For more than two years, a Thai-Mexican restaurant in St. Petersburg has been daring diners to eat a nuclear concoction of broth, veggies and ghost peppers, among the hottest chilies on the planet.
The red-hot challenge was featured on the Food Network, and the soup has made it onto national lists of legendary food competitions, earning high marks on bestfoodchallenges.com and eatfeats.com.
The first 221 challengers were defeated by Nitally's Inferno Soup, the prize money slowly ratcheting up from $100 to $1,500.
On June 28, the Mount Everest of soup was finally conquered. The 222nd challenger, a writer and performance artist from Gainesville, downed what others could not.
Parker East, 28, is a Jeopardy! champ, and his Facebook page says he has been "a rare book dealer, professional gambler, radio show host, senior state staffer on a presidential campaign, and a North Dakota homesteader." His personal interests include "improvisational sociological experimentation" and "advanced psychonautics."
And what is an extreme spicy food challenge if not a sociological experiment as well as an exploration of an altered state of consciousness?
"There was a period right between the solids and the liquids where I wasn't sure if I was going to be able to continue. I felt like I was swimming on the surface of this gigantic lavalike pool that was myself. Overcoming that was kind of like overcoming claustrophobia or almost drowning. It felt like I was being overcome by my own body."
An altered state for sure.
East did his homework first, studying up on the many failed attempts on YouTube (not pretty). He figured that since the soup's key ingredient, ghost peppers, start sweet and ramp up their heat quickly, time was of the essence. He chose to swiftly eat the soup's solids and then to pour the liquids, via funnel, into a 2-liter soda bottle. Then chug.
According to Nitally's co-owner Ally Valdez, pouring the broth into a bottle was not outside the rules. He promptly wrote East a $1,500 check for winning the challenge.
"At some point we thought there would never be a winner. I'm still in awe."
Still, Valdez and wife/partner Nit Jintaseranee may be tweaking the rules at their restaurant so that the soup has to, er, stay down for at least 15 minutes.
"I knew I could drink the whole volume of liquid in 15 to 20 seconds before my body even knew what was going on," says East. "But then it was kind of like The Exorcist a little bit, only people cheered. That's why you have to take the challenge outdoors."
Projectile vomiting isn't exactly why the Inferno Soup challenge is now an outdoors-only endeavor.
Says Valdez, "We never had anyone barf in the dining room, but someone had an exit of another kind on a chair that we had to throw away. So we had to take the challenge outside."
Shows like the Food Network's Heat Seekers and the Travel Channel's Man v. Food have spawned a generation of chili-chasing extreme eaters. And the spicy food challenges have proliferated just as new varieties of chili peppers have been developed.
A few years ago the ghost pepper was the hottest, then at the end of 2010 the Naga Viper was named hottest by the Guinness World Records only to fall four months later to the Trinidad Scorpion Butch T.
East says spicy food challenges are "another way of expanding body and mind, mostly body in this case. It's about overcoming the mind. The bottom line is if you go in with full confidence and a willingness to do whatever it takes, you'll be surprised by finding what you're capable of. And if you're going to push yourself to those limits it might as well be a valuable experience on another level."
Which is where the $1,500 comes in. That money will help East complete a novel based on his nomadic travels from 2008 to 2011. Despite the payoff, he doesn't recommend the challenge to others. "Eating a lot of hot, spicy food is much harder than just eating a lot of food. The low point came about halfway through all the solid noodles. My stomach clenched up."
East was willing to describe the flavor of his 48 ounces of madness.
"Well, it was not a particularly good soup because it was a melange of peppers from around the world. Altogether they created a spicy mutt of flavor with noodles and hunks of chicken," he remembers. "It's not really a food. It's a poison more or less."
Laura Reiley can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow her on Twitter @lreiley.