Peppers for sale at a market in Italy. Photo: Andreas Solara/AFP/Getty Images
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So hot right now: the peppers that prove there's a perv in all of us

My eyes and my nose streamed, it felt like someone had stuck a red hot poker through both of my ears and my heart was dancing a fast polka in my chest, but I also felt weirdly euphoric.

Maybe it’s all the fuss around Fifty Shades of Grey but I couldn’t help wondering recently, as I perused the pages of a website dedicated to oral torture, whether the human taste for chillies was as innocent as it might seem. The site’s jaunty motto said it all: “Your pain is our pleasure.” Lest anyone still be in any doubt as to the specialist nature of its wares, the names on the bottles were pleasingly unambiguous: “Pure Poison”, “Pain 100%” and, um, “Ass Reaper”. Many of them used the Grim Reaper as an advertising tool and came in coffin-shaped packaging. The most extreme stuff, the kind sold with a pipette for health and safety reasons, required you to read a disclaimer before purchase. (Don’t you just love a condiment which promises that “direct ingestion WILL cause burning sensations and panic”?)

Many of the customers for such niche products will be trying them for reasons that may fairly be described as ethically dubious, as another site wearily acknowledges, calling on “macho men, curryholics, stag parties, initiations, dares, show-offs” and “jilted lovers” to “please be careful if you are trying to stitch up a macho friend, attending a stag party or using them as part of an initiation ceremony” – advice that no doubt only serves to fan the flames of their excitement.

The reviews, however, suggest that a significant proportion of customers are seeking the heat for pure pleasure, pointing up the most interesting fact in all of this: we are the only species known to seek out negative sensations deliberately. You don’t see dogs whipping each other with sticks in the name of foreplay and you won’t find animals gorging themselves on wild chilli peppers (though birds, who can’t detect the heat, are enthusiastic consumers). A taste for pain seems to be one of the defining characteristics of being human.

Although it doesn’t feel like it when you’re eating them, chillies aren’t likely to cause any actual physical damage: capsaicin, the active component in the fruit (largely concentrated in the placenta, or the soft, pale stuff that binds the seeds to the flesh), hits the same receptors on the tongue that detect changes of temperature, tricking the brain into believing that you have eaten something very hot.

That knowledge is scant comfort when your tongue feels as if it’s about to combust. All young children are instinctively wary of hot foods – they have to be weaned on to them gradually. Chilli is an acquired taste. But why do we bother acquiring it?

People often talk about a chilli high, or a buzz. This is a classic no-pain-no-gain scenario, in which the body releases its natural painkillers, endorphins, to counteract the burning sensation caused by the capsaicin.

I can attest to the truth of this. Some years ago, a large supermarket chain introduced the bhut jolokia – described (at the time) as the world’s hottest chilli – and muggins here, as a serious reporter, was commissioned by a national newspaper to test it out.

Having stocked up on bread and yoghurt (and told my parents that I loved them), I grimly ate the tiny bastard whole, keeping it in my mouth for 30 long seconds before swallowing. Yes, my eyes and my nose streamed, it felt like someone had stuck a red hot poker through both of my ears and my heart was dancing a fast polka in my chest, but I also felt weirdly euphoric, in a fuzzy-headed kind of way – as though I’d narrowly cheated death, perhaps.

Was I tempted to finish the rest of the packet? Emphatically no. Nor have I felt the need for a capsaicin hit since. Perhaps, much like Fifty Shades of Grey, some people are just more into it than others. There’s nowt so queer as folk, as they say.

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 13 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Israel's Next War

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“We can’t do this again”: Labour conference reactions to Jeremy Corbyn’s second victory

Overjoyed members, determined allies and concerned MPs are divided on how to unite.

“I tell you what, I want to know who those 193,229 people are.” This was the reaction of one Labour member a few rows from the front of the stage, following the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory at the Labour party conference. She was referring to support received by his defeated contender, Owen Smith, who won 38.2 per cent of the vote (to Corbyn’s 61.8 per cent).

But it’s this focus on the leader’s critics – so vehement among many (and there are a lot of them) of his fans – that many politicians, of either side, who were watching his victory speech in the conference hall want to put an end to.

“It’s about unity and bringing us all together – I think that’s what has to come out of this,” says shadow cabinet member and MP for Edmonton Kate Osamor. “It shouldn’t be about the figures, and how many votes, and his percentage, because that will just cause more animosity.”

Osamor, who is supportive of Corbyn’s leadership, is not alone in urging her colleagues who resigned from the shadow cabinet to “remember the door is never shut”.

Shadow minister and member of Labour’s National Executive Committee (NEC) Jon Ashworth – not a Corbyn loyalist, but focusing on making the shadow cabinet work together – shares the sentiment.

Standing pensively in front of the now-empty stage, he tells me he backs shadow cabinet elections (though not for every post) – a change to party rules that has not yet been decided by the NEC. “[It] would be a good way of bringing people back,” he says. “I’ve been involved in discussions behind the scenes this week and I hope we can get some resolution on the issue.”

He adds: “Jeremy’s won, he has to recognise a number of people didn’t vote for him, so we’ve got to unite.”

The former Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett, another MP on the NEC, is sitting in the audience, looking over some documents. She warns that “it’s impossible to tell” whether those who resigned from Corbyn’s shadow cabinet would be willing to return, and is concerned about talent being wasted.

“We have a lot of excellent people in the party; there are new people now in the shadow cabinet who have had a chance to show their mettle but you need experience as well as ability,” she says.

Beckett, who has urged Corbyn to stand down in the past, hopes “everybody’s listening” to his call for unity, but questions how that will be achieved.

“How much bad blood there is among people who were told that there was plotting [against Corbyn], it’s impossible to tell, but obviously that doesn’t make for a very good atmosphere,” she says. “But Jeremy says we’ll wipe the slate clean, so let’s hope everybody will wipe the slate clean.”

It doesn’t look that way yet. Socialist veteran Dennis Skinner is prowling around the party conference space outside the hall, barking with glee about Corbyn’s defeated foes. “He’s trebled the membership,” he cries. “A figure that Blair, Brown and Prescott could only dream about. On average there’s more than a thousand of them [new members] in every constituency. Right-wing members of the parliamentary Labour party need to get on board!”

A call that may go unheeded, with fervent Corbyn allies and critics alike already straying from the unity message. The shadow justice secretary Richard Burgon is reminding the PLP that, “Jeremy’s won by a bigger margin this time”, and telling journalists after the speech that he is “relaxed” about how the shadow cabinet is recruited (not a rallying cry for shadow cabinet elections).

“If Jeremy wants to hold out an olive branch to the PLP, work with MPs more closely, he has to look very seriously at that [shadow cabinet elections]; it’s gone to the NEC but no decision has been made,” says Louise Ellman, the Liverpool MP and transport committee chair who has been critical of Corbyn’s leadership. “That might not be the only way. I think he has to find a way of working with MPs, because we’re all elected by millions of people – the general public – and he seems to dismiss that.”

“If he sees it [his victory] as an endorsement of how he’s been operating up until now, the problems which led to the election being called will remain,” Ellman warns. “If we’re going to be a credible party of government, we’ve got to reach out to the general electorate. He didn’t say anything about that in his speech, but I hope that perhaps now he might feel more confident to be able to change direction.”

Corbyn may have called for cooperation, but his increased mandate (up from his last stonking victory with 59.5 per cent of the vote) is the starkest illustration yet of the gulf between his popularity in Parliament and among members.

The fact that one attempt at a ceasefire in the party’s civil war – by allowing MPs to vote for some shadow cabinet posts – is in contention suggests this gulf is in danger of increasing.

And then where could the party be this time next year? As Osamor warns: “We should not be looking at our differences, because when we do that, we end up thinking it’s a good thing to spend our summer having another contest. And we can’t. We can’t do this again.”

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.