How Hot Was it?

By Cheryl Chapman / The Dallas Morning News


Our "How Hot Was it?" contest turned up three general truths in the roll-on-the-floor tales:

Chileheads and hot-stuff lovers are a proud, cosmopolitan crowd.

They get themselves in trouble worldwide and in the home kitchen alike.

And vindictive? Squashing an enemy doesn't begin to match the thrill of watching a dear friend tie into a deceptively innocent dish, and if it's a beloved relative - even better.

Here then are the winners and others, who wrote to tell us about chilies, wasabi, horseradish and more that was so hot it ... well, read on.

Winner: SUSHI SHOCK

Wasabi - it'll burn you every time. One reader thought the green horseradish paste was guacamole. John Briggs of Oak Cliff mistook it for a "blob of ground green salad" and swallowed a big fat bite.

"I sneezed convulsively, bits of green flying from my nose. My lower partial jarred loose. My upper palate rose to meet my nares. I clutched for water, salt, 911 and an old family amulet - all to no avail."

AN INFERNO. SERIOUSLY.

The place: a New York restaurant. The sauce: Dave's Insanity.

No mere hot sauce, it had been offered as a replacement for the pepper vinegar that Flower Mound resident Debbie Quinn liked on her collard greens. With just a "dot" of the sauce, her mouth began to melt down.

"I could feel the inferno roar past my tongue and up into my nose and out my ears. I turned to look at my watering-eyed friend who . . . was most impressed as he was almost literally on fire. If not for the sweating, we would have been consumed by flames."

But here's the spooky part: Later, the restaurant burned down.

"We suspect it was the sauce," she says.

HE TAKES IT WITH A TWIST

It's the seeds that are hot, not the pepper, Dennis Sun of Plano reassured his friends as they dined at a Vietnamese restaurant. "Prove it to us," they demanded. Pride at stake, he scraped away the seeds and popped the pepper into his mouth - unaware that the restaurant had marinated the pepper in its own fearsome brew. Cruel, cruel, his friends laughed.

"I tried wiping my tongue down with napkins but to no avail. (All you get are little napkin balls in your mouth.) My glass had a wee bit of water left but before I could gulp it down, someone suggested I squeeze some lemon into it. So I gather what strength I have left to squeeze some lemon into my glass and, as poetic injustice would have it, I miss the glass. Instead, that stream of citric acid-enhanced liquid squirts right into my eye. Aaaarrrgghhh!"

TRICK OR TREAT

Now, what was the cute nickname Carl Wolfe, of Clarksville, Texas, gave his farmer friend from Iowa? Ah, yes. "Sod Buster." Mr. Wolfe and Sod Buster met for a drink at a favorite watering hole when Sod Buster spotted a half dozen habanero peppers given to Mr. Wolfe by a friend.

What do you intend to do with those little pumpkins, Sod Buster asked. Those aren't pumpkins, they're hot peppers, said Mr. Wolfe.

"I can eat anything you Texans can," said Sod Buster, swallowing an entire habanero. Suddenly, he began to sweat. He gasped for air. He begged for ice water. And as far as Mr. Wolfe knows, that was the first and last experience Sod Buster ever had with the "little pumpkins."

Winner: AMERICAN FOOD, AT LAST

After five weeks in Korea, Rajiv Roy of Plano took a two-hour train trip to Seoul for a taste of home - Pizza Hut. On the menu was a "Three Pepper Pizza" that sounded "intriguing."

Surprise!

"It was as if someone had grabbed a hold of my tongue with spiked gloves, pulled it out of my face and lay it flat on the table, then methodically proceeded to make tiny slits with an X-Acto knife, pour salt in the wounds and dance on my tongue with hob-nailed boots. They then rolled it back up and put it back in my face and clamped down on my head and up below my chin so that I would not scream."

The Pizza Hut crew took pity on him and splashed pitchers of iced tea in his face.

Winner: THE DANGERS OF SLURPING

Russell Fenton is a Dallas restaurant consultant - an expert - so he felt comfortable taking his fiancee to Thai Thai, where he urged her to "eat like the Thai do."

"Slurping my pud Thai in the tradition of the region, the noodles I was sucking up flung into my face and whipped into my eyes. I was immediately blinded with searing pain! I jumped away from the table, spilling my water (which I now seriously needed) and fled/stumbled to the restroom to flush my eyes. After a few minutes of splashing, I was still in pain, but I could see again and what I could see was that I was in the women's restroom."

For Mr. Fenton, the moral was: Eat Thai food with a fork.

Honorable mention: The things we do for love

An Honorable Mention goes to Jimmie Wade, husband of Beverly, of Lawton, Okla. She was making a pepper relish from a "seemingly innocent recipe" that called for seeding and grinding two dozen jalapeno peppers.

"My fingernails started to sting, but not to worry, I could just wash away the pain when I was finished. As I washed and washed and washed, my fingernails became burning embers of coal. I called the doctor, and he said the only thing I could do was to suck the pepper juice out from under my fingernails. My beloved husband, Jimmie, sucked the juice out from under my fingernails; however, he did breathe fire for the rest of the weekend."

Winner: Dentists are fun

A romantic dinner at a Thai restaurant with her then-husband became "Dante's Inferno" for Janis Baldwin of Dallas. She pulled out all the stops: sequined dress, corsage, champagne. When dinner arrived, she took a bite of chicken. At least, she thought it was chicken.

"Sweat began dripping from my scalp onto the fine linen tablecloth. I could no longer hear. The room began to spin. I excused myself and lurched, unsteadily, towards the ladies' room. . . . The pepper catapulted what seemed like everything I had ever eaten in my whole life either into the toilet or the wastebasket. At that moment, I would have gladly traded places with Dustin Hoffman in the tooth-drilling scene in The Marathon Man. . . . I don't know what happened to the wastebasket."

Winner: Vesuvius comes to mind

Delores Boyd of Dallas struggles to convey her delicate tale without being obscene. It began with a sauce her coworker brought in, one made with Japanese chilies. Ms. Boyd found it irresistible. She brought it home. She finished the jar.

Five minutes after she went to bed, "it started."

"The interior section of my body gradually started to pulsate with a burning sensation. I immediately decided to retreat to the powder room and have a rest. Good decision, as I had no more secluded myself when 'it' erupted. 'It' wasn't a gradual release, rather a 'full speed ahead' volcanic blast. . . . The rear appendage of my frame was the color, the feel and the texture of a funeral pyre. What was I to do? I retired on my bed, face down and, with the ceiling fan full blast, exposed the area in question and prayed."

Unholy guacamole

Pam Williams of Durant, Okla., makes regular pilgrimages to Fort Worth for ballet performances and brunch at the Worthington.

"We don't see much sushi here in Durant. So when I spied the lovely green mountain of guacamole-looking stuff, I put a dollop on the plate." Then she took a big bite.

"I know I cried, I gasped, I perspired and I needed a Depends, but I learned a valuable lesson. Never, ever, will I eat anything without some guidance."

That does not mean, however, that she will offer it to others.

About a month later, Ms. Williams took a friend to brunch, and "darned if I didn't let him do the exact same thing. Unfortunately, he had a more violent reaction than I did, and he really frightened us. I did manage to overcome my fear, once I realized he'd survive. I laughed shamelessly."

Legend of tender tongues

Language exposes people to more experience than they expect, as Ed Bug discovered.

"My family grew up eating great food, but since my mother is from Boston and thinks that oregano is 'spicy,' we weren't exposed to the wonders of ethnic food until we left for college."

He, his brother and some friends decided to check out a new Indian restaurant in Austin, and the two siblings ordered the same dish. They "sweated and gasped for breath and panted and got as red in the face as the Tandoori chicken. We tried drinking milk, wine and vodka to wash away the pain. We listened to every crackpot cure for Firemouth from everyone else at the table, even rubbing packetsful of sugar on our tongues.

"Someone at the table finally said, 'Well, that's how you ordered it.' "

"No," we said. "When the waiter asked, 'Spicy or as it is?' we got 'as it is.' "

"No, guys," someone said. "He said, 'Spicy or HAZARDOUS.' "

How good was it?

Tabasco is a staple at Mert Davis' house in Garland, and he's always on the lookout for something new and incendiary. He found both last year in a tiny shop across the alley from San Antonio's Menger Hotel, a shop that encouraged him to sample an array of hot sauces.

The clerk dipped a toothpick into Endorphin Rush and touched the tip of his tongue.

"The rocket was launched!" he says. "Intense burn, forehead sweat, nose run, eyes water, lips tingle, mouth go numb. Intense sensations that said, 'I'm alive!'

"This was almost as good as sex.

"Thirty minutes and an ice cream cone later, I . . . returned to the shop and bought a bottle."

Dragon mouth

Lyn Walding of Brownsboro, Texas, recalls a trip to Mexico City as a very young woman, and a date with an older man, suave, sophisticated and debonair.

He took her to an upscale Chinese restaurant, and she sniffled her way through the menu. ("I had a head cold, of all things, and had not drawn a full breath for four days.")

"When the appetizers arrived, I reached for an egg roll and rolled it around, deep into that delightful-looking yellow sauce. I'll never forget the look of horror on his face as he reached out and tried to grab my hand. I heard him say 'NOOOOOOOOOOOooo.'

"Too late! The delightful-looking yellow sauce had already found its target. It was well on its way down my unsuspecting throat before the realization hit.

"I slugged down my wine, my water, his beer, his water and a glass of water from a neighboring table. I coughed. I gagged. I sneezed. I cried. I breathed fire back at the dragon on the wall.

"And miracle of miracles, I breathed! For the first time in days, I drew a clear breath with my mouth closed."

Breathless

Hugh Griffin's apartment in New Boston, Texas, isn't big enough for a display of all his bottles of hot sauce. But one, Holy Habanero, which he ran across in Orlando, Fla., is scorched in his memory.

"I would compare my feeling to the first time I ever drank moonshine whiskey," says Mr. Griffin.

As a young man, he worked in a sawmill, and "the owner was a seasoned white-lightning drinker. He extended his hospitality and handed me the quart fruit jar of moonshine.

"He had turned it up and taken a big slug, so I did, also. It took me, it seemed like, about 15 minutes to get my breath from the moonshine - and from the Holy Habanero."

Fire and ice

Ann Henry Byrd of Longview was whipping up Mexican food for her family during a freezing winter night of sleet and snow. She pierced a can of hot jalapenos with her can opener, and the can exploded. "All of the hot juice went in my face and into my eyes! The pain was unbelievable!

"As we were rushing to the hospital emergency room (as fast as you can rush on iced-over streets), I had to ride with the car window down and my head outside, so that the snow and sleet would hit my face and eyes. Plus the excruciating burning in my eyes and temporary blindness, my face was almost frozen."

The unkindest cut

Sometimes a pepper gets a little help. Guy, Shane and Bobby of Nacogdoches (who asked that their last names not be used) have a pepper patch. They bought a pyromaniac's fluid called "Pure Cap" - capsaicin, the active ingredient in pepper heat - from a mail-order catalog. "One drop can heat up five gallons of chili," says Guy. "Boy, I just couldn't wait to try it."

But on whom? "We always looked forward to Kent stopping by because we could always get him to sample one of our peppers. I bet we had watched him eat 20 or 30 peppers over the summer, and they never seemed to faze him."

They made a tiny incision in one of their fresh-picked jalapenos and injected an eyedropper full of Pure Cap.

And Kent "put the whole thing in his mouth and bit off the stem."

"I am biting a hole in my lip trying not to laugh," says Guy. "Believe me, it was a Kodak moment."

The luckless Kent "ran to the ice box and got some milk; he drank about half a gallon. That didn't work so he drank a couple of cans of beer, and that didn't work, and boy, the heat was just starting. Finally he went to the freezer and got a whole sack of ice and rubbed his lips and tongue with ice cubes.

"We kept asking him, 'What's wrong, Kent?' "

"That ain't no ordinary pepper," he said. "What did y'all do to it?"

"All we could do was laugh. I don't think I've laughed so hard in my whole life."

Doggone hot

Talent doesn't insulate against agony. P. Michael Summer of Dallas recalls he was at an Austin party in 1973, sitting on the front steps of a onetime farmhouse with his roommate, Al Ragle, "and the late, great Townes Van Zandt."

There was a keg of Shiner outside, and inside, a bowl of what looked like sweet banana peppers. Mr. Summer brought the bowl outside to share.

"At first nibble, the long, waxy pepper was sweet and cool. . . . No sooner had my teeth separated that second bite from the pepper than the first bite hit. It began as a numbness on my lips and tongue, but rapidly grew into a fiery and searing pain the likes of which I had never encountered, and have not encountered since. . . . Jumping up, I ran across the yard to the waiting keg, flapping my arms like many a headless chicken must have done in that same farmhouse yard years before."

Al and Townes howled at his plight, yelling, "Sissy boy!"

But no sooner had Al taken a bite than the same thing happened.

Townes could barely control his laughter. He "grabbed a 4-inch-long pepper and popped it in his mouth whole.

"His pupils expanded so that there was no visible iris, only black holes that seemed to show into his growing panic. Flight to the ice-cold beer must have seemed impossible to him."

Help of a sort was nearer at hand. "He looked down at his feet beside the porch steps" to a "brown plastic dog bowl, half full of water with grass clippings and insect carcasses floating on its surface.

"Then with both hands, Townes quickly lifted the bowl to his ravaged mouth and drank it to its dregs."

Beware the mashed potatoes

Dee Bates' unnamed spouse also was ambushed. ("I was sworn to secrecy by my husband, who was so embarrassed by the situation.")

The McKinney couple had gone to a dimly lit Dallas-area dinner theater. The husband piled his plate in the buffet line with roast beef, mashed potatoes and gravy, and dug in.

"My husband emitted a slight little squeal. I noticed his watery eyes and shocked expression, but he wasn't saying anything. Suddenly, he let out a breath as though he was breathing fire and immediately drowned himself in a glass of water.

"When he was able to speak, it seems he had taken a huge bite of his mashed potatoes, which turned out to be horseradish."

Let there be light

Vivian Hill of Euless was tucking into a dish of Sichuan beef in an Addison Chinese restaurant. "I felt that I had been stabbed in the mouth and throat. I stood up from my chair, clutching my throat because I was in so much pain. I knew water wouldn't help, and I'm exclaiming to my date and the entire restaurant that it hurts and it's hot and help me, please. I couldn't breathe, my eyes were pouring with water and I was coughing and choking. It was a scene."


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