticancer properties. He wasn’t much of a student—he bounced around seven colleges before finally graduating from Central Michigan University—but on the subject of peppers, he became a scholar.
Peppers, he learned, were among the first crops to be domesticated, over 6,000 years ago, in Mesoamerica, and civilizations had been using them in food for 2,000 years before that. Linda Perry, the Smithsonian archaeobotanist who determined the ages of peppers by analyzing ancient pots herds, believes they were simply used for taste: Would you rather have yams or chili yams? Other researchers explain their prehistoric popularity by their ability to help prevent food spoilage. Still others point to medicinal uses: The Mayans, for instance, employed chilies to treat gastrointestinal issues, infections, and earaches. The Aztecs used them for toothaches.
When Christopher Columbus encountered chilies in Hispaniola, he mistook them for black pepper, which was commonly used on the Indian subcontinent at the time. “They deem it very wholesome and eat nothing without it,” he wrote of the Hispaniola natives’ love of chilies. Though peppers are not, in fact, related to the spice, the name stuck. After Columbus brought them back to Europe, they spread to Asia, popping up in Japan, China, and northeast India, where, according to Currie’s information (perhaps apocryphal), what are known today as ghost peppers acquired a peculiar therapeutic role. A shaman would lay a bundle upon an open flame, engulfing his chamber in a picante plume. Patients remained in the spicy sauna for up to an hour, experiencing, eventually, twinges, sweats, and convulsions, their whole bodies rebelling in a kind of nightshade-induced exorcism. The pepper, it was thought, removed ghosts.
When, in 2004, Currie’s mother was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer, an aggressive form of the disease usually found in smokers, he set out to breed a pepper with high levels of capsaicin to nourish her. “She was a non-smoker,” he says, “one of the healthiest people you’d ever meet. She tried eating hot peppers, even the Carolina Reaper, up until her treatment gave her such bad ulcers that she couldn’t really get food in.” She passed away in 2008.
During that crossbreeding process, Currie befriended a colleague at the bank from the island of Saint Vincent. “I kept on bringing in these peppers for her husband, and she goes, ‘You don’t know peppers,’” he recalls. To show him true heat, she gave him a habanero grown at the base of the island’s La Soufrière volcano. Currie immediately detected it had strong potential. He crossed the volcanic pepper with nine others (further details, he says, are a “trade secret”). One of the hottest pairings involved a Pakistani Naga that a doctor in Michigan had given him. The combination was an atom bomb. “The first time I ate it, it dropped me to my knees,” Currie remembers. “It was frickin’ hot and making people throw up.” That was the first Carolina Reaper.
According to horticultural protocol, a new chili must self-pollinate for five to eight generations before it’s considered stable and classifiable as its own distinct variety. Currie cultivated his pepper, then called HP22B (his working title for each pepper starts with HP, for “Higher Power”) for five, then, wanting to know exactly how hot it was, got in touch with Dr. Cliff Calloway, a chemist at nearby Winthrop University. “He just said they were really, really, ultra hot,” Calloway recalls. In graduate school, Calloway had studied Scoville units, the measure for rating spiciness. He told Currie he was happy to help, free of charge.
A week later, Currie dropped off a basket of Reapers at Winthrop’s Department of Chemistry. Donning gloves and masks, Calloway and his students began the procedure: Each specimen was freeze-dried, finely ground, then boiled in ethanol to extract the molecules of capsaicin, known as capsaicinoids; the resulting solution was then injected into a liquid chromatography instrument, which provides a precise measurement of each pepper’s amount of capsaicinoid—the more capsaicinoids, the hotter the pepper. He repeated the process for each pepper to determine the batch’s average Scoville rating. “That first year they were above a million Scoville units,” Calloway says. “I was like, ‘Wow, those are pretty hot. No wonder our faces hurt.’ ”
The scale was developed in 1912 by Wilbur Scoville, an American chemist at the Parke-Davis pharmaceutical company, in Detroit, which manufactured a pain-relief ointment that used capsaicin and needed to know exactly how much to use in each batch. According to the Scoville Organoleptic Test, a chili’s “Scoville rating” was the amount of sugar water needed to dilute a sample of its capsaicin extract until a panel of professional taste testers could no longer detect its spiciness. For example, a habanero whose extract requires 300,000 drops of water to be rendered indetectable has a rating of 300,000 Scoville Heat Units (SHU). (According to Paul Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, 16 million SHU is the highest that a pepper could theoretically go.) Though more scientifically sound methods of measurement, like liquid chromatography, have since been developed, the Scoville scale itself has stuck. It’s how chiliheads gauge their suffering.
The official valuation of the Reaper came in at 1,275,000 SHU; for context, jalapeños average between 3,000 and 8,000—Currie says it’s like the difference between bicycles and rocket ships. It was hotter than what the Guinness World Records had designated the hottest pepper on earth, the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T, a bonnet pepper developed by a team in Australia that had a Scoville valuation of 1,463,700. Knowing he had the hotter nightshade, Currie submitted Calloway’s findings to Guinness. Admittedly “not good at taking directions,” Currie had some trouble complying with Guinness’s verification process. But four years later, in 2013, he received the call: The Carolina Reaper had taken the number one spot. Currie was at a chili-eating contest in Charlotte. He fell to his knees. Onlookers, thinking it was a heart attack, called for an EMT. The man was in tears.
Things changed quickly after Currie’s Guinness designation. “Overnight it went absolutely nuts,” he recalls. There were constant media interviews. All the networks and morning shows wanted him, the man with the world’s hottest peppers. He was happy to oblige, often bringing Reapers to sample (on CBS This Morning, a Reaper caused Charlie Rose so much pain he refused to go on the air). Meanwhile, chili consumption was booming in America, with hot sauce overtaking ketchup as the country’s most-purchased condiment. Sriracha, the jalapeño-based hot sauce that originated in Thailand, became an American phenomenon, with L.A.’s Huy Fong Foods selling over 20 million bottles a year. Videos of people eating superhots—chilies with a Scoville rating over 500,000—began crowding the Internet. For millions of adventurous, hypercompetitive masochists, chili peppers became the delicacy du jour, avocado toast for the Jackass crowd.
All of this was good for business, but not all was smooth sailing. One growing season, a hurricane ravaged Currie’s crops. Another season was ruined by hungry deer. On top of that, PuckerButt had became inundated with an impossible number of orders—a good problem to have but a problem nonetheless. “There were a lot of mistakes on my part, promising more than I could deliver,” Currie admits.
Today things seem to have settled down. PuckerButt is still overwhelmed with orders, but the team is better at managing the mayhem. And it’s no small operation: Last year the company processed over 200,000 pounds of fully organic peppers. In addition to peppers, hot sauces, and salsas, you can buy an array of rare pepper seeds—Sudanese bird peppers, Vietnamese tearjerkers, Brazilian starfish, a memorable Thai variety known as rat’s turd. Most orders are handled online, but plenty of merchandise can be purchased at the small storefront in Fort Mill; in the store, Reapers go for about a buck a pop.
Currie knows his success may be fleeting. “One hundred percent of this is a gift from God,” he says. “It can disappear at any moment.” One PR setback occured in April, when a man in Cooperstown, New York, went to the emergency room after a Carolina Reaper brought on sudden searing head and neck pain that doctors diagnosed as a “thunderclap headache.” But Currie’s not turning down the heat: He claims to possess nine other peppers that are each hotter than the Reaper. One of them, temporarily called Pepper X, is available only as the main ingredient in The Last Dab, a hot sauce made by Brooklyn-based purveyor Heatonist. The concoction is featured on the popular YouTube show Hot Ones, in which celebrities eat chicken wings doused with increasingly potent sauces—The Last Dab is the final test.
Currie is tight-lipped when it comes to details on Pepper X and his other superhots. But pepperheads are a vocal bunch, and the community is anxious for an answer. On Reddit, a hotbed of Scoville speculation, some wonder if it’s mere bluster. “Pepper X is just hype at the moment,” writes a user named Juanitospeppers. “Reaper is still top dog until someone actually shows real test data.” But there are also plenty of defenders. “Ed said the reaper was the hottest,” writes user Porencephaly. “Testing bore that out. If he says X is hotter I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.”
When pressed on a release date, Currie demurs, saying it depends on whenever it will be a “good business decision.” But he says X is only one pepper in his secret garden of pain. “Say someone beats me with an average of 2.2 million Scovilles,” he says. “I have one that’s 2.5, on average. If someone beats me at 2.8 million, I have one at 3.1 million.”
I can’t leave Fort Mill without torturing myself. Currie, who has seen countless souls suffer from his creations, calmly obliges. On a table in his office he lays out a sample of peppers. We’re in the PuckerButt store, on Main Street (fittingly for a joint that packs a lot of heat, it occupies a former firearms shop). The walls are covered with awards, photos, and memorabilia from chili-eating contests. “Pick one,” Currie says, gesturing at the harmful bounty. Scrunched and contorted into angry shapes, the chilies are vibrant and bright and menacing, like yellow jackets or poison dart frogs. They say, “Stay away.” I pick a Reaper. It’s the size of a walnut, and just as shriveled.
Currie cuts me a quarter-sized slice and places it on a paper plate. A young employee named Justin stands by his side. I remark that they both seem pretty grim. “We’re not grim, we just want to make sure you’re all right,” Currie replies, grimly.
The pain is immediate, a stick of dynamite detonating in my mouth. Then my ears catch fire. My stomach begins to throb—the “capsaicin cramps” Currie warned me about. My heart starts to race. My eyes become fire hoses. There seem not to be enough tissues in the Carolinas to assuage my leaking sinuses. I start gulping down H₂O. “That water’s not gonna help,” mumbles Justin. “It’s best just to deal with it.”
I have suffered through plenty of spicy meals, from lip-shredding larb in Thailand to devilish salsa in Mexico, but this is something else. Here I am, in this silent, air-conditioned room, fighting the impulse to puke; the Reaper is hotter than most pepper sprays. My senses are screaming. There’s no ignoring it: It’s wholly demanding. Hell has found me in Fort Mill.
But the pain is, like all things, fleeting. Twenty minutes later, after the immediate fire has cooled (though the cramps continue for over an hour), I feel a strange peace. For a moment all seems aglow, the gray carpet and the red walls, the pepper merchandise lining the shelves: Reaper puree, Reaper seeds, Reaper-infused peanut-butter cups, the sun spilling in. It’s a survivor’s calm, the agony finally over. Outside there’s a blue sky and a quiet afternoon on Main Street. A sunny rain has just let up. It feels good to be alive.