Hot chili peppers

St. Even’s Challenge

by Gary Allen

As night closes in around our virtual campfire, let us hearken again to the days of yesteryear, when giants strode the earth and men were men — even if they looked like women.

Twilight ZoneLong, long ago, in a tiny hippie-​​infested hamlet ninety miles north of Metropolis, strange stories from the big city began to be heard. At first, there were rumors of a fabled hot sauce to be found only in Little Italy. It was said that a young woman had been foolish enough to eat two servings — and had, that very night, been rushed to St. Vincent’s Hospital to have her gall bladder removed.

This was back in those delightfully naïve days when we were ignorant of Urban Legends. Such stories were still true.

The villagers could talk of nothing else. A vague urge to confront the saucy beast was forming in their hearts — or rather, they sensed that the beast needed confrontation, but no one wanted to volunteer for the job. They needed a champion, someone strong of stomach — and/​or weak of mind — to carry their banner “Excelsior” into the fray.

No one volunteered.

What they needed was a kind of Paladin of the Palate, complete with hired gums, to stand up to the chile-​​laced challenge. But what incentive could they provide?

A leader among them, a visionary, arose. It was St. Even. His solution: free food. He offered, as a reward, a splendid meal in Chinatown for the champion who successfully defended the hamlet’s honor, as well as for any witnesses who attended the contest. If the champion should fail, his dishonor would be punished by having to spring for the cost of the post-​​prandial feast himself. There was, however, one condition.

To claim victory, the hero would have to consume every bit of an entire order of the seafood of his choice, slathered with the hottest sauce available — yet touch neither bread nor liquid until two full minutes had passed after the meal was done.

The villagers heard the wisdom of St. Even, and it was good. They especially liked the fact that they would not have to pay for all this food.

At once, they intoned the magic words, “Free Food!”

Twice, they intoned the magic words, “Free Food!”

Thrice, they intoned the magic words, “Free Food!”

Before the last syllable’s echo died among the lofty Shawangunk mountains, a hero rose to accept the challenge. This hero always slept late, deep in the depths of a subterranean lair, his Fortress of Somnolence, but rise he did.

Who was this hero sandwich hero, this gobbler of glory, this trencherman for the down-​​trodden?

C’est moi.

The impoverished hero needed a backer, a fiscal second to feed the witnesses should he fall in battle. One stepped forward, and an expedition to Gotham was mounted.

Vincents Est 1904St. Even, at that time an emerging video artist (and today a respected professor of wine at the Culinary Institute of America), decided the undertaking should be recorded for posterity. The small army descended on Vincent’s Clam Bar (across the street from Umberto’s — where Joey Gallo had recently consumed his last plate of scungilli in a fusillade of gunfire).

The ground rules were repeated. The camera was set up. The order was placed. It was Calamari Fra Diavolo, extra hot.

The dish arrived — but a few cups of lightly battered squid— completely covered in a dark red sauce that had a slightly grainy texture.

The kitchen staff became interested in the proceedings. They gathered behind the camera set across the table from me, at eye level.

calamari_fra_diavoloI tasted the first crispy mouthful. Delicious, with a slow and thoughtful burn. A worthy opponent. The sauce, on close inspection, seemed to consist almost entirely of crushed pepper, bound by a tiny amount of tomato sauce and minimally flavored with garlic and fennel.

crushed.red.pepperAnother mouthful, and the burning slowly began to take hold.

The kitchen staff offered the excuse that some batches of peppers were not as hot as others.

A few more mouthfuls, and it was clear that this was not just a battle of strength — that some strategy might be required. I reasoned that if the burning continued to increase at this rate, it would be wise to eat faster than the acceleration of the pepper’s heat. I began to mop up the sauce with more vigor.

The kitchen staff nodded in Italianate approval.

They liked this game.

Sweat began to form on my eyelids. A little water might be nice, I thought. I looked at the plate. It seemed that as fast as I ate, there was always more food on the plate. While I had sprinted out ahead, it was clear that the sauce was gaining on me.

I ate faster.

The kitchen staff and the witnesses looked at one another. An unspoken understanding was beginning to form among them — if things got out of hand they would pull me from the competition.

A gall bladder, after all, is a gall bladder.

I could not let that happen. I shoveled the last of the napalm-​​drenched calamari into my parched and suffering maw. The plate was empty, the sauce mopped up and consumed. I was done. The kitchen staff was duly impressed, if slightly saddened that their sauce had not been victorious. I slumped back in my chair, the race complete.

Alas, in the heat of battle, I had forgotten those extra two minutes. There could be no bread, no water for two more minutes. 120 seconds. If I’d gotten this far, I could certainly hold out for 120 seconds more.

A roast, when taken from the oven, continues to cook of its own heat, the temperature slowly rising in the deepest parts of the meat. So it was with me. The capsaicin in my mouth was working on me, searching out the few remaining pain receptors it might have missed, twisting and re-​​twisting its chemical claws in my anguished flesh. I realized that the food itself had been a kind of diversion: by constantly eating, I had been able to move some of the sauce away from mouth. Now, there was nothing left with which to push the sauce away.

I swallowed hard, but it accomplished nothing.

I tried to swish saliva around my mouth, to quench the fires, but there was no saliva. Fear and peppers had made a desert of my mouth. Existential terror consumed me. Tears of pain and self-​​pity were flowing, in public, but it meant nothing to me. My blubbering nose ran unstoppably, but I did not care.

And then the time was up. Cold, refreshing water and absorbent breads were served. The eyes of the witnesses wandered tactfully around the room. St. Even and the kitchen staff congratulated themselves on their victory.

What victory?,” I spluttered.

You cried!” they explained.

Cruel ignominious defeat pulled at me with the relentlessness of gravity. I sank, like a drowned sailor, drifting silently into the despairing depths.

After a serious encounter, like this, with a large dose of capsaicin, the body responds by releasing natural opium-​​like pain-​​killers, called endorphins, into the bloodstream. A calm, ethereal bliss settles, as softly as snow, upon the person who had been suffering but a moment before. My despair dissolved into a kind of nirvana. Out of this trance-​​like state came a small, self-​​assured voice. I was distantly aware that this voice was my own.

It said, simply, “There was nothing about crying in the rules.”

The streets of Chinatown were especially fragrant, and its brightly-​​colored lights were strangely enchanting, that night.

Gary AllenGary Allen’s most recent book is Can It!: The Pleasures and Perils of Preserving Foods, his third book from Reaktion. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website:  onthetable​.us  

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