Saturday, September 05, 2009

The Flame Game, Geek Style

By Greg Perkins

A note titled "Alright Men" arrived in my inbox from an old friend, cluing me in to a local tradition which was apparently gaining some fame:

You haven't got a hair on you a$$ unless you've done Flying Pie's double habanero pizza. "Man vs. Food" (on the Travel Channel) is doing it this Friday ... not to be outdone, I did it tonight (4, count 'em, four slices) while my co- challenger (not-to-be-named) managed only 2. So, the question is are you man enough?
He went on to challenge all comers to meet him at Flying Pie any time during the month and give it a go (August is the only time of year they serve this monstrosity). Another recipient quickly replied:
What a load of crap. Were you wearing a pink skirt when you did that?

I bet I wouldn't even break a sweat.

Unfortunately, I am busy any night that you want to do the competition, so I guess I will have to pass. Although, the record books should show that if I wasn't already scheduled for something I haven't thought of yet, that I would eat 5 with no ice cream.

Whoohooo! Winner.
In the end, there was just one fool taker for his challenge, so naturally my friend expanded his campaign of peer pressure:
OK, ladies, only [one of you] is man enough to take me up on this ... Once [he] and I get a time and place scheduled, I'll let everyone know so if you want to come by, you can see how men eat. And, who knows, maybe some of you will check your ovaries at the door and join us.
At this point several of us fell prey to his irresistible powers of persuasion (he's a lawyer). If I had to pick out what made mere words so effective, I would put testosterone poisoning at the top of the list, well known for its capacity to dampen volition. The better part of a dozen males signed on, but no females, which indicates a significant causal factor by Mills Methods of Induction. (As many females as males did attend, but only to mock the guys' idiocy.)

Alright, so Flying Pie will spread diced habanero on pizzas like it's just another flavor of cheese or something, and now we had a shared-strife male-ego-driven test of wills based on it. Being a certified geek, I reflexively broke out some research to see just how ugly this little adventure might turn... and what I might do to better survive it.

First Question: Just how hot are we talking? It turns out that habanero chilies have a Scoville hotness value in the 200,000-300,000 range. (My prior pepper experience topped out at the hotness of the jalapeno pepper, which lands in the comparatively wimpy range of 2,500-10,000.) The Scoville scale is based on dilution into sugar syrup until the heat can't be detected by a panel of five people, presumably selected by their high levels of testosterone. Bottom line? They are saying the heat of a teaspoon of habanero only stops being noticeable when you mix it into about 400 gallons of sugar syrup. Jesus.

Obvious Second Question: Can it harm me physically? The Scoville scale is basically a measure of the level of capsaicin in the peppers. Capsaicin is a chemical that binds to and stimulates nerve endings, especially in mucus membranes, creating that burning sensation. But it's only a sensation of burning -- the consensus seems to be that capsaicin does not itself cause any physical damage when you eat it, though exposure at high enough concentrations could cause irritation, which if great enough could bring "nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain and burning diarrhea." So I might hurl -- or come to more fully appreciate the lyrics to a certain Johnny Cash tune the next day, as the pizzeria staff was so helpfully suggesting we would -- but whatever hell my nerve endings might go through, I should come through it with at worst psychological scars.

Third Question: Any chance for a prophylactic... or failing that, an antidote? Sure, everyone has a prescription, and I vaguely remembered a Mythbusters episode that looked them over. Those guys can be pretty objective, so I looked up their results. The upshot? All the various methods, from drinking beer to tequila shots to coating your mouth with Vaseline (ugh) to eating wasabi (wtf!?) and so on are basically crap. They found that your best bet for putting out the fire is to simply drink milk. Others who study such things explain, "Milk contains casein, a lipophilic (fat-loving) substance that surrounds and washes away the fatty capsaicin molecules in much the same way that soap washes away grease." Sweet! I had my secret weapon: just swish and swallow a bunch of milk before, during, and after the ordeal! Maybe this would let me make it through an entire slice and demonstrate my extreme manliness.

So I called up Flying Pie to ask if they served milk. Then I asked, in my most virile tone, if they had a big, tough mug I could drink it from. Hooked. Up.

The evening arrived and we assembled around the table, eyes watering from just the smell of the peppers. I was still wondering just how much the milk could help... 300,000 is a big number. Then our official judge kicked it off! I was careful not to chew any more than necessary (why make a bad situation worse by spreading the capsaicin around?) -- so I was biting off and swallowing hunks of the deadly pie with my best horse-pill-eating technique. Hoo boy! The staff said that the "Man vs. Food" guy gave up in something like two bites, and now I appreciated why. Within about ten seconds I learned I should try to wash every bite down with milk, and to maybe do some extra swishing between slices.

And it was working! Two of us quickly left the others behind, downing slice after slice. He was doing the horse-pill thing, too, but he wasn't using milk. Damn, who is that masked man? Turns out he was none other than The Ringer -- a guy who apparently used to eat whole habaneros right off the plant while gardening. After I'd eaten about 8.5 slices, and just when someone was about to order yet another of the deadly concoctions, the fog of competition cleared long enough for me to see that he would surely go on matching me slice for slice (and staying ahead by one) until my already-full stomach burst.

So I gave my concession toast, ending the ordeal.

I could tell my stomach was none too pleased with me for this gastric offense, but I indeed suffered no ill effects. And I was finally in a position to verify that Johnny Cash was on to something... it's a fact: we don't digest all of the capsaicin we ingest.

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