It was apparent upon walking into Black Star Co-Op for the second installment of the “Flight of Spice” tasting that this wasn’t an event to be taken lightly. A tasting of 10 chicken wings, each tossed in an increasingly-spicy hot sauce, ranging from the not-at-all spicy to mouth-scalding, day-ruining brutality.
After showing my ticket, I was handed the custom tasting mat which laid out the flight of ten hot sauces and their corresponding Scoville Heat Units (SHU), a way to measure the spice and pungency of food (a bell pepper ranks a solid zero, whereas Tabasco Sauce hovers around 2,500 to 5,000 SHU). I also ordered some deep-fried cheese curds to help offset the spice between rounds, as well as give some representation to the other food groups.
My wife — who was there to offer moral support — chose us a seat near the two coolers filled with ice water. This was less a strategic move and more because they were the only two seats left open. Still, it proved valuable.
1) Humble House Ancho & Morita: Smoky Tamarind Sauce — 150 SHU
To say things got off to a mild start (pun intended) would be an understatement. As an advocate of the flavor-over-novelty-heat school of thought, I enjoyed the Humble House Tamarind Sauce. It has a smoky, almost sweet, undertone to it but not much kick. It was certainly an understated way to start the Flight of Spice.
Or, as Homer Simpson might say, “a bland, timid entry, suitable perhaps for patients recovering in the hospital.”
2) Yellowbird Sauce: Blue Agave Sriracha — 1500 SHU
For round two, we ramped up the Scoville by ten-fold with Yellowbird, a permanent fixture on the shelf in my refrigerator door. A couple years back, I’d even mailed some to relatives who reside in the Midwest, who, after receiving it, replied that the 16-ounce container must be considered a ‘lifetime supply,’ and was better suited as a cooking ingredient than a straight-up condiment. To each their own.
3) Big Daddy Trevi’s GoatWhore Blood For The Master Hot Sauce — 3000 SHU
I’d first encountered Big Daddy Trevi’s at the Austin Hot Sauce Festival over this past summer, this vinegary entry’s habanero base was offset by an ample amount of garlic and black pepper flavors. It was tasty, though I still remained unfazed, even as our two MCs proclaimed that they’d started “feeling the heat.”
4) Haitian Heat: Sexy Sauce — 6000 SHU
Another entry that I’d tried (and loved) at the Austin Hot Sauce Festival, it had the lightest hue of all the entries, coating the wing in a dull yellow hue — the kind of yellow that you’d see on a Texas Coral Snake before reciting the rhyme “red touches yellow, kills a fellow.” Though it did have more of a kick than I remembered, this one was still both pleasant and flavorful. It also signaled that we were definitely (finally!) creeping into the actual spicy phase of the event.
5) High River Sauces: Grapes Of Wrath Hot Sauce — 10,000 SHU
As I approached the halfway point, this was the first sauce to prompt an adverse reaction from me, albeit a slight one. The kind where you inhale through your mouth just before taking a bite, and the spice leaps off the wing itself as an almost cautionary tale. As a result, I coughed a little bit before taking my first bite. Though, once I knew what I was in for, I still devoured the rest of the wing almost immediately.
6) Hot Line Pepper Products: Ghost Pepper Hot Sauce — 40,000 SHU
By now, the raw heat had completely eclipsed any flavor that might be hiding somewhere in the sauce itself, and as Hot Line’s ghost pepper sauce jumped four-fold from the prior entry. I could actually feel my sinuses being cleared with each bite. This was serious.
7) Tears Of Joy: The Sword’s Tears Of Fire Hot Sauce — 50,000 SHU
“How are you holding up,” asked the guy at the table next to me. I could see his head covered with sweat and his face was flushed with redness. Another participant wearing an Ivan Drago t-shirt walked by our tables to refill his water glass. “Seriously, guys,” he said, “getting up and walking really does help.”
8) Heavenly Heat: Fear The Reaper — 200,000 SHU
Entering six-figure Scoville territory just after I’d depleted my supply of fried cheese curds seemed like a bad idea. At this point, my wife decided to order a slice of honey pie with a side of lemon rosemary ice cream (This will play an important role very, very shortly).
Round eight was the first time I actually had to stand up for a second just to let this last seemingly unholy concoction work its way down my esophagus. I could feel the tips of my fingers starting to warm, so I excused myself to wash my hands. After coming back out into the lobby, the thick haze of raw spice and human misery hung heavy in the air.
Some participants had begun tapping out entirely.
9) Da Bomb: Ground Zero — 321,900 SHU
After taking my first bite of Da Bomb’s Ground Zero, I now know what it’s like to be maced. Directly into my mouth. After having brushed my teeth with pepper spray.
There was no flavor here. Only pain. “Why, dear god, am I doing this?” I thought to myself, gulping down a spoonful of ice cream before finishing the rest of the wing. I told my wife I loved her, in that very specific “If I don’t ever see you again…” kind of way.
In retrospect, this may have seemed a little overdramatic, but while I had yet to break a sweat, I remember this distinct feeling like I’d ingested some kind of organically-grown hallucinogen, left alone with the inevitable anxiety while you wait for it to fully kick in. I was also unable to close my mouth due to the distinct sensation that I’d be trapping the heat inside my face if I did so.
10) Mad Dog 357: Silver Edition — 750,000 SHU
This one legitimately caught me by surprise. The Mad Dog 357 was brought around by the servers wearing rubber gloves, dropping a tiny dab of sauce onto each wing. Like, the tiniest dab. The kind of dab Dexter would put on one of his slides before filing it away in a box and hiding it in his air conditioner.
After pausing for two full glasses of water, my mouth still raw from the fallout of Da Bomb, I took a bite, only to find a surprising lack of punishingly hot flavor. Maybe it was because I’d accidentally burnt my taste buds to a crisp, rendering them useless. Maybe I’d actually died and food had no taste in the afterlife.
As it turned out, my taste buds still functioned (there was some flavor hiding out behind the overwhelmingly punishing heat), and I hadn’t crossed over the other side. I finished my wing and drank the half-melted bowl of my wife’s ice cream. Then rose to my feet, a champion.
In the aftermath, the event’s MCs walked about the lobby giving out fist bumps to all who participated. Everyone mingled around a bit, sharing this very specific kind of unspoken bond. That and I don’t think any of us were actually able to sit at that point, considering we were all full of a weaponized level of hot sauce.
Still, we reveled in the shared experience — the sadistic, self-inflicted pain that left non-participating patrons looking at us with a kind of pitying bewilderment. Though maybe that wasn’t the look at all. Maybe it was just been the eye-watering amount of spice still lingering in the air.