Too Hot to Handle

26th January, 2010: Posted by G.L. Pease in Chiliheads, Editorial

It’s no secret that I love spicy, fiery hot foods. I enjoy the virtues of the hell-borne Habanero, the potent Pequin, the artful Ancho, the raucous Red Savina. But, even to the most dedicated hothead, it’s possible to go overboard; too much really can be too much! Ben Franklin suggested things be enjoyed in moderation. An experience with the infamous “Habanero Hamburger,” a few years ago, painfully proved his rule true, at least for me.

Some friends and I, dedicated chilephiles, had been talking for weeks about experiencing “The Hottest Habanero Hamburger in the World” at the now unfortunately shuttered Prince of Wales Pub in Menlo Park, California. Talk is cheap, we figured. Anyone can make audacious claims, but could they back this one up? Could they challenge the champions of Capsaicin (the chemical responsible for the “heat” in hot peppers)? There was only one way we were going to find out. We went. We ate. We were conquered.

The Habanero, a variety of the species Capsicum chinense,  though not the hottest chili in the world, is certainly no slouch, typically measuring about 250,000 units on the Scoville scale, the standard yardstick by which a pepper’s “hotness” is measured. Wilbur Scoville developed his now famous method for measuring a pepper’s heat in 1912, while working as a chemist for a pharmaceutical company. In his original test, Scoville diluted ground peppers in increasing quantities of sugar water until a panel of tasters could no longer feel the tingle when tasting the resulting liquor. The number represents how much the ground pepper must be diluted before no heat could be perceived. Today, high performance liquid chromatography has replaced Dr. Scoville’s cruder technique for the measurement, but the scale that bears his name still stands as the benchmark for evaluating a pepper’s pungency.

To put things in perspective, the common Jalapeño weighs in at a mere 2,500 SU. At something less than one-hundredth the potency of the powerful Habanero, the Jalapeño is a veritable lightweight. Even the formidable Cayenne and Tabasco peppers can only claim a measure of 25-30,000 SU, while the Red Savina tips the scales at about 450,000 SU, and the death defying Bhut Jolokia, or Ghost Pepper,  can top 1-million SU.

So, while certainly not the hottest, the Habanero is not a chile to toy with or to take lightly. It is a serious chile. It’s got attitude, and demands respect. It’s bright orange flesh glows as though some Faustian flames had already touched it, even before the pepper had grown to fulfill its demonic destiny.

When we arrived at the pub, there were no obvious signs to indicate that this might be a killing field for the foolish. Our first hint came when we approached the bar to place our orders. Before being allowed to order the burger, the bold diner must sign a waiver, alleviating the pub and its management of any responsibility for cardiac arrest or other injury resulting from actually consuming the thing. As added bonus, the burger came with the promise that if we could finish it, our names would be written on the wall as a permanent record of our bravery. We’d also get bumper strips so that we could proudly display our foolhardy flirtation with death, announcing to others who had shared our torment that we, too, had experienced the same temporary insanity, and survived.

Once we had signed our waivers and ordered our burgers (all but C., the smart one, who opted for the tamer jerk chicken sandwich), the folks in the kitchen, wearing industrial strength hazmat gloves, were called into service.

The burger begins with a perfectly good patty of prime ground beef. It’s then slathered with a house-made Habanero paste, little more than the crushed and chopped peppers, a little garlic, and enough oil to hold it all together. The patty is then grilled over an open fire (which seems almost redundant) and is then slathered with still more of the red, napalm-like paste. The burger is then placed on a bun, sprinkled with onions, apparently employed for their texture alone, since actually tasting them is highly unlikely. A layer of even more ineffectual lettuce is added, and a pickle. The burger is served with fries, and they’ll give you more sauce if you ask. We didn’t ask.

The whole notion of this burger is over the top, obviously designed less as sustenance, and more as a device to sort the men from the mad. It is said that courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to proceed despite it. My bold but fearful compatriots and I ordered a round of stouts to bolster our efforts, and to provide something with which to extinguish any fires that might suddenly erupt. It’s best to be prepared. The burgers and the moment of truth were soon delivered. We came to eat these things, and eat them we did.

The first bite was incendiary, but flavorful. Capsaicin has a tendency to be cumulative; the second bite was just a little fierier than the first. This is the stuff. This is “da bomb.” We’d found a heaven in a hell-spawned hamburger. By about the fifth bite, however, jubilance was replaced by the sort of panic that comes when you think your life is about to end. It felt like tachycardia would set in any moment; my heart was racing, my lips burning with more alarms than I can count on one hand. I was experiencing all nine circles of Dante’s Inferno simultaneously. The beer was uselessly applied in the only reasonable fashion; the entire pint was quaffed, to entirely no avail.

But, once set on a path, the courageous are bound to continue on their jourey. We’d get our names on the wall and receive our bumper stickers only if we finished what we’d started. We were on a mission.

Bite by tentative bite, we ate, doing our best to maintain our resolve, to be strong, to suffer silently. My friend E. advised that if we could get past the first 7 minutes, we’d be okay. That’s how long, he told me, the burn would last. He lied. Even now, from the memory of the experience, my lips sizzle. When finally we finished choking down bite after pain producing bite, the embers continued to glow on our tongues for what seemed to be weeks.

On the way home, we stopped by Jack in the Box for Cappuccino milk shakes, a feeble attempt to soothe our blistered palates. It didn’t help. We’d been bested by a fruit.

Finally, after years of chasing and enjoying the hottest of hot foods, tempting the fiery fates, searching for my very limits, all the while believing that no pepper would prevail, that I would always emerge victorious in my blustery battle of the blister, I discovered that my tongue is not, after all, invincible. I bow, humbled, to that most worthy of peppery opponents. I am happy to report that we all apparently survived the experience, got our names on the wall, and took home our bumper strips to indicate the fact. I suggested to the manager, before we left, that he have another bumper strip printed, saying simply, “Never Again.”


One Response

  1. What's Cooking at Flavorevolutions? Says:

    [...] (For something of a cautionary tale about just how far some idiots, that would be me, are willing to go for an E-ticket ride on the Chile Pepper Express, read the article, Too Hot To Handle.) [...]