Local banker: Peppers could revitalize agriculture

09/19/2011 12:00 AM

09/19/2011 2:53 PM

Pepper: Most people idly sprinkle it on their eggs in the morning, their salads in the evening and lots of foods in between.

Pepper: For Ed Currie, a Charlotte banker and Rock Hill resident, it is a commodity as coveted as gold.

Peppers, Ed says, can empower people. He envisions a new way of growing peppers that would renew America's agriculture.

Peppers, Ed says, may hold the key to curing diseases such as cancer. People who are largely cancer-free eat peppers and pepper-spiced foods, he says.

Peppers, Ed says, can also be a potent instrument of persuasion. He says he can increase the potency of peppers and grow them faster, thus lowering the cost of making pepper spray for the military and police.

His pepper thoughts fill large, three-ring notebooks; nine in all - so far.

His priority, however, is growing the world's hottest pepper - in Rock Hill, in Carolina clay. And not just one hot pepper, but reproducing it over and over again.

He may have achieved his goal. Ed is awaiting word from the Guinness Book of World Records that his pepper - HP22B - is the hottest, surpassing the Naga Viper, which claims the world's hottest-pepper crown with a Scoville rating of 1.35 million.

In comparison, most varieties of jalapeno peppers measure in the 2,500 to 5,000 range. Scovilles measure the spicy heat of a pepper.

Ed said he has had peck after peck of HP22B peppers tested with Scoville ratings in the range of 1.375 to 1.474 million.

His efforts have involved friends, people he has met at parties, Winthrop professors and students - anyone drawn to Currie and his charisma.

"There is a lot of energy that is drawn to this company," said Currie's wife, Linda. "I don't know if it's the peppers, the heat, the hotness.

"It's almost like a drug. ... A lot of people have invested time, energy, money for not much financial return."

Ed offers a simpler explanation.

He is obsessive compulsive. He doesn't sleep. He reads constantly.

"My drug of choice is more," he said.

This is a mission from God, he continued. Every time there has been a challenge, every time there's been a need, God has stepped in, he said.

HP22B stands for "Higher Power, pot number 22, plant B."

Ed claims no special knowledge.

His passion for pepper, said Linda, comes from his mother, Nancy, who was a master gardener when she lived in Tega Cay. "The pepper gardening still keeps him connected to her," Linda said.

To develop the world's hottest pepper, Ed asked friends worldwide to send him local peppers and a soil sample. He reasoned that the local soils influenced the taste of the peppers.

People sent him more than 1,000 peppers.

"I stumbled onto genetics that everyone had overlooked," he said.

He developed a nutrient that has helped the peppers acclimate to the Carolina clay. The nutrient, he says, allows him to grow peppers quicker and faster than normal.

The quest started on the back porch of his home near Cherry Park.

"He's taken over my house," Linda said. "I married a gardener. Now he's a farmer."

Seven plants yield 400 seeds. Now he has more than 5,000 plants and "47 species that are totally mine."

Ed had six friends over to sample peppers. When four of them threw up, he knew he was on the right track.

Others stumbled into the peppers by accident. He often takes a baggie of peppers with him when he and his wife go out to eat. Invariably, he asks if anyone likes hot peppers and usually someone offers to sample one.

The result?

"I've seen people drink a half gallon of milk trying to cool their mouths off," Linda said.

To get the world record he needed to have the peppers tested, a costly procedure. He then met Cliff Calloway, a chemistry professor at Winthrop University.

Ed showed Cliff his peculiar looking peppers.

Calloway was hooked.

"I knew a little bit about the hotness of peppers. I knew about the Scoville heat values. I didn't know the world record, but I had a thousand questions in my head. I was interested," Calloway said.

The chance to train students in chemical analysis was too good to pass up, Calloway said.

"I get peppers, unique things that have not been characterized before," he said.

His students get the chance to conduct Scoville heat analysis on the peppers.

"This is what real science is like," he said.

To market his peppers and more than 60 different hot sauces, Ed formed the Pucker Butt Pepper Co.

Ed and Linda disagree over how the company got its name. Linda says it was suggested during a family meeting. Ed says it came from a discussion of women on the way to a religious event.

"Someone said peppers make my butt pucker," Ed remembers. After a round of giggles, someone said, "If it doesn't make your butt pucker, it's not a pucker butt pepper."

The company name was born.

The sauces - with names such as Voodoo Prince Death Mamba - are for sale at Plaza Fiesta. Ed is partial to that sauce, as well as a peach mango salsa. He said the salsa helped him woo Linda.

While the Curries await news from the Guinness Book of Records, Ed continues to think of new products and hotter peppers.

On his list are hot sauces for ice cream, hot honey and grafting peppers to a tomato plant to create hot tomatoes.

And there's the quest to find a name for "HP22B." Ed says he may hold a name-that-pepper contest.

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