Pain and Pleasure of Pepper

It’s there in Black and White. Lunching with names in the movie-tone news at a chic beach front restaurant on the Croisette in Cannes, I ask the waiter in my best high school French for fresh black pepper for my Salade Nicoise. “You want black pepper,” he snarls, “go to Africa.” Still, he grudgingly brings an ancient pepper mill.

In restaurants all over the world, before I can put fork to lip, waiters are wielding pepper mills the size of Mark McGuire’s bat, grinding and twisting them at my table. I’ve become addicted to hot pepper: black, white, pink, green, brown, and chili. Why do I love Thai, Mexican, Sichuan, or the Cajun Martini?

Here’s what happens: eat hot pepper, and fiery natural chemicals called “capsaicin” spread like wildfire through the body. The brain gets the signal and releases endorphins—a pain killer. There’s a natural rush, a feeling of euphoria, a kind of “runner’s high.”

From Columbus, to the Kama Sutra, to today’s medical journals, pepper has meant more to civilization than a simple condiment.

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