How did consuming spicy food become a measure of masculinity?

Sometimes, the patriarchy pours out of an 8-ounce bottle of hot sauce.

Maxine McCrann
Hot Ones

The very first bite of a truly spicy food hit my young tongue as if a match had been thrown into the belly of a wood-burning oven. I was 12 years old and confused about a lot of things, but my current concern was the new, painful sensation hitting my taste buds. My father, a brooding, stocky, and truly masculine Haitian man, had given me a spoonful of pikliz (pronounced peek-lees), our country’s famous pickled vegetable relish, best enjoyed with seared beef on a hot summer day, Heineken in hand.

Aghast, I spit it out into a napkin. This moment in my youth marked me as the only one in my family that could not seem to handle spicy food. In Haitian culture, strength and resolve — like that required to consume spicy food — is seen as a signifier of your masculinity. And I had failed that task miserably.

Many people enjoy pikliz and hooray for them if they truly enjoy the flavor for flavor’s sake. But for me, it was a hard pass. My father said I’d learn to handle spicy food when I “became a man.” But as my tongue hung straight out of my mouth, preteen me wondered why I would ever want to. While cabbage, carrots, and garlic swimming in pikliz’s lime, vinegar, and peppercorn brine sound delicious, all I could taste was scotch bonnet peppers — the taste of what some of the less evolved of us would say is effeminate defeat. It’s not only Haiti that considers handling spicy food as a measure of strength, and therefore masculinity, it’s true here in America, too. How did this weird and slightly toxic measure of masculinity come to be?

There are a few reasons, and they reveal a lot about our societal constructs. “While there isn’t a ton of research on this, there are theories on differing personality traits between those who do and do not enjoy spicy food,” says Uma Naidoo, a nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of This is Your Brain on Food. She directs me to a 2015 NIH study that looked into why some people like having a five-alarm fire in their mouths. It found that men who prefer spicy foods have higher sensitivity to reward (when your brain releases dopamine, the happy hormone), while women who prefer spicy foods are more apt to seek sensation.

Let me explain the fascinating context: Men can be extrinsically motivated to consume spicy foods (outside of their own needs) for show or for validation from others; women may be intrinsically motivated to consume spicy foods for their own personal gratification. For me, the only reward my brain would register from a spicy hot wing would be if Roy Kent from Ted Lasso was feeding it to me. Could this all imply that men are peacocking when they dump a quarter gallon of Tapatio on their burger, and women just like the taste?

Well, another NIH study from 2016 looking at risk-taking behaviors, sensation-seeking, and sensitivity to reward found that those who intentionally choose spicier foods, presumably based on an ability to handle such flavors and sensations, had an overall higher sensitivity to reward behaviors. “But, interestingly, they’re also more prone to engage in risky behavior,” Naidoo says.

Imagine the adrenaline-loving bad boy who likes fast cars and spicy wings, someone like Adam Richman, the host of the Travel Channel show Man vs. Food. Richman has eaten rare delicacies, gigantic portions for one, and difficult-to-consume dishes like it’s an extreme sport. (Doom-level spicy foods make frequent appearances; he has devoured five bowls of capsaicin chili or chicken dipped in ghost pepper extract while onlookers cheer him on.)

Or take the show Hot Ones, hosted by Sean Evans. The web series consists of the host, a celebrity guest, and 10 hot wings. Starting at the mildest heat, they eat pieces of chicken adorned with hot sauces of varying potencies, one by one, going up the Scoville scale, a rating system that measures a chili pepper’s pungency and heat. A jalapeño pepper at its hottest is 8,000 Scoville points, and some of the nightmarish sauces on this show reach into the millions. This show reveals the true nature of the human condition through the tongue, the throat, and the mind. A 2019 episode with Idris Elba starts with some of that peacocking I mentioned. (“I’m pretty confident, and here’s why — I fear no one.”) The now-iconic video has garnered over 12 million views on YouTube and many millions more across the Internet, and it’s been memed to death.

Why? Because like me, Elba can’t handle his spice, even though he mentions in the beginning that he enjoys hot sauce with his steak and eggs every morning. One particular moment in the video, where Elba actively chokes on a hot sauce called Da Bomb Beyond Insanity (which has a 134,600-point Scoville rating), has been used as a reaction meme to shocking news and other comedic implementations.

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What the man who should be James Bond is going through can be explained by another small 2011 NIH study on the relationship between someone and their ability to handle spicy foods — that it’s a trait that is based on prior experience. Because brains respond to food’s heat by releasing a neurotransmitter known as endorphins, as well as dopamine, doing the hot chip challenge can equate to the feeling of a runner's high — or a more illicit high, at that. Simply put, the more spicy foods one consumes, the more they are able to handle them, and it’s safe to say that Elba only enjoys a mild Tabasco every morning, maybe. “This also suggests a slight addictive nature to these foods, which is consistent with reward-seeking and risky behavior engagement,” Naidoo says.

Looking at the psychology of spiciness is only one part of the story. To cover my bases, I spoke to another person well-versed in the intricacies of gender and its perception in American lives. “Because men have historically been seen as ‘the default,’ like whiteness, male feelings have been left out of a lot of conversations,” says Mona Eshaiker, a California-based therapist who specializes in working with LGBTQIA+ and BIPOC folks. She’s right: Going to see a therapist and getting in touch with your feelings is being vulnerable, seen to some as weak (and therefore feminine — to a gender-binary thinker, misogynist, and/or modern caveman). Men who only know to communicate their feelings through punching could benefit from a session or two, I bet.

In 2019, the American Psychological Association released guidelines about the mental needs of men because, let’s be honest, while everybody knows that men can be (and often are) the worst, we as a society haven’t been thinking of masculinity from the brain down until recently. Toxic male culture is truly an epidemic — men are responsible for 90% of homicides in the United States and represent 77% of homicide victims. They’re the demographic group most at risk of being victimized by violent crime, and are 3.5 times more likely than women to die by suicide. What the hell does this have to do with spiciness, I bet you’re asking right now? It’s all about behavior. Everything we do is evidence of what we are and need, and should keep from affecting us negatively. If spreading toxic masculinity through our words is definitely harming men (who then harm everyone else), let’s look at what we could be saying when we eat, too.

By the way, spicy peppers and hot Cheetos are not at fault here, okay? Well, not directly — it's our often gendered behavior about food that signifies the bigger issue. Looking back to that peppery pikliz relish, which I thought was pretty to look at but not taste, 12-year-old me much preferred another culinary journey: baking cakes. I remember announcing my baked frippery some nights at dinner. My family’s outer kudos to me on my artfully placed (and probably overdone) sprinkles, sliced and fanned strawberries, blueberries, or rainier cherries on top of colorful and candy sweet made-from-scratch frosting were dashed with what I read as their somber inner thoughts: “He’s a skinny, sensitive boy who bakes fruity cakes … Oh, no.” Once, a close family member asked if I “played basketball ever” as I served him a slice of pumpkin cheesecake I made at Thanksgiving — he knew I didn’t.

Instead of taking his slice back like I should have, I took his implication to heart, that sport could balance the femme parts of me. Micro-misogyny builds up, and I battle mine internally all the time. How we eat, cook, season, and otherwise behave with food can be a signifier of backward, rigid forms of masculinity. What else could make a grimace on my father burn into my boyhood memory of being drawn to sugar instead of spice?

“Being seen as tough and independent is being seen as masculine, right?” Eshaiker says, adding that a high pain threshold goes hand-in-hand with the action and reward of not flinching when taking a bite of a peppery wing in front of millions. “An ability to handle spicy foods has certainly been perceived as a sign of ‘toughness,’ across genders, and across many cultures,” Naidoo adds. Here’s more science to back this up: One 2015 NIH study adorably titled “Some like it hot” found that men who voluntarily consumed higher amounts of spicy foods had higher levels of salivary testosterone than men who did not add as much spice to their meals, and this correlation was not found for men in regard to salty foods. “This suggests that higher levels of testosterone, the hormone most commonly associated with masculinity, is specifically related to one’s penchants towards spicy foods,” Naidoo says.

In addition, research has also found that, particularly in cultures that associate spicy food consumption with masculinity (like in Haiti, where pikliz is favorably consumed by men on the beach playing dominoes), men may feel more pressured to go heavier on the hot sauce. And here’s the wild part — if the condiment is red in color, it might indicate a need to prove your masculinity in a public setting, as this 2012 SAGE Journals study linked increased testosterone in competitive men preferring the color red over blue.

But all of this is to say that sometimes people go overboard linking strength and worthiness (and masculinity) to spice tolerance. There is the obvious asshatery of TikTok challenges where people have fed their dogs hot sauce, which is Cruella-approved in its meanness, among other wild hot sauce challenges. Letting men figure out their emotions in these strange, primitive ways (through bravado, anger, or competition) is encouraging men to use them as coping mechanisms, which is a sign of male depression. “There’s so much pressure to conform and act tough,” Eshaiker says. This is how you get grown-ass gay men on Grindr saying they prefer masc for masc only. I bet those guys like spicy food.

“The reality is every single person has both masculine and feminine traits,” Eshaiker says. Since it’s more socially acceptable for women to express both their male and female sides, for men, it’s a threat to the status quo if you cross those boundaries. Repressing emotions is a masculine thing because emotions are seen as feminine, as is admitting something hurts, either mentally, or physically, while downing hot sauce that literally isn’t made for its flavor profile but for the pain it could cause you. This is all truly ass backwards construct, of course, because using this system, Idris Elba wouldn’t cut it as a man. And, well, have you looked at him?

My many identities — Haitian, American, cis male, and queer — combatted each other as I grew to accept my identity and my dislike of spicy-ass food, regardless of how strong it makes me look. And I’m happy to confirm that this is a good thing, both for my masculinity and my mind. I grew up in suburban Maryland, and Old Bay was the spiciest flavor I was subjected to most of the time, until that fateful day I tried pikliz. I did eat a hatch chili for the first time last week, and well, I confirmed I still don’t like too-spicy foods. I don’t have to like everything from my culture and that, and my distaste for too-spicy foods is okay, because I’m comfortable enough with my gender identity and presentation to not ascribe how much of a man I am to how much pepper my tongue can take.