Overweening Generalist

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Drug Report for November, 2012: Jimi Hendrix, CalTech, Ultra-Hot Chili Peppers, A Gorgeous Female Film Star

Well, it's Jimi Hendrix's birthday - he was the Seattle Sound 1.0 - and Jimi was whipping his Fender Strat around onstage, catching the harmonic feedback at just the right moment, dive-bombing it with the whammy, then ripping a blues lick with a wicked vibrato, while picking with his teeth...before violently smashing his axe through his Marshall stack, then burning the thing, all while Kurt Cobain was in diapers. Kurt was three when Jimi ODed on Vasparax (sleeping pills) and red wine...Jimi would've been 70 today. In some Universe Next Door he's still alive and has recorded three totally killuh albums with Jeff Beck. Kurt would be alive there too. Hey why not?

FREE CalTech Class: Drugs and the Brain: Starts December 1st:
I know this is late notice, and I'm personally passing on this one, but you can take a free course at Coursera called Drugs and the Brain; it's the first class you take in Neuroscience when you go to the true Left Coast "genius" school. (MIT is the Right Coast one.) Henry A. Lester is a heavyweight and the class will go from December 1st, for five weeks, will take 4-6 hours a week of your precious time, and it's - fair warning - a gateway drug to more neuroscience. Lester can probably tell you, extempore, in garish detail, what happens when you take the same cocktail of drugs Jimi took that horrible night, presumably telling us way too much about dying by inhaling your own vomit, but then I've got my digression out of the way...

Red Hot Chili Peppers: the Food, Not the Band
Although: Flea of the RHCP has a Hendrix tattoo.
Full disclosure: the OG is a spicy food fiend, and I will try the hottest salsa or curry that comes my way, and one time I had a bona fide weird experience with something so hot, so spicy, I probably couldn't handle it, which I'll get to momentarily.

Columbus's crew encountered the new world chile "peppers" (a misnomer: that's all they could compare it to); previously it was unknown what the actual response was to eating one of the hottest ones the natives had, but recently I unearthed some lost documents, and Columbus himself is recorded as being handed one by a native, Columbus looks at its bright red color and says in Italian to his friends, "What's the worst it can do? Give me the squirts? It's not like we don't have that every day on the Santa Maria, eh boys?" The parchment records that that line killed, much laughter was heard. Then Columbus took a bite, started to remark on its texture and not-unpleasant flavor, how King Ferdinand might like it, then, suddenly, "Sweet Isabella's netherparts! That's some molten demon fruit! Christ, my tongue's got a Mount Aetna situation here boys! Watch yourselves! This may be a trick...HOLY!...it keeps creepin' up on ya, like a horny galleymate after two months at sea. Someone give me a glass of water, stat! Then begin enslaving these godless heathens for the next, oh, let's make it 400 years." (My translation)

What Columbus didn't know - no one knew, apparently, was that if he just smoked a huge bomber of some nearby cannabis, it would've alleviated the pain. Don't believe me? (You have every reason to suspect I'm bullshitting you after that above paragraph, I don't blame you.) Check out this study.

Are we cool now? (No?)

                              Baskets of chili peppers at a market in Oaxaca, Mexico.
                              Like Pavlov's dog, my mouth begins to water just seeing them

Pharmacagnosy of Blazing Hot Peppers
You eat something with a real spicy pepper kick. The chemicals in peppers that give the effects are called capsaicinoids. They hit the tongue and stimulate the vanilloid subtype 1 nerve receptors in the mouth, throat, anything nearby that's nasal. When these receptors are activated, evolution has made us perceive this as "heat," although there's nothing hot about the capsaicinoids, temperature-wise. It's probably an evolutionary protective effect. Anyway: the perception of heat releases a neuropeptide called Substance P, which says to the body's systems, "We got some pain INCOMING!" Substance P gets into the brain, binds to opioid receptors, and the brain releases its own endogenous morphine, called endorphins. (Thank you, scientific goddess Candace Pert!)

Minor encounters with really hot peppers: reports of euphoria, clarity of mind, sweating. I must have had something really strong, which I'll get to later.

Wilbur Scoville
In 1912, Wilbur Scoville, trying to develop a drug using capsaicin for muscle aches, invented a method for measuring how hot certain peppers were. Ingeniously, he had people eat certain peppers, then he measured how much sugary water it took to douse the pain. The more sugar water required, the hotter the pepper. If 3 out of 5 volunteers said they were good to go, let's bring on the next pepper, then Scoville recorded his data. What I like about Scoville is that he used organoleptic methodology: actual human beings reporting phenomenologically the effects the drug (capsaicin, in this case) had on them. The Scoville Scale is still used, although now a highfalutin' High Pressure Liquid Chromatography gauge has been developed, which directly measures capsaicin. But no organoleptic methodology, so...

Peppers are still measured in Scoville Heat Units, and the Naga Jolokia pepper of India has 855,000 SHUs. The average jalapeno? A mere 5000 SHUs, ya pussy. 'Smatter? Can't you handle it? Go ahead, try a Naga Jolokia, plain. I dare ya.

Going For The Record
Trying to determine what the hottest pepper is in the world is not easy. The people at Guinness are interested. The competition is hot...uhhh...fierce. An article from NPR in 2011 has Ed Currie (apparently his real name) of So. Carolina, and a major pepper freak who originally got into the game because he heard capsaicin fights cancer, which he has a lot of in his family, developing a pepper that apparently was going to measure 1.5million SHUs, breaking the Trinidad Scorpion's 1.4 million SHUs. Currie bragged that 2 of 3 people who ate his pepper vomited. Good job, Currie! And thanks for bringing the world record back to us. USA! USA! USA! (Currie is marketing his stuff under the Pucker Butt Pepper Company. Stay classy, Ed.) And if you doubt the overwhelming power of megahot peppers, watch the video embedded in the NPR link I gave at the beginning of this paragraph. If it does fight cancer, it looks like some sorta chemotherapy itself, doesn't it? Moving on...

However, a 2012 article in Time has the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion as the hottest in die welt, at 1.2 SHUs. Something seems amiss, and a decent reporter would get to the bottom of this by contacting the Guinness people, but I am not decent. I'm in a ratty old sweatshirt, and I'm goin' "commando." I am not your man. Let us be happy that the race is on to make the asphalt on a lone Texas highway buckle under the latest, hottest chili peppers. Someone has to do it!

Effects of Uber-Hot Peppers
The heart rate goes up and you sweat a lot. You feel mentally and physically stimulated. You're giddy, euphoric and one guy in the hot pepper biz says you get a "crack-like rush." This is all legal, for now. Many ingesters have reported dissociative thoughts. In this it's like DMT, which you use and you're gone, even sitting among your friends. And both DMT and very very hot peppers can make you feel "gone" for 5-20 minutes. Then it clears. (Kids: DMT has a few whole Other dimensions to it, and I meant that capital O very seriously. Watch it! Read up on it first. It's a very intense psychedelic experience.)

Dr. Andrew Weil has advocated "mouth surfing" in order to get high and/or use in lieu of Vicodin. This involves using really hot peppers, titrated, calculatedly in a continuous ingestion for a long-term endorphin rush. I have done this once, and it was only half-calculated.

                                      mouth-wateringly gorgeous Angelina Jolie, a main 
                                      player in one of my own psychoactive drug trips
                    
My Weird Hot Pepper Experience
I'm sitting with my wife in a booth in our favorite Thai restaurant, in Albany, California. (Since closed: sigh) I always order the chicken red curry, "extra spicy." Sometimes it's really, really hot and I get a nice endorphin buzz, I'm ebullient, new ideas flow, I'm glib - I'm also drinking Thai beer - and it's just one of life's simple pleasures. Maybe you have friends like me: I'm the guy my friends dare to eat "that pepper, plain," and I do it. Do I often feel pain? Of course. But also: the opiate buzz.

So: we're sitting against the back wall and I'm facing a corner booth that's empty. We order. I ask for the same thing I always get, but since the last time we were there, I'd learned a Thai phrase, "mak-mak," which means "Thai spicy-hot," basically. So: there's "hot" for people of European descent, then there's a "Thai hot." When I said this, I distinctly remembered the waitress's pupils double in size and she asked, "You sure?" I said yea, of course. I mean, how much hotter could it be?

Hotter than anything I'd ever had in my life. I was a quarter way through and in pain. I was amazed at the heat. Sweat immediately pooled at the back of my neck, then ran down my spine, noticeably. I had to wipe my brow every two minutes, as if I'd been digging ditches at high noon in Tombstone, Arizona. But I was also starting to feel the high, so I was enjoying myself. Sips of beer or ice water did nothing to attenuate the fire roaring in my mouth, but our conversation was pleasant, even if my wife interrupted with, "Are you alright?" When curry is this hot, it's not a meal, it's an event. Hey, I'm a tough guy when it comes to hot peppers. Everyone knows this. Don't worry about it.

Then a couple came in and sat in the corner booth, a man and a woman. The woman faced me while the man's back was to my wife's back. I made eye contact with the woman who was quite beautiful. She was with an older man who had a ponytail and reminded me of Hollywood producer-type guys. She looked uncannily like Angelina Jolie. My wife and I kept our conversation going. The waitress came over to ask if I was okay. I said this was the hottest curry I've ever had, and...uhh...bravo! She told me that if things were too hot I should swallow a packet of sugar or two. I was going to say no, but thought, hey, it's maybe not a bad idea. I made eye contact with the woman again, and quickly I was convinced it was Angelina Jolie. But why would she be in a relatively out-of-the-way Thai restaurant on San Pablo in Albany? I leaned over and whispered to my wife that I think Angelina Jolie was sitting facing me, and to eavesdrop in order to hear what they're talking about. I poured two packets of sugar on my tongue and kept eating, knowing that I was acting crazy but this was all too weird and exciting. I wiped my brow. Angelina smiled at me. Those bee-sting lips! Those cheek bones! She was covered up with a white jacket with feathery-fringe around the neck because it was a rainy night and cold, wind whipping up off the San Francisco Bay.

My wife said she was going to the ladies' room, so that when she came back she could get a good look at "Angelina." Ms. Jolie and I made eye contact a couple of times. Should I wave hello? Is this "mak-mak" red curry so hot I'm hallucinating Angelina Jolie? I tried to remain cool, but my face was sweating. My wife came back, got a good long look at Angelina, then, after 20 seconds, leaned over and whispered, "It looks a lot like her, but I think it's someone else." I was both disappointed at her report and vaguely relieved. Meanwhile, I had heard a report earlier in the day on the economics of micro-lending to poor people in Africa. Someone had won the Nobel Prize in Economics for the idea, and the idea was big in Berkeley, especially at the university. And I had told myself, Angelina's in town to learn more about micro-lending; she's adopted all those Third World kids. She cares. It makes sense!

All my friends have laughed when I told them this story. I have pretty much convinced myself it wasn't her, mostly because I did some research on plastic surgery and how common it is for people with too much money (and maybe values I don't subscribe to?) to get five, seven, 15 "upgrades" (this is the term I saw used over and over) over the course of their lives. And there are some women who actually try to look like celebrities, and Angelina is a hot item. My guess is I was sitting across from some gal who had tried her best to look like Ms. Jolie, and combined with the psychoactive properties of that nuclear red curry, I had had one helluva weird and memorable 40 minutes.

Further Items
Capsaicin may help with weight loss.

Here's a report on my favorite blazing hot salsa, available where I live, Happy Jackal's Hell-Fire from fellow blogger Isoceleria. Other scorching salsas I've read about: "Endorphin Rush" and "Molten Lava."

Why do astronauts begin to crave hot, spicy food, Tabasco and peppers when they go into space, even they didn't like spicy foods on Earth?

The Mayans used hot peppers as chemical warfare: they burned them upwind from their enemies. Of course, Pepper Spray is derived from capsaicin, so James Pike's spiritual descendants are the Mayans. Go figure.

Here's Hendrix playing "Killing Floor" at Monterey:




3 comments:

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I swear that when I started this piece, I thought, "I'm going to have to ask Michael about how to order food in a Thai restaurant, because the level of spiciness is the most important consideration." I try to hit the sweet spot, just below active physical pain.

We have a Cambodian restaurant in the Cleveland area that is my favorite restaurant. I once went there with my wife and my son (she was my girlfriend then.) I ate so much food I thought I was going to be ill. My wife and my son hated it. They had to eat a turkey sandwich when we got home, but they took so much food home in boxes I got a second meal.

Anyway, I had learned to order "medium spicy" in the place. (For those who don't know, "medium spicy" in a southeast Asian restaurant is hotter than "extra spicy" in any Chinese restaurant with a "white people" customer base.)

It always came out perfect, except for the time when I ordered medium again and it was, horrors, only mildly spicy. When I complained, they explained that they got too many complaints the food was hot. But it screwed up my system for knowing what to order.

About Hendrix: I guess all rock star deaths are sad, but Hendrix's seems like the most tragic I can think of. Given the depth of his talent and his wide range of interests, it's hard to think of what he might have tried if he'd lived.

michael said...

Yep, the thing with restaurants that serve spicy-peppered food: the chef may vary the levels, even in the same restaurant, same chef. So the locally marketed hot salsa is more reliable. And now I buy different chillies and make my own salsas, experimenting.

With chinese food, I love kung pao chicken. But what a dizzying variety of ways it's prepared! I've never been in one restaurant and said, "It's just like they make it over at Emperor Tsin's Palace." And I know the areas of China have something to do with it, but in general, you're right: they think business is harmed by serving stuff "too spicy," so I'd say EVERY time we go into a place that serves Far East cuisine, we have to read between the lines and let the waiter/waitress know we're not your average wussy white guy. Bring the heat!

There's a kung pao chicken that features lots of peanuts and lots of whole red peppers on top. You have to ask for that; if you don't they'll give you White Guy's kung pao chicken, and it's tasty, but you don't get the endorphin buzz. It's not an event.

Have you ever had an extraordinary experience with very spicy food?

Re: Jimi: he's been such a presence in my life that I must agree: biggest loss of talent/pre-age-30 death in rock history. Still: his influence has been staggeringly huge, to this day. If I had to pick one guy alive now who was heavily influenced by Hendrix who, if someone asked who among the Hendrix guys to listen to, I'd point to Eric Johnson, although I've heard 10-15 guys who do the Hendrix "impression" better than Eric. Eric took off from Hendrix, and went in some directions I think Jimi would've gone in had he lived, like more jazzy open-voicings, a wider array but better control of effects, influence of sitar and other instruments, and a Bach violin influence.

Stevie Ray Vaughan captured the flashy, bluesy, incendiary Hendrix really well, as did a far-lesser-known virtuoso named Randy Hansen, who did Hendrix impressions as his act for a long time, not sure if he still does.

Who knows where Jimi was going to go with the experimental, multi-guitar layerings? He basically designed Electric Ladyland as a sorta 5th-circuit-inducing place to record. His dreamy, science-fiction-y stuff on Electric Ladyland, in headphones, is still a thrill for me.

And I don't see how, if he'd lived, he could have avoided playing with Miles Davis at some point. It's easy to imagine Jimi playing on Bitches Brew, maybe along with McLaughlin. We all missed that.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I have not had the kind of experience you described, no. I guess it's an incentive to push the envelope a little bit more than I usually do.

I think you are right that Miles Davis would have worked with Hendrix at some point. Davis always had a great eye for talent. Although I wasn't smart enough to come up with Davis' name specifically, that was kind of what I had in mind. I assume that a lot of interesting musicians, spanning different boundaries, would have wound up working with Hendrix. And because he was such a guitar virtuoso, I assume he would have been making important musical contributions for years, rather than the usual rock thing where a band/artist pretty much says what he/she/it has to say in the first 10 years.

You are probably lucky to live in a state with such a large Asian population. The Asian section of Cleveland, where I can be served Chinese food in a restaurant that has large numbers of Chinese sitting inside it, is kind of a drive, and it's a rare treat.