He who controls the spice controls the universe
Hundreds of spice aficionados and day drinkers gathered in Brooklyn last weekend for the sixth annual New York City Hot Sauce Expo. I don’t know if you ever went to Warped Tour, but basically substitute peppers for pop punk and age the attendees roughly ten years and you get the idea. Lots of flames on black T-shirts. It was a two-day festival, and I was there on Sunday, which promised both the Guinness Book of Records Carolina Reaper Pepper Eating Contest (presented by a company called Puckerbutt Peppers) and a chihuahua beauty contest (here’s Yeyush & Renzo, the winners).
Do you like fiery foods? I have a pretty decent tolerance for spice. I have no problem with, say, chicken vindaloo or adding a few hefty squirts of sriracha to my eggs. I say this not to make myself seem tough, but just to add context for what follows, because I felt intimidated as soon as I walked into the festival. The convention center was filled with vendors selling bottles adorned with things like zombies, curse words, and scary animals (reptiles, crows, etc.). I spotted booths advertising Habanero Cartel’s Kill Sauce, Defcon Sauce, Cobra Chili, Volcano Peppers, Dirty Dick’s, and the aforementioned Puckerbutt. These are not words I associate with edibility.
I assumed there would be more elaborate foods to try—dishes that incorporated the sauces—but I was mistaken. Some booths had small tortilla chips onto which you could squirt hot sauce. But many of the sauces were to be poured (or in one case, dropped from a test tube) onto a spoon and tasted. In truth, it was hard for me to tell if a given sauce was “good” without being able to actually put it on food. Everything just tasted like varying degrees of vinegar, chili peppers, and sugar (which is basically what it is). But then I’m no expert.
I set out strong, asking vendors what they recommended. Mostly they gave me milder options, which seemed wise of them. I guess I got overconfident because I soon found myself about to sample Puckerbutt's Voodoo Prince Death Mamba. At least four of those words should have told me to stay away, but I went ahead with the “dark and sinister cocktail of spices and Ghost Peppers.” The bottle rated it four out of five pepper signs, so I figured it couldn’t be that bad. First it hurt my tongue, then I felt my face flush. Then I started sweating and feeling a bit woozy and in desperate need of something to drink. I realized why the Farmland Dairy team was there handing out pints of milk and squirting whipped cream into people’s mouths. Drinking milk in the hot auditorium sounded gross, though, so I went searching for something lighter. There were plenty of pepper-infused booze options, but I had to work, so I abstained. Fortunately the Pékant Tea Company (“a little sweet and a little heat”) gave me a sample of pear tea that just tasted like normal iced tea. The Ghost Peppers had probably ruined my palate, because I didn’t notice any spice.
I wandered around outside for a bit. By about 2:00, I noticed that people were getting visibly drunk. I heard a “[Borat voice] Very nice” in the wild. A man was loudly complaining that Heatonist weren’t sampling enough of their spices: “I don’t care that you’re on a YouTube show. I don’t have the internet.” I went into the bathroom, which was surprisingly clean, but then loudly heard one man warn another that there was no toilet paper. When I went to wash my hands a man was puking in one of the sinks.
As the stage was being prepared for the Carolina Reaper pepper-eating contest, I wandered over to ask some of the vendors for their thoughts on the festivities. What did they think about people trying to engineer the hottest possible food? “It makes grown man act like children,” Jay Turner from Burns and McCoy told me, half-jokingly. But then he added that since it gets more people interested in hot sauce, overall it’s good for both the industry and consumers.
Ten contestants took to the stage, along with Chris Santos from Chopped, and a man dancing in a Farmland cow costume. “On the list ranking mascots, the Farmland cow is the last mascot on the list,” the man next to me said. He then started chanting “Two percent! Two percent!” As far as hecklers go, I had to hand it to him. The official representative from the Guinness Book of World Records came out to carefully record peppers’ weight. His job, which seems to most involve taking extremely goofy things very seriously, looks like a fun one.
The peppers were surprisingly large, like angry strawberries. They averaged 1,640,000 Scolville units. The man from Chopped gave the crowd a pep talk. “Contestants are about to eat the hottest peppers ever known to man. That’s beautiful. Kind of stupid, but beautiful,” he said. They mentioned that the peppers are also sold to the military for use in a “deterrent spray.” To prove how hot they were, Santos made a big fuss about how much he didn’t want to eat one, which he did anyway.
I tried to figure out why someone would put themselves through such torment. Macho posturing? Or, if not that, it’s got to be a sex thing, right? What kind of person tries to break the world record for the most hot peppers eaten in 60 seconds? As it turns out, it runs the gamut from guys with YouTube channels (“Three weeks ago I jumped from an airplane and ate three of these in free fall,” one contestant told the crowd) to normal-looking women in flower-print tops. The way the contest works is, after eating, contestants must wait another minute, during which they can neither drink any milk, nor vomit. I got the sense that this minute is the real challenge. Some contestants ate well over a dozen peppers and others only had a couple, but they all seemed to be in hell as they stood on stage screaming and coughing and trying not to puke.
After everyone had their turn, the contestants left the stage while the Guinness guy added up their scores and leftover Carolina Reapers were tossed into the crowd. People, despite what they had just witnessed, were eager to eat them. I stayed as far away as possible, lest something get in my eye, but a man near me caught one. Within a minute he had his sunglasses on, presumably to hide the fact that he was a grown man crying self-inflicted tears on a Sunday afternoon in front of hundreds of strangers. The contestants returned to the stage eating pints of ice cream and looking absolutely miserable. Finally the results were announced. The winner was… the man who was already the world record holder. Did he beat his personal record of 120 grams? No, he did not. He only ate 111 grams—enough to probably ruin his week, but ten grams short of a new record. Saddened that I’ve still never witnessed someone breaking a Guinness World Record, I went home and ate an extremely mild grain bowl.