The daffy nature of eating super-spicy food may be best summed up by the great Jim Gaffigan.
“I’m a man. I can handle this,” the comedian said at the start of his episode of Hot Ones, the YouTube show that features celebrities answering questions while eating a series of increasingly spicy chicken wings.
Two wings in, Gaffigan changed his tune: “I’m gonna die. Am I gonna die?”
The concept of intentionally consuming something that is extraordinarily hot is a puzzling practice. Why do people — and I include myself in this group — seek extreme heat, eating something that could burn their mouths, boil their stomachs and lead to overall unpleasantness?
For clarity, we turn to an expert: Kevin Crosby, a plant genetics scientist and Texas A&M professor. Crosby’s work includes developing new and improved types of peppers with higher resistance to insects, stress and disease.
Crosby helped develop a mild habanero in 2004, which keeps the pepper’s flavor but tones down the heat. That involved greatly reducing the amount of capsaicin in the peppers, the “pungent element” that fuels the fire, he said.
When I asked Crosby why spicy food fans go to painful extremes, he referenced reports that the heat causes an endorphin release in the body.
“The more you get used to it, the more level of capsaicin you tolerate, and cause your body to release endorphins,” he said. “And that’s a pleasure compound. You feel somewhat of a high. For people that tolerate capsaicin and eat more of it, you get used to it.”
Crosby has sampled what he considers the world’s hottest pepper, the Trinidad Scorpion. The Carolina Reaper is often referred to as the hottest, but Crosby said such record-breaking peppers are hybrids from one individual plant, not a uniform genetic line.
The Trinidad Scorpion checks in at 1.5 million on the Scoville scale of heat, and is four to five times hotter than a regular habanero, Crosby said. A jalapeno ranges from 2,500 to 8,000.
“You can’t eat the whole thing,” he said of the Trinidad Scorpion. “I had a student try to do that as some kind of a practical joke, and he ended up becoming quite sick. It will cause your body to typically have convulsions or cause you to vomit.”
There can be a certain element of fun with spice exploration, an adventurous journey to determine where the how-hot-is-too-hot? line resides. My only conclusion is this: When you get to the “My God, what have I done?” realization, you’ve gone too far.
That was the case in a memorable Simpsons episode. Noted science expert Homer Simpson drank from a lit candle to coat his mouth with wax so he could withstand Chief Wiggum’s “Merciless Pepper of Quetzalacatenango” at a chili cookoff. After downing several peppers, he hallucinated, and eventually encountered a space coyote with the voice of Johnny Cash. Like you do.
All this talk made me hungry — save that whole convulsions part — and inspired a little research with a few local wing establishments. I started with my usual choice at Wings ’N More, the Super Caliente wings. Tasty? Sure. Spiciest they have? Yes. Really hot for a heat seeker? Not quite. But I’ll keep ordering them.
Next up was the Blazin’ Carolina Reaper wings from Buffalo Wild Wings. This was definitely a step up in heat, and the spice immediately took over my mouth. It was manageable, but it did lead to unexpected pain. A drop of the sauce escaped after I bit into a wing, somehow bounced upward and — doink! — hit me square in the left eyeball.
Talk about a moment of panic. I briefly imagined trying to explain a hot wing as the cause of blindness, but a thorough flushing-out was successful.
A similar level of spice can be found with Wingstop’s Atomic Wings. This is eye-watering, nose-running kind of heat. It’s the hottest item on the menu, and satisfied my cravings without too much discomfort.
These options don’t quite compare to Pluckers, however. The chain has many Texas locations, but sadly the closest spot to us is in Cypress. Pluckers offers a strong variety, including a challenge that comes with its aptly titled Fire in the Hole wings: Eat 25 of those suckers and you make the “Wall of Flame.” After once eating 15 of them, I can confirm that this is not a good idea.
There is that downside to playing with this kind of fire. Too much continued consumption of extreme heat can lead to gastrointestinal issues.
That’s what comes to mind when watching YouTube clips of pepper-eating competitions. These brave weirdos quickly devour some of the world’s hottest peppers, but the clips don’t include footage from the painful hours that must follow. I can’t imagine taking on such a challenge.
But if there’s a big cash prize involved … hold my candle.