Chilli lover Marc Fennell is fond of a good yarn. So, when he heard rumours about the cut-throat world of competitive chilli breeding and eating, he decided to make it the subject of his first audiobook.
"An Australian chilli-growing family reckon they were cheated for a Guinness World Record because another breeder had an improper relationship with the lab. It gets, for lack of a better word, heated. There are death threats and everything," he told Food & Wine.
Fennell ("That Movie Guy") is a film critic, technology journalist, radio personality, author and television presenter. He is also co-anchor on The Feed. It Burns is a five-part audible documentary free to listen to on Audible until June 15.
His story begins at Morisset's The Chilli Factory and ends up in the US, charting a 10-year-long scandal-plagued race to breed the world's hottest chilli.
"Creating It Burns: The Scandal-Plagued Race to Breed the World's Hottest Chilli was a huge and profoundly odd challenge," Fennell said.
"I initially thought this would just be a quirky story about a few chilli farmers; I was then drawn into something far darker, more personal and challenging.
"It's a war filled with larger-than-life characters, sledging, broken friendships, getting high off extreme heat, addiction, BDSM, mental health, misguided spirituality and death threats.
"It forced me to explore aspects of my past that I have never really dealt with."
While following up the allegations Fennell fell down the rabbit hole into the surprising underbelly of chilli culture, exploring what attracts people to the pain of competitive chilli eating.
"When I started talking to people about the transnational chilli-eating competitions it became apparent that a lot of the people breeding and eating chillies were using physical pain to cover, or act as a proxy, for emotional pain," he explained.
"Weird, right? Many - not all - of them had led quite traumatised lives.
"I am Indian and was raised on chillies. This story actually forced me to confront my relationship with food. Since I was a kid I have had an unhealthy relationship with food - when I used to over-eat I felt defeated by food.
"Watching these people belt their bodies into submission by eating super-hot chillies was weirdly empowering."
It's the Scoville Scale that is used to determine a chilli's heat by measuring how much capsaicin is contained in each chilli's inner lining.
"Before chemistry and computers, they used to measure heat by how many individual drops of sugar water it would take for you to no longer feel the burn of the chilli in your mouth," Fennell said.
Fennell is a seasoned chilli eater but was knocked for six by a chilli given to him at The Chilli Factory in Morisset.
"He shoved it in my mouth and I was like,'OK, that's hot', but it was only when I was driving down the freeway home to Sydney half an hour later that it hit me. I was breaking out in a sweat, I couldn't see straight, the colours were blurring - I had to stop the car. It was full on."