WHEN I WAS A KID, MY DAD WOULD POP HABANERO AFTER HABANERO INTO HIS MOUTH without so much as a grimace. He explained that he’d eaten so much hot sauce that his taste buds had been burned clean off. It scared me away from spicy foods for my entire childhood, not realizing that he could taste every bit of it and was, in fact, in agony.
I tried to imagine what my dad found so funny about the joke that he would put himself through that pain. But with a mouth full of Naga Vipers, recently the World Record Holder for the spiciest pepper in existence, I couldn’t exactly judge him.
Actually, I couldn’t do much of anything except weep acid tears into my shaking, snot-covered fists, waiting for the lava in my throat to burn itself out.
Food challenges have become popular in London lately, and the Red Dog Saloon in Hoxton specializes in the Naga Viper Hot Wings. Six chicken wings, slathered in Naga Viper sauce rated on the Scoville scale at 1,318,000 SHU. The Scoville scale is a measure of the capsaicin (being the chemical that gives peppers their spice) content of the chili –- a standard jalapeño sits at a paltry 2,500 SHU; military-grade pepper spray hovers around 2,000,000. You’ve got 10 minutes to get through the wings themselves, followed by a five-minute “burn” period of stewing in a pain not unlike electricity flowing through your entire body.
And that’s just for the challenge itself. They make sure you know before you begin… this will be a pain you feel tomorrow as well.
“About 30 people come in to try it each week,” said Wesley, the Red Dog’s manager, “and I’d say roughly 3-4% actually finish it. The average is only half a wing. Some people just vomit straight away. I think it’s the hardest food challenge in London to actually win.”
“Winning” the challenge, if you really want to give it that label, doesn’t earn you a free meal. It doesn’t get your picture on the “Wall of Flame” unless you finish in the Top 10, a feat that currently sits at just 50 seconds (the top time is a disgusting 21 seconds for all six wings). No, the prize for the Hot Wings challenge and a full day of gastric immolation is nothing more than a free T-shirt. So why do people bother?
Wesley explained it thus: “It’s definitely just a macho thing. Guys will fail in front of girls, come back, and try again. It’s funny too, because when girls do try, they usually do better than the guys. They usually get three wings in at least.”
My own wings came out in a perfectly innocent looking tray — it was the blue medical gloves worn by the waiter that gave me pause. He placed the food in front of me like an armed grenade, the sauce glimmering in the afternoon light. Next came a single piece of paper; a contract. Before I could begin, I had to sign a waiver:
I am taking part in this challenge and or consuming this sauce of my own free will. I understand that the sauce on the wings is EXTREMELY spicy. Red Dog Saloon will not be held responsible for any discomfort, misadventure, or unpleasant experiences that may result in consuming the sauce. Remember: the best hot wings always burn twice.
I had my own pair of medical gloves to wear for the challenge, so I wouldn’t accidentally rub my eyes and blind myself after the fact. My heart beat ever faster as I slipped them on, my fingers already sweating under the latex. I decided I’d shovel the wings into my mouth as fast as I could, and with any luck, I’d be done with them before my brain could even register that my mouth was ablaze. It was at least a nice thought, anyway, before I dug in, and the clock started.
In fact, I made it through only two wings before the pain kicked in. I gnawed each one like a barbarian, slurping the meat into my mouth while the more intelligent diners in the restaurant looked on and laughed. I made the mistake of allowing the hot sauce to splash against my face as I scarfed it down. After the third wing, I felt the spiciness creep across my throat and skin. This wasn’t like any pepper I’d ever tasted before, with flavor to compliment the rush of endorphins. No, this was Satan himself crawling across the table and bitch-slapping me in the face for thinking I could handle it. This was pure heat. My lips, slathered in the sauce by my eager eating, began to light up as well, curling like dried fruit in the sun.
The hiccups started soon after, each one sending more fire into whatever crevasse of my mouth had managed to avoid the initial fury. I gagged on wing #4. Coughed. Oh god. I was going to be the guy who puked lava all over his friends. How could Mother Nature allow something like this to exist?
The answer is that she doesn’t. The Naga Viper itself is a Frankenstein’s monster of a pepper, an unstable hybrid of three separate chili species, including the habanero and the Bhut Jolokia, also known as the Ghost Pepper, the previous record holder. Most of these freaks of nature grow in places like Mexico and India, where they form an important part of the local cuisine. But the Naga Viper came out of a little farm in the countryside of England, and breathing fire is hardly a staple of a Full English.
Then again, Gerald Fowler didn’t create the world’s spiciest pepper because he likes the taste. He doesn’t even eat them: “I would only try one once,” he told me, “I already know the feeling of pain.”
He does it just to see if he can. Because just as much as we all want to eat the hottest pepper, Fowler wants to grow it. The Naga Viper was in the Guinness Book of World Records, and his 10 Minute Burn hot sauce was banned from four different chili festivals for being too hot.
“The more chili businesses starting, the harder it is getting to get your little bit of the market,” he said, “so we have set ourselves up as the hottest sauce makers in the UK. Everybody wants to know about the hottest sauce, the fastest car, the biggest house.”
“All the growers talk to each other, but we keep what we are doing to ourselves.”
To them, producing the hottest sauce is as big as trying it. You won’t find the Naga Viper in many different places –- the Red Dog Saloon struck a deal with the farm for their food challenge.
I managed to finish the six wings challenge in a respectable one minute, 40 seconds. Then came the burn period. The spiciness of the peppers wasn’t even the main issue –- though don’t get me wrong, it felt like sucking off the Sun. But I was going into shock. My whole body began to tremble and sting, like the feeling of stepping on your own dead leg after leaning on your knee for too long. Every breath became a labor. My nose flowed like water. I had intended to interview somebody during the burn period –- both as a joke and to keep my mind occupied -– but a pepper seed lodged itself between my teeth and re-ignited the bonfire every time I tried to pronounce a “th” sound. I was reduced to a blubbering mess, left with nothing but my own decaying thoughts of whether it was worth it.
The Red Dog Saloon, Fowler’s crazy peppers… they work for a reason. They thrive on the fact that human beings simply love to torture themselves in the name of surviving it. There’s a flaw in human evolution that forces us to push things we know are objectively stupid. It drove the best of us to cross continents and oceans, and reach for Outer Space. And it made the rest of us get our kicks by shoveling fire into our gullets. Ever since Tom Berk (the owner of the Saloon) instigated the challenge, business had skyrocketed. The desire to do the craziest thing possible drives every aspect of the super hot chili business, from growing them to selling them to eating the damn things.
Time ticked down. 3. 2. 1. I gave a weak fist pump and reached for the milk, feeling its blessed cream cover my tongue and block the pain, if only for the moment. It would go on to burn for another 20 minutes, despite three liters of whole milk. It roiled in my stomach like snakes in a pit for another seven hours, until finally, strong as my stomach usually is, I hurled into the porcelain bowl and washed my hands of that whole shitty affair. If my taste buds had burned off at that point, I would have said good riddance.
But I could say I had completed it. And that’s the only reason anybody wants to do it in the first place.
The Naga Viper isn’t even the hottest chili on the planet anymore. That honor now belongs to the Carolina Reaper, weighing in at an impossible 2,200,000 SHU. And for the next idiot out there looking to prove something to somebody… by all means, enjoy the challenge.