Smokin' Ed Currie claims his nickname doesn't refer to the unparalleled heat of his world-record Carolina Reaper chili peppers—or to his time as an underground marijuana grower and breeder—but rather to the way he "smoked" on the drums in his high school band.
Now 17 years clean and sober, Currie no longer cultivates or consumes weed, though he does still occasionally get high on his own supply of hot peppers—if you believe severe intestinal distress followed by a major endorphin rush qualifies as a high.
"It's kind of like licking the sun," he explains to The Weed Eater, who wondered if Currie would recommend eating a raw Reaper in the name of participatory journalism. "The choice is yours, but I don't recommend it at all. It is very stupid and I am an idiot for doing it. Most people throw up immediately, regret it for a day or two, and then get mad and ask, 'Why did you do that to me?' Well, I didn't do anything. You put it in your mouth."
'I love having the hottest pepper in the world, but my customers love that they can get a lot out of it for very little. Bragging rights I don't really care about. I give all the glory to God anyway.'
Clocking in at 1,569,300 on the Scoville heat-measuring scale (habaneros score between 100,000 and 350,000), the world's hottest hot pepper has certainly put Currie's Puckerbutt Pepper Company on the map, and made him a household name among those with a scorched Earth policy toward their own digestive systems. The vast majority of his Reapers actually sell not to thrill seekers and spicy food enthusiasts, but to large food companies who rely on his weapons-grade produce to provide the kick in industrial-sized batches of hot sauce, salsa, and other value-added products at a fraction of the cost of less intense varietals.
Since earning the Guinness record for hottest pepper two years ago, sales have skyrocketed more than eight-fold.
"It only takes an ounce of my stuff compared to a pound of someone else's to produce the same amount of heat," Currie explains. "That's where the economies of scale come into play. I mean, I love having the hottest pepper in the world, but my customers love that they can get a lot out of it for very little. Bragging rights I don't really care about. I give all the glory to God anyway."
Divine inspiration aside, Currie traces his personal passion for plant breeding back to growing up in a family of dedicated gardeners. After working with irises and lilies early on, he eventually turned his attention to a more sought-after (and illicit) flowering herb.
In his groundbreaking book The Botany of Desire, Michael Pollan declared underground weed growers "the best gardeners of my generation." Like his fellow "children of the 1970s," Currie learned many of the tricks of his trade by working with the most fussed- over and fetishized plant species on Earth. In particular, he became interested breeding a weed variety capable of thriving year-round in Michigan's harsh climate by growing low to the ground and absorbing geothermal heat from a cedar swamp.
"It wasn't about the dope, it was about the breeding," he says. "Everybody thought cannabis had to be an upright plant, but it can also be a crawler. If you look at some of the native varieties in Thailand and Burma, they stay really close to the ground. Meanwhile, people don't realize that swamps put off a lot of heat, but I did, so I used the stuff I had read about the jungle and applied it in Michigan to develop a strain of cannabis capable of growing in the winter by taking advantage of that ground heat. It worked, but there was no economic value to it. It was just a really cool, fun experiment—and quite a strange experience to walk through the snow and find a bunch of dope plants."
Whether working with peppers or pot, breeders like Currie rely on selective breeding to enhance desirable traits in a plant by carefully choosing which particular examples of the species to cross-pollinate (typically by hand with a fine paint brush). To some extent, it's a science—crossing an extraordinarily hot male pepper to an equally hot female is naturally the best way to breed even hotter progeny—but it's also an art, as well as a bit of a gamble (or what Currie terms "a crap shoot").
So many complex genetic variables come into play when making these selections that nobody can claim to accurately predict the outcome in advance, and no amount of scientific investigation will ever replace trial and error. That leaves an awful lot up to the experience and intuition of guys like Currie, who don full-spectrum glasses, get down on the ground, and try to determine through subtle physical clues which individual plant in a field of hundreds or thousands holds the key to future greatness. And even once they do happen to produce an offspring with an off-the-charts Scoville rating (or extremely high THC production), it still takes at least seven generations of additional breeding before that particular genetic line is considered "stable."
These techniques all go back to Gregor Mendel and his famous pea plants (or even further), and have since been applied to pretty much every commercial crop that's ever been cultivated—with pot and peppers in particular locked into something of an arms race. Marijuana potency and hot pepper heat is so highly prized among true aficionados of each plant, and their pursuit so strongly incentivized in the marketplace, that selective breeding has now pushed both species to the very limit of their potential. Grow the planet's strongest pot (around 33 percent THC at this point), and the world will beat a path to your door. And the same goes for the hottest pepper.
'[Pepper heads] try to hurt each other to see who's got the hottest. For a long time I've been able to hurt a lot of people, so I've had the most fun.'
The Weed Eater, naturally, has been to many Cannabis Cups and knows intimately the glory and riches bestowed upon those who manage to breed the world's best weed, as determined by their peers. But what happens when a bunch of hot pepper heads get together?
"When we see each other, we take out a little bit of something no one has seen before and try to hurt someone with it," Currie says with a laugh. "We all support each other, too. There's a few people that are very adversarial, but the majority of us love each other, know each other's families, and pray for everybody … But we also try to hurt each other to see who's got the hottest. For a long time I've been able to hurt a lot of people, so I've had the most fun."
Meanwhile, even though Currie's personally been out of the cannabis game for almost two decades, he continues to maintain an academic interest (and a collegial respect) for what marijuana breeders have accomplished in that time.
"I've watched several people very close me die of cancer, so the medicinal properties of pot are what interest me now," he says. "And I'm very impressed that the cannabinoid levels [THC, CBD, etc.] of the plant have been raised so high so quickly without having to add a genetic modifier to them. Instead, from what I can gather off the internet, cannabis breeders are using techniques that were developed to enhance and change the colors of tulips in the 17th and 18th century. Which is really interesting to me … I would also like to see it developed as a culinary ingredient—like herbs de Provence—because it has a rich, earthy tone that tastes great as a base for soups or things like that. It's been many years since I participated in partying, so I haven't cooked anything like a pot brownie in a long time, but I used to infuse oils with marijuana, and stuff like that."
So will Smokin' Ed go back to growing dope if and when South Carolina legalizes? And if so, does he have a signature weed dish to share with the world—perhaps a THC-infused hot sauce?
"Once they legalize medical marijuana here, I probably know 30 farmers who have literally thousands of acres who would love to get involved. Not because they're pro- or anti-pot, but because it's a cash crop. But I wouldn't personally grow it because my signature dish was always more. It didn't matter what was in front of me, I just wanted more, you know? I'm an addict in recovery, plain and simple, and I don't want the temptation, but I don't see a reason why others shouldn't go for it."