It might have been as I paced topless in a Wawa bathroom stall, occasionally doubled over in gut-twisting pain, sweat pouring out of me like a playground sprinkler, that I regretted the casual “nah” I gave when the clerk asked if I wanted him to take it easy on the sauce.
But as soon as I saw him slap the Mad Dog 357 No. 9 Plutonium — literally one of the world’s spiciest sauces — into the ice cream, I knew my day was over.
I pride myself on my ability to handle spice. I was born in Buffalo, the home of sauce-soaked chicken wings, and often joke that an oblong birthmark in the corner of my right eye is a burn from all the hot sauce my mom ate while she was pregnant with me.
I’ve conquered many a heat-focused food challenge and when I order wings, I don’t look at the menu. I just ask for them as hot and crispy as the kitchen is capable.
Still, nothing could have prepared me of the Reaper Roll, the fiery dessert behind the World’s Spiciest Ice Cream Challenge at Snobachi in Ybor City.
It starts, like any other Thai rolled ice cream, with homemade cream poured onto a freezing cold plate. Then, shop owner Jonathan Andujar mashes in not one, but two Carolina Reaper peppers, making sure they are evenly distributed for a taste in each bite. Then it’s the Plutonium, dolloped on with a toothpick in a not-so-scientific measurement.
For reference, the Reaper is the world’s hottest chili pepper according to Guinness World Records. It comes in at nearly 2 million Scoville Heat Units, the scale used to measure spice. Jalapenos measure between 2,500 and 5,000 units.
The Mad Dog Plutonium is nearly pure heat. It measures 9 million units and sells for about $100 per ounce. It’s a solid at room temperature and needs to be heated to be used. It’s brimstone in a bottle.
The sauce is mixed into the smashed peppers and freezing cream, then rolled into tight little tubes of death. Altogether, the ingredients combine for 13 million units. Some of the hottest pepper sprays in the world only make it to 5 million.
Contestants can eat the ice cream as fast or slow as they want, but after that the timer starts. They have to wait 20 minutes before eating or drinking and can’t use the bathroom or purge. They need to sign a waiver to even try. If successful, they get free ice cream from Snobachi once a week for a year.
Nearly 30 have attempted the challenge since it was first made available earlier this year. Only a handful have completed it.
I am now among those foolishly brave few. But at what cost?
Not even Andujar, himself a fan of heat, could make it through a challenge of his own design.
The cold, milky creaminess hides some heat at first, but it doesn’t take long for the burn to start.
It hits the back of your mouth, then your throat. Soon, your head feels as though it could burst like a cartoon thermometer.
My strategy was to eat as quickly as possible. That in itself was a challenge, given how solid the ice cream is. Granted, it’s usually filled with sweets like Fruity Pebbles or cheesecake and meant to be savored and enjoyed, not pounded like you’re trying to get the blue ribbon at a state fair.
I finished surprisingly quickly. Honestly, I was a little impressed with myself. I wasn’t entirely confident I could make it.
But the timer started and so did the real challenge. The usual face-burning spice subsided a few minutes in. But then came the stomach pains. I didn’t think to eat anything beforehand. That was probably a mistake.
Soon, it felt like someone skewered my guts and twisted. I imagined it’s what gyro meat would feel like if it were still attached to an animal. The sweat started pouring and I doubled over one of the shop’s metal tables.
After a little pacing and definitely questioning my life choices, 20 minutes was somehow up and I thought I was done. I won the challenge, but the battle raged on. My body had never physically felt hotter. I ran to the bathroom and took off all my clothes. The navy blue button-down I had on was so soaked it looked black.
A few minutes later, I was able to get dressed, but the pain persisted. I found myself slumped over the same table for the next few hours as customers went in and out without a clue as to why there was a seemingly passed out man drenched on a table.
Call it apathy or indifference, but no one seemed to care. I think maybe the ice cream, sans spice, is just that good that customers were hyper focused.
When I finally felt better, it was like my life was saved. I went to get a Cuban sandwich and wanted nothing more than the comfort of my couch and some food in my belly. Then it came again on the car ride home.
It took another 30 minutes before I felt okay to drive just enough to make it from Wawa to my apartment. I paced around my coffee table and writhed around my bed mumbling words of encouragement.
“You can get through this,” I told myself. “This will pass. It’s temporary. You’ll be fine soon.”
The Cuban Sandwich that was once a symbol of my salvation taunted me from a kitchen counter as I contemplated whether a trip to the doctor was in order. I had to choose between making myself throw up and phoning a friend for a trip to the ER. I chose the former, but it proved more difficult than I thought.
The peppers came back up like a flame thrower from my gut, which landed me in fetal position under a cold shower until I could muster enough willpower to get it all out at once. Only then was relief in sight.
While the calorie-burning, euphoria-inducing benefits of spicy foods are often extolled, some extreme challenges can lead to some serious health risks including seizures and a host of stomach and intestinal issues. People have been injured or even killed after stunt spice-eating.
Everyone’s stomach, however, is different. Mine made it through, but just barely. Andujar said most handle it pretty well, especially if they can get past those first 20 minutes.
There is an undeniable sense of pride and accomplishment knowing I completed the challenge and though I lost most of a day, life was soon back to normal. Plus, now I have some delicious free ice cream to look forward to if I could just bring myself to walk back into the shop.
And when I finally ate my sandwich later that night, nothing had ever felt better.
For a while.