by Matt Gross
It took me 21.85 seconds to consume three Carolina Reapers, the world's hottest chilis. And it took me approximately 14 hours to recover from the aftermath.
Why, you might ask, would anyone want to eat even one Carolina Reaper, which scored 1,569,300 on the Scoville heat-measuring scale? (A habanero, by contrast, rates between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units.) Well, I had a good excuse: I was at the Second Annual NYC Hot Sauce Expo, a gathering of 45 vendors from all over the country that drew thousands of attendees to sample hot sauces from companies with names like Defcon, Dragon's Blood Elixir, and PuckerButt (whose owner developed the Reaper). I'd previously helped judge the Expo's Screaming Mi Mi Awards, in which we blind-tasted many hot sauces to figure out which was the best. When the organizer, Steve Seabury, asked if he should sign me up for the "Smoking Ed's Carolina Reaper Pepper Guinness Book of Records Eating Challenge" -- in which contestants would vie to set the speed record for eating three Reapers -- I really had no choice but to say yes. After all, I love chilies. I make my own Sichuan chili oil, collect dried peppers and unlabeled hot sauces from all over the world, and generally appreciate a heavy dose of spice in my life.
And so, on Sunday, March 30, shortly after 4 p.m., seven other hopefuls and I stood next to a stage, awaiting our moments of glory. In front of a crowd of hundreds of fans amped up on hot sauce (and beer), a judge from the Guinness Book explained the rules: One by one, we'd approach a table, on which would be laid three Carolina Reapers, each weighing precisely 5 grams. We'd begin with our hands on the table, and had to eat the chilies one at a time --everything but the stem. After each one, we had to open our mouths to the judge to show we'd finished it. Only then could we go on to the next. Finally, when we'd downed all three, we had to wait 60 seconds onstage to make sure the pepper stayed down.
I was number 4 in line. My fellow Reaper-eaters were a mixed bag: Some had prior competitive-eating experience -- one was Ted Barrus, known as the Fire-Breathing Idiot -- while others had entered as I had, on a whim.
The competition began. The first guy tore through the chilies in what seemed like 15 seconds, total. So did the second guy. And the third. This was nuts. I knew how hot those Reapers were, and I knew I could probably take the heat, but I hadn't entered an eating competition since the pie-eating contest at computer camp when I was 11. (I won.) Still, as the third competitor left the stage and I ascended the stairs, I made a decision. Steve Seabury, the emcee, introduced me, and I said into the mic: "I'm just here to enjoy them."
And enjoy them I did -- for a few seconds. There they lay on the table, three small, intensely red chilies about the size of habaneros, two with stems, one without. They didn't look so dangerous --
A buzzer went off. Or someone said go. And all I knew next was that I was eating chilies. Chew, chew, chew, swallow. Stick out my tongue and show the judge. On to the next one. Were these hot? How did they taste? Who knows? I was eating, swallowing, eating, swallowing -- and then it was over. I'd finished. Now all I had to do was wait 60 seconds. Onstage. With hundreds of people watching my every move.
Which is when I noticed the heat starting to get to me. Dots of sweat started breaking out under my eyes, and then on my forehead. The burning began -- not in the front of my mouth, where the capsaicin would have been had I really, really chewed the Reapers -- but in my throat, where the fiery flurry had flowed. I danced a little jig. I waved at everyone. I theatrically brushed my brow.
Now my throat was really beginning to swell up -- and painfully. I had a half-bottle of water in my bag. I drank it down. Other competitors employed other coolants: milk, soda, olive oil, yogurt drinks. (One guy actually sprinted to the bathroom to throw up: "I have a delicate stomach," he explained.) Not me. And not just because I'm lactose-intolerant. This was pain I could take, pain I could savor. I could get through this -- all I had to do was wait.
And really, all I had to do was wait five or six minutes for the heat to reach a peak. After that, the pain and swelling began to subside, and the endorphin rush began to kick in. I felt great. No: I FELT GREAT! I was bouncing around, full of energy, talking to anyone and everyone I could. Those who didn't enter the competition expressed wonder and admiration that I'd even tried. (Also, one woman said: "You're from Bon Appétit? That's awesome!") When they announced the winner, who'd finished in just over 12 seconds, I didn't care that I'd come in eighth. I was one of the few, the proud, the foolhardy. Did you eat three Carolina Reapers yesterday? I didn't think so.
This feeling of elation last approximately one hour. Sometime after 5:30, I began to notice a burning sensation just beneath my sternum. Strange, I thought: Why did it take so long for this to begin? Slowly, it began to grow in intensity, but still I thought nothing of it. I'd just eaten three of the world's hottest chilies, after all. But then, as I left the expo and descended into Penn Station to catch the subway home to Brooklyn, it got worse. Much worse. My breathing became labored. I broke out in a cold sweat. I was hunched over, taking baby steps through the station. Finally, I had to pause, and sat on a ledge. To my right, a homeless man in a similar posture of misery. To my left, the same thing. The smell was not good. And yet all I wanted to do was curl up there on the ground and wait it out.
Summoning all my energy, I lurched forward until I found a men's room, and stumbled into a stall, hoping to throw up and be done with this torture. And yet nothing came. Here, I thought, I would die, in the bowels of Penn Station -- there's no worse way to go.
And yet I waited, and the feeling passed. I walked back out, made it to the A train, and read an essay about Marfa, Texas, on a fairly pleasant ride back to Brooklyn. Once outside, however, the searing pain began again. It was like a white hot ball of nickel implanted just above my stomach -- and again it made me want to stop in my tracks and lie down on the rain-drenched sidewalk till it passed.
Somehow, I made it home, warned my wife I was feeling out of sorts, and collapsed into bed -- where, until the next morning, I lay in utmost discomfort. I'd be on my back, the pain would dissipate, and I'd be able to sleep for an hour or two. But then -- oh the burning! My wife fed me whole-milk yogurt and plain bread, but nothing helped, and she worried the Reapers were literally burning a hole in my stomach. Don't worry, I croaked. I'll be okay.
Finally, at 2:30 a.m., I woke up and realized what many of you probably understood long ago: This was heartburn. Really, really, really, really, really bad heartburn -- the kind whose symptoms are almost the same as a heart attack's -- but just heartburn all along. What can I say? I'd never had heartburn before, so I didn't know what it was like.
But now, with that knowledge at hand, I googled natural heartburn remedies (it was too late to go out to a pharmacy) and found one I could make at home: 1 teaspoon of baking soda dissolved in a glass of water. I drank it down (mm, slightly sour!) and within 5 minutes felt my symptoms relent. I slept another two hours, repeated the treatment, and got out of bed at 7 this morning as good as new.
Do I regret this? Not at all! Now I know not only the symptoms of severe heartburn but also those of a heart attack. Also, I am not dead, or any longer in pain. What's to regret? A few (okay, a dozen) hours of misery after 90 minutes of joy?
Would I do it again? Oh my god, no. Are you kidding? My wife made me promise I'd never eat three Carolina Reapers ever again. Or was it that I'd never attempt a Guinness World Record for chli-eating? Something like that. What I am pretty sure of, however, is that I in no way promised never to attend (or enter) the Naga King Chili-Eating Competition, held in the tribal areas of far northeastern India. If I do end up there, of course, I'm bringing Tums.
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