Few foods frighten me. Chicken feet? No problem — a little gristly, but not grisly. Duck's blood? Not bad, if a little gelatinous. Beef tongue, tripe, chicken gizzards, sea urchin — you name it, I'll eat it.
So many foods seem frightening for cultural reasons — we just didn't grow up eating them — while other food frights stem from childhood.
But my friend Dawn Fader's story of her 911 encounter with ghost pepper gave me pause. Finally, a food that truly scared me. Did I have the guts to try it?
• • •
Ghost pepper isn't just hot, it's the hottest pepper found on the planet. At about 1 million Scoville units, it is about 100 times hotter than the jalapeno and about three times hotter than the Scotch bonnet.
It's so hot the Indian government wants to use it in hand grenades, so hot some chefs don't consider it a viable food. And unlike most peppers, the burn from Bhut Jolokia (a.k.a. Naga Jolokia), as it is officially called, seems to worsen as the minutes and hours go by.
Dawn, a cheerful 36-year-old Treasure Island real estate agent and food adventurer, tasted a smear of ghost pepper extract sauce this spring at Munchies 420 Cafe in Sarasota, where Adam Richman of the cable TV show Man v. Food was reduced to a sop-sweat zombie after just two chicken wings doused with sauce made with ghost pepper extract.
Dawn didn't even get around to the wings. One taste was enough. Five hours later, back home at 3 a.m., "I thought I was having a heart attack.'' The paramedics determined she was not in cardiac arrest and left. After another painful encounter at a pepper-eating contest in Largo this summer (she placed second) Fader swore off fiery challenges — until last week, when I persuaded her to tackle the Inferno Soup challenge at Nitally's Thai-Mex Cuisine in St. Petersburg.
Nitally's owners, wife Nit Jintaseranee and husband Ally Valdez, offer $150 to anyone who finishes the soup in 30 minutes. They use fresh ghost pepper instead of the more intense extract, along with about a dozen other peppers, including three varieties of habanero.
A pint of crushed pepper, seeds and all, goes into the soup. The soup costs $15.95, but if no one wins, rises to $22.95 and the jackpot to $300.
After four months, 19 people had taken the challenge and not one had finished a bowl. Dawn would be No. 20.
• • •
Except for the peppers, it's a basic Thai chicken soup with long, thin egg noodles, bean sprouts and bits of carrot and cabbage, 48 ounces in all.
"It's a ton of food,'' Dawn said as Valdez placed the soup before her. Dawn dug in, making astonishingly quick work of the noodles.
"They usually start off pretty well,'' Valdez teased. "The most painful part is at the bottom,'' where the seeds are, he warned.
After 20 minutes she was slowing down, looking pained and a bit haggard. So Valdez upped the ante: An extra 15 minutes and double the jackpot if finished.
She made an impressive dent but finally threw in the napkin. The challenge over, it was my turn to try. I filled a ramekin and after a couple of spoonfuls, my scalp was sweating, my face reddened.
A few more spoonfuls and my mouth was on fire, my earlobes sweating. I felt light-headed. I was done.
It was easily the hottest thing I'd ever eaten, but it wasn't Dawn's. "It's definitely not the hottest,'' she said. That dubious honor goes to Munchies, but the sheer volume of the soup and the myriad textures and flavors of the noodles, cabbage and chicken made it tough, she said.
We toasted to Dawn's bravery and headed out into the night. She swore off spicy challenges for good.
"I'm done with that kind of hot food,'' she said. "I think I'll just stick with good food.''
Chicken feet, anyone?
Tom Scherberger can be reached at (727) 893-8312 or email@example.com.