15 Spicy Facts About Chili Peppers

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istock

Peppers, or members of the genus capsicum, come in all shapes, sizes, colors—and spiciness. Learn more about the varied and interesting fruit native to Central and South America. 

1. THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF TYPES OF PEPPERS. 

Chili pepper is a very broad term. The plant is capable of mutating very quickly, and as a result, there are a ton of varieties—there are over 140 different kinds growing in Mexico alone. The environment also impacts what the pepper will look and taste like: soil, temperature, and weather all need to be taken into account. 

2. BUT THE ONES YOU KNOW ARE ALL FROM THE SAME SPECIES. 

Despite the huge range of species, only five are domesticated: C. annuum, C. baccatum, C. chinense, C. frutescens, and C. pubescens. Capsicum annuum is the most common of the group; it includes a plethora of cultivars both mild and hot, including bell peppers and jalapeños. The majority of peppers that you can think of all come from this one species. 

3. THEY'VE BEEN DOMESTICATED FOR A LONG TIME. 

Peppers are believed to be one of the first plants to have been domesticated, and chili pepper seeds from over 6000 years ago have been found in Peru and Mexico. Residue of the peppers has also been found on various ancient cooking tools. 

4. SOME PARTS OF THE PEPPER ARE HOTTER THAN OTHERS. 

If you’ve ever eaten a chili pepper, you might have noticed that the second bite is hotter than the first. Some people believe it’s because the seeds are the spiciest part, but it’s actually the flesh near them that sets your tongue on fire. The part of the pepper closest to the stem is usually the hotter part because it has the highest concentration of capsaicin. These components of the pepper irritate the skin and cause your mouth to feel that distinct burning pain. 

5. ONLY MAMMALS ARE SENSITIVE TO IT. 

While capsaicin may burn and irritate the flesh of mammals, birds are completely immune to its effects. As a result, birds are largely responsible for helping wild peppers spread by eating them and excreting the seeds. 

6.  ALL BELL PEPPERS ARE THE SAME PLANT.  

While the peppers definitely look different, all colors are actually all the same fruit in varying levels of maturity. The peppers start off green, then turn yellow, and finally red (but some of the time the orange or yellow is the fully mature color). Green peppers taste more bitter than their counterparts because they lack the same chemicals and vitamins that the more mature fruits develop. Thanks to a supply of chemicals like vitamin C and beta-carotene, orange and red bell peppers have a much sweeter taste. You may have noticed that these differences affect the prices at the grocery store. Jalapeños also turn red, but are usually picked before they're ripe.

7. BELL PEPPERS CAN BE PURPLE. 

Red, green, orange, and yellow bell peppers regularly line the produce aisle—but the mild, sweet pepper can also be purple! When harvested in the early stages of maturation—before developing any yellow, orange, or red spots—bell peppers can be a beautiful shade of aubergine, with striking white or lime green interiors. 

8. THERE'S A HOTNESS SCALE FOR PEPPERS. 

There is a very strict and definitive scale for ranking your pepper’s hotness. Called the Scoville scale, it’s named after a pharmacist named Wilbur Scoville. Scoville wanted a standard measurement with which to compare pepper hotness, but found the only way to do so was by human taste; the tongue could detect lower concentrations of capsaicin than machines could. To perform the test, dried pepper is soaked in alcohol and then diluted in sugar water. The solution is diluted more and more until a panel of five trained testers can no longer detect it. The more dilution needed, the more units of heat the pepper has. Mercifully, this method isn’t used much anymore. Instead, scientists use high-performance liquid chromatography to extract the capsaicin and calculate a corresponding Scoville score. But true chili-heads argue that this method understates the real heat by around 30 percent compared to the real Scoville. 

The more mild bell peppers fall within the 1-100 SHU (Scoville Heat Units) side of the scale, while hotter peppers like cayenne are more like 30,000 – 50,000 SHU. If you’re curious about what’s at the very end of the spectrum, the spiciest pepper known to man is called the Carolina Reaper, which can get up to 2.2 million SHU. 

9. YOU CAN PLAY PEPPER ROULETTE.  

In Japan, there is a type of pepper called shishito. The unusual pepper is usually about as mild as a bell pepper—except for the rare case when it’s not. One out of every ten of these will be pretty spicy. Generally, these spicy outliers are still less hot than your run-of-the-mill jalapeño, but they’re hot enough to make eating a batch a fun game of chance.

10. CHIPOTLE AND JALAPENO PEPPERS ARE THE SAME PLANT.  

The two spicy peppers are known for having their own distinct tastes, but that’s a result of how they’re treated after being harvested. Chipotle peppers are really just red jalapenos that have been smoke-dried. 

11. CHILI PEPPERS HAVE A LOT OF VITAMIN C. 

Most people may think of oranges as the best source of vitamin C, but really there are a lot of foods that beat its supply. Chili peppers, for example, have about 107 mg of the good stuff, compared to an orange’s 69 mg. 

12. CHILI PEPPERS' SPICE IS A DEFENSE MECHANISM.

Scientists believe that the capsaicin in peppers exists to keep infestations of fungi at bay. Insects like to poke holes in the skin of fruits, and as a result, harmful fungi can make their way in. To combat this, a pepper’s capsaicinoids can slow the growth of the microbes. Since birds are immune to the burn, it doesn’t affect their appetite and the plant can still spread its seeds successfully. To prove this theory, scientists have found that peppers growing in areas with a lot of insects tend to be much spicier than others living in more bug-free zones. 

13. EAT A PEPPER IF YOU HAVE A STUFFY NOSE.

In addition to making your tongue hurt, capsaicin can also help unblock your sinuses. While this is not a good fix if you’re having trouble breathing (please see a doctor if this is the case!), a spicy pepper can help open things up and relieve congestion. The peppers keep your mucous thin, and as a result, lower your chances of a sinus infection. While there’s some evidence that suggests chili pepper sprays help your stuffy nose, don’t go buying a bunch of chilis just yet: Most evidence is largely anecdotal, and some spicy foods can actually aggravate sinusitis. 

14. SOME PEPPERS ARE HOT ENOUGH TO "BURN" THROUGH GLOVES.

The Trinidad Moruga Scorpion is the second hottest pepper in the world, and while it was being test-harvested, the capsaicin levels were so high that it soaked through the harvesters’ latex gloves onto their hands, a first for the experimenters. The extremely hot pepper can be 1.2 million SHU, so it’s not hard to see how this fiery food could do some damage. Taste testers described the taste as something that builds and builds until it’s absolutely unbearable. 

15. CAYENNE PEPPER CAN BE USED FOR FIRST AID.

Drop the band-aids and run to the kitchen: A popular natural remedy, when applied topically, cayenne pepper can help stop bleeding. The cayenne can either be sprinkled on the injury directly or diluted in water and soaked into a bandage. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the powder helps equalize blood pressure, meaning less blood will pump out of the wound and it will clot faster. Some even believe that the pepper will help alleviate pain—something normal bandages can’t do. 

The $13,000 Epiphany That Made Orville Redenbacher a National Popcorn King

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iStock.com/NoDerog

Happy National Popcorn Day! While you’re no doubt celebrating with a bowl of freshly popped, liberally buttered popcorn, here’s something else to digest: Orville Redenbacher originally called his product Red-Bow.

In 1951, Redenbacher and his partner, a fellow Purdue grad named Charlie Bowman, purchased the George F. Chester and Son seed corn plant in Boone Township, Indiana. Though Redenbacher’s background was in agronomy and plant genetics, he had dabbled in popcorn, and was friendly with the Chester family.

Eventually, Carl Hartman was brought in to experiment. In 1969, when the trio had developed a seed they felt really confident in, they went to market. They dubbed the product “Red-Bow,” a nod to “Redenbacher” and “Bowman.”

The product was a hit regionally, but by 1970, Bowman and Redenbacher were ready for a national audience and hired a Chicago advertising agency to advise them on branding strategy. At their first meeting, Redenbacher talked about popcorn for three hours. “Come back next week and we’ll have something for you,” he was told afterward.

The following week, he turned to the agency and was told that “Orville Redenbacher’s” was the perfect name for the fledgling popcorn brand. “Golly, no,” he said. “Redenbacher is such a ... funny name.” That was the point, they told him, and they must have made a convincing case for it, because Orville Redenbacher is the brand we know today—and the man himself is still a well-known spokesman more than 20 years after his death.

Still, Redenbacher wasn’t sure that the $13,000 fee the agency had charged was money well spent. “I drove back to Indiana wryly thinking we had paid $13,000 for someone to come up with the same name my mother had come up with when I was born,” Redenbacher later wrote.

Hungry for more Redenbacher? Take a look at the inventor at work in the vintage commercial below.

11 Secrets of Restaurant Servers

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iStock.com/andresr

If you enjoy eating at restaurants, it's worth getting to know the waitstaff. Servers are the face of the establishments where they work, and often the last people to handle your food before it reaches your table.

"People think it’s an easy job, and it’s really not," Alexis, a server who’s worked in the business for 30 years, tells Mental Floss. She says, jokingly, "You want a professional handling your food, because we have your life in our hands."

Even if they don't spit on your plate (which thankfully they almost never will), a waiter can shape your dining experience. We spoke with some seasoned professionals about how they deal with rude customers, what they wish more customers would do, and other secrets of the job.

1. Server pay varies greatly.

The minimum wage changes from state to state, but for tipped workers like servers, the difference in pay can be even more drastic depending on where you work. In over a dozen states, if a worker typically makes a certain amount per month in tips (often $20-$30), their employers are only required to pay them a minimum of $2.13 an hour. That’s how much Jeff, a video producer who’s held various jobs in the restaurant industry, made when serving tables in New Jersey. “Usually, if I had a full paycheck of serving I could just put a little bit of gas into the tank,” he tells Mental Floss.

Waiters and waitresses in many states rely almost entirely on tips to make a living—but that’s not the case everywhere. California, Oregon, and Washington each pay tipped employees minimum hourly wages over $10. Jon, who currently works at a casual fine dining restaurant in Portland, Oregon, gets $12 an hour from his employer. Including tips, he typically earns $230 a day before taxes, and brings home about $34,000 a year on a 25-hour work week.

2. They split up tips among the restaurant staff.

Here’s another reason to be generous with your tips: Whatever extra money you leave on the table may be going to more than one person. If you ordered a drink from the bar, or if there was anyone other than your server bringing your food and clearing it from the table, that tip will likely be split up. At one restaurant job, Jeff says he paid food expeditors (workers who run food from the kitchen to tables) 10 percent of whatever tips he earned.

3. Waiters and waitresses know how to handle rude customers.

In addition to taking orders and serving food, servers are often forced to de-escalate conflicts. For many people waiting tables, this means acting sweet and professional no matter how angry customers get. Jon’s strategy is to “treat them like a child, smile, tell them everything they want to hear and remind yourself that it’ll be over soon.” Similarly, Mike (not his real name), a server at a farm-to-table restaurant in Texas, likes to “kill them with kindness." He tells Mental Floss he tries to “be the bigger man and [not] return sour attitudes back to people who don’t treat me with respect. If nothing else I can hold my head high knowing I did my job to the best of my ability and didn’t let their negativity affect my day with other, more pleasant patrons.”

Alexis, who currently waits tables at a family-owned restaurant in California, goes beyond faking a smile and makes a point to practice empathy when serving rude guests. “There’s a hospital near my restaurant, and people come there for comfort food with hospital visitor stickers on their clothes all the time. And I know then that they’re going through something traumatic usually. So when people are acting badly, I put imaginary hospital stickers on their clothes and try to remove my ego.”

4. Your waiter (probably) won’t spit in your food.

While most servers have had to deal with a customer who treats them poorly, they rarely retaliate. On the old urban legend of servers spitting in their customer’s food, Alexis says, “Never seen anybody mess with anybody’s food out of spite or malicious intent. I’ve never seen it happen and I’ve never actually done it. I don’t need to get back at people like that.”

5. Servers do more than wait tables.

Most customers just see one aspect of a server's jobs. When they’re not refilling your drinks and bringing you condiments, they're doing side work—either before the restaurant opens, after the last guest leaves, or in between waiting tables. “It could be rolling silverware, filling sauces, cutting lemons, rotating salad bars, stuff like that,” Jeff says. “It’s not just serving and you leave; there’s usually something else behind the scenes that the server has to do.”

Alexis says that in addition to hosting and serving, she has to prep to-go orders, bus tables, and wash dishes. "We’re expected to be working every moment,” she says.

6. Waiters have some wild stories.

Though parts of the job are tedious, servers are bound to see interesting things. Alexis recalls a husband and wife who were regulars at the restaurant where she worked in the 1990s; the man was later arrested for murder. “I found out when a newspaper reporter started asking me questions about them,” she says. “I’m quoted on the front page of the LA Times as saying ‘A waitress in a local coffee shop said they were a nightmare!’”

Other stories are lighter. “When I worked at Red Robin there was a lady that came in every morning and would ask to sit in the same booth," Jon says. "She carried a bag [of] stuffed animals (mostly dragons) and situated them around the booth, always in the same spots, she’d talk to them throughout her dining experience.”

7. Waiters hate it when you don't know what you want.

The simplest way to get on your server’s good side is to know exactly what you want when you tell them you're ready to order. That means not wasting their time stalling as you speed-read the menu. If you haven't decided on a dish, let your server know and trust that they'll return to your table in a few minutes. “Don’t tell your server you’re ready to order if you’re not ready to order,” Alexis says. “I’m like ‘Come on, I know you’re not ready. I’m going someplace else and I’ll be back.’”

It also means not asking your server to make several trips to your table in the span of a few minutes. Mike says that customers asking for items one at a time is one of his biggest pet peeves. “[Customers will say] ‘I need salt. I need hot sauce. I need another [...] drink.’ I was away from the table for 30 seconds each time. Those requests could easily be fulfilled in one trip to the kitchen.”

8. Waiters hate when you ask to move tables.

Next time you get seated in a restaurant, think twice before asking your server to switch tables. Restaurants divide their floor plan into sections, and each server is responsible for a different group of tables. The hosts in charge of seating rotate these sections to distribute guests evenly to servers; by asking to move, you may be depriving one server of an hour’s worth of tips while creating extra work for a server who’s already swamped. According Jon, the worst time to complain about where you were seated is when a restaurant is busy: “Sometimes this isn’t a problem if we’re slow, but if it’s a Friday/Saturday chances are you were put there for a reason.”

9. Servers work when everyone else gets the day off.

Servers have to be prepared to work a different schedule every week, work late into the night, and work on weekends. This can make maintaining a normal social life challenging. “My schedule can be troublesome, my girlfriend/friends have the opposite schedule as me so I’m never able to make it out on weekends or holidays,” Jon says.

And on the days many 9-to-5 workers go out to celebrate, servers have to wait on them. “Where I currently work I have worked Christmas Eve, Christmas, New Years Eve, New Years Day, and I will have to work on Mardi Gras (in the South),” Mike says. “I was leaving for work as my family arrived at my house for Christmas. I missed a New Years party in my house. If I hadn’t requested if off as soon as I began working there I’m almost certain I’d have to work 15 [hours] on my birthday.”

10. Your server might give you a free drink if you order it at the right time.

Asking your server for a free stuff likely won’t get you anywhere, but there is one thing you can do to possibly have a drink taken off your bill. If you wait until after your meal is served to order something cheap like a soft drink, Alexis says there’s a chance you won’t get charged for it all. “Not alcoholic drinks, but I’m talking about a cup of coffee or a soda or something like that, especially if you’re already paying for other beverages,” she says. “The server might get too busy or might not be inclined to go back to the POS [point of sale] system and add them on to your bill. It’s more trouble than it’s worth sometimes.”

11. Waiters want you to learn their names.

There’s a reason most servers introduce themselves before taking your order: They’d much rather you use their real names than a demeaning nickname. “Don’t call me sweetheart! I’m wearing a damn name tag,” Alexis says. “Sometimes I respond well, and other times no.”

And if your server doesn’t introduce themselves and isn’t wearing a name tag, Jon says it doesn’t hurt to ask. “Ask what the servers name is and refer them by name when you’re talking to them.” He says it’s “refreshing when a guest does this.”

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