October 3, 2011

Fish on Fire

I love cooking shows.  I love the brainy ones that actually teach the in's and out's of cooking like Good Eats, America's Test Kitchen, and Barbecue University.  I like contests of skill, like Top Chef, Iron Chef, and Chopped.  I even like sensationalized "reality" cooking like Hell's Kitchen.  But there is one show I just can't get into.

Man Vs. Food.

The whole "going somewhere in America to eat something" genre of food show is my least favorite in general, but something about extreme eating just bothers me.  Maybe it's contrasting images like this:

With this:

 Maybe, as I try and make healthier choices in the way that I eat, I just don't like watching people gorge themselves.  I don't care for milkshakes that come in gallon sizes, or hamburgers that don't fit on a regular dinner plate.  It bothers me that my eight year old son thinks that people who can eat a four pound meal should be idolized.  But I have to admit, there is one part of this whole spectacle that doesn't force me to turn away in disgust.

Hot foods.

I've been a pepper belly as long as I can remember, covering my meals with my mom's homemade salsa, Tabasco sauce, and sliced jalapenos while I was still a small child.  It took another step when a high school friend tricked me into eating a habanero pepper during church.  It wasn't a pleasant experience at the time--not for about twelve hours, in fact--but after the burning finally stopped, I wanted more.  Like minded friends and I started spiking our ramen with Dave's Insanity Sauce.  The habanero pizza at Flying Pie became a yearly ritual.  So when Adam Richman sidestepped the more gluttonous challenges to eat Hellfire hotwings in San Jose, it caught my attention.  I could see myself doing that.  I planned a road trip to San Jose in my mind until reality caught up to me.  I have a "just above minimum" wage job, and there was no way Wife would let me plan our yearly vacation around food--especially food that she would have no interest in eating--when our friends are scattered around the Northwest.  I tucked the idea into my bucket list, and moved on to other things.

Morgan Freeman can't believe Jack wants to eat those spicy wings.
 A couple years passed.  I was sitting at work, reading the Boise Weekly when I saw something that sent a thrill through my whole body.  Superb Sushi's Hot Streak Challenge.  (You can see the rules of this challenge here.)  While I respect Man Vs. Food's decision to go to the legendary Flying Pie Pizzeria when the show visited Boise, the habanero pizza doesn't come with any challenge.  It's just hot.  This is what I was looking for.  I don't usually spend a lot of energy on being an "alpha male," but I felt the need to prove myself against the flames of their fiery fish. 

That being said, I didn't have any intention of doing it alone.  I placed a call to Newport, Oregon, home of Grasshopper.  Grasshopper hadn't really been into spicy foods when we met, but while I was taming the heat of my spices to adjust to cooking for a family, he was eating raw habaneros with Mexican day laborers.  It was a case of the student surpassing the master, but this was my chance to retake the banner.  I told him what was up, and it was decided that when he came down during the summer, we would take on the Hotstreak.  However, this call took place in the fall of last year, and that meant I had plenty of time to practice.  Things were going great until a batch of unexpectedly hot jalapeno poppers on Super Bowl Sunday turned me off of spicy things for awhile.  By the time I was ready to get back in the saddle, I had  forgotten about the challenge, and wasn't going out of my way to eat anything spicier than sriracha.  That's why I was surprised when Grasshopper gave me a call a couple of weeks before his visit.  He'd just eaten a ghost chile.  (Ghost chiles are one of the ingredients in Superb Sushi's death sauce.)  He described the sensation as if lightning had removed the top of his head and the rest of his skin was crawling to get away.  I was screwed. 

Before you could reiterate that I was indeed screwed, two weeks passed and Grasshopper arrived in town.  We had a lovely Fourth of July celebration over at his in-laws, drank a bunch of whiskey, and then the moment to test ourselves had arrived.  By this point, however, the ante had been raised considerably.  Instead of Grasshopper and I going it alone, with maybe our wives on hand to watch us crash and burn, word had gotten out and we found ourselves with a crowd of spectators, as well as two more foolhardy participants.  While I had been excited to read about this challenge in the paper, I found myself nervous as I walked into the restaurant, my stomach already tight as I thought about the after effects of such heat. 
The nerves would have an extra day to build on themselves, it turned out.  Coming off of the holiday weekend, they didn't have enough peppers to hurt all of us.  (So if this sounds like something you and your friends would like to do, call ahead.)  Grasshopper spent the extra day drinking even more whiskey.  I spent it eating instant potatoes, hoping they would build a protective shell inside my stomach.

When it came time for take two, I wasn't any calmer, although I don't know if anyone other than Wife noticed.  Boy spent the day bragging on my behalf, talking smack like a pro athlete.  Just as with horror movies, I had been waiting for a spice that could best me, but the thought of having that moment in public began to gnaw at me.  Still, there was no backing out now, and I was still excited.

Some waivers are mainly for show.  This is not one.
The waitress seated us, with the contestants all at one end of the table to give a good view to the audience as well as ensure that we were well out of the reach of anything that could douse the flames.  Waivers came.  Flying Pie has a waiver for their Triple Habanero pizza too, but it doesn't say anything about fainting or death.  Hoping it was more hyperbole than anything, we signed off.  While we waited for the food to be made, it was decided to take a look at the "wall of flame" and see what we were in for.  There were approximately twenty pictures on the wall, and most of us headed back to the table, relieved.  It was short lived, however, as Grasshopper had been looking a bit more closely.  The contest is divided into two rounds: "Demon's  Delight" and "Hot Streak."  Three quarters of the pictures were for round one.  Only five or so people had made it to the upper part of the wall.  This revelation came just as our drinks were cleared away and the first part of our meal arrived.  First to the table was a miso soup made with habanero, wasabi, sriracha, cayenne, and death sauce (ingredients unknown,) followed promptly by the namesake Demon's Delight roll, which was oozing fresh habanero peppers from its sides and came with its own bowl of death sauce. A token slaw of cabbage and pepitas sat in a small blob in the corner of the plate. The timer was set at ten minutes. 

This soup is definitely good for clogged sinuses.

The Demon's Delight.

Most of us decided to tackle the soup first.  It was the most intimidating looking thing on the table, but it's liquid consistency meant that you could pick it up and drink it.  On the plus side I had it halfway gone before my mouth really began to burn, but when I finally caught fire I caught it from my lips all the way to the pit of my stomach.  I looked around the table through the tears in my eyes and saw red faces.  "Do I look that bad?" I asked Wife, hoarsely.  "Worse." She said, and snapped another picture.  The last person to join our folly, the engineer, was also the first to throw in the towel.  The waitress offered to take his plate, but he declined.  "I can eat it," he said, "but not in ten minutes."  She returned his beer, and he joined the spectators.  It was just three of us now.  I worked quickly, still ahead of the clock.  I had started with the intent of using chopsticks, but quickly abandoned them in favor of grabbing sections of the roll in my fingers, swabbing it with as much death sauce as possible.  Bubbling lava began to roll around my midsection.  No wonder "no vomiting" was on the rules list.  I contemplated the restroom I saw in the Idaho Building lobby.  No way I was going to throw up there-it was barely sanitary enough to stand and pee.  I finished the roll and ate the slaw, the crisp vinegar coated cabbage and seeds refreshing me like water after a hard days work, only magnified.  Grasshopper was done.  Our third finished just before the bell rang.

"Who is moving on to round two?"  The waitress wanted to know.  We still had to wait five minutes without anything to cool the flames before we officially passed round one, but she wanted to get the info back to the chef.  Grasshopper eagerly pressed on.  Our other companion quit.  I needed to make a decision.  I quit as well.  She headed to the kitchen. Boy begged me to continue. Wife reassured me we could afford it if I went into round two and failed.  The pain in my gut began to subside, leaving me with only mouth burn, which I actually enjoyed.  I still had two minutes left before it was too late.  "To hell with it."  Grasshopper and I were off to round two.

Round two came in the form of two enormous tuna hand rolls, overloaded with sliced habanero, and another side bowl filled with death sauce.  This time, however, the death sauce had been stepped up by the addition of Bhut Jolokia (aka Ghost Chile) pepper.  "Don't worry Catfish," Grasshopper cheered, "hand rolls are the best kind of roll they could have given us-they're just rice at the bottom of their cones."  With this bit of advice, I made a plan-I would eat the tops of each roll, and save the bottoms for the end.  There was no soothing slaw this time around.  The timer was reset, and I charged into my first roll.  For a moment, I thought I was going to make it.  The Ghost Chile was giving my body the most electric spice high I had ever experienced.  My face and chest felt like they had fallen asleep.  I gave a spectator a high five, but I couldn't even really feel anything from my hand other than an intense, rapid tingle.  But in spite of this, the fire in my mouth really didn't seem that much worse.  It was spicy-damn spicy-but on my palate it didn't seem much hotter than the habanero.  I tore through the first roll, leaving the bottom on my plate.  Then I started working on the second.  My gut began to gurgle once more.  But I dug deep, and soon I had my two bottom pieces and nothing else.  The death sauce was gone.  And I fell down just shy of the finish line.  Grasshopper had just completed his final bit of sushi, and was waiting it out.  All I had to do was take four or five more bites. I lifted one of my saved bits and saw, not rice, but a few fingers of habanero and a large pink chunk of raw tuna.

So close and yet so far.

It may sound like a cop out (Wife thought it was) but I hate sushi.  I was only here for the spice, which I had hoped would mask any inherent fishiness in my meal.  That had worked through the the first roll, which was tightly wrapped and kept its meat portion small.  It wasn't working any more.  The tuna "bite" was the size of two of my thumbs, and it screamed at me with its rawness.  Coupled with the tentacles of spicy orange pepper, my gut just refused.  I couldn't put that fish in my mouth.  Seared Ahi, one of the best things I have ever tasted, still disturbed me with its rawness.  This mass of tuna, in inland Idaho, screamed at me.  It screamed, "I will make you throw up."  I knew I could force it down, but I thought its screams were probably correct, and the thought of all of this heat trapped in my sinuses, it was too much.  With three minutes still on the clock, I threw in the towel.  Boy cried, losing a little bit of faith in my infallibility.  I felt bad myself, inches away but felled by a distaste for fish and knowing no one would buy it.  Grasshopper drank beer and was making plans to celebrate his iron stomach with yet more whiskey.

I ordered this:

Ice cream of shame.
I had lost.  I still got my picture on the lower rung of the wall, and (while not how it was described in the rules) I still got the t-shirt, but I lost a little bit of pride that day.  It's o.k., though. I know what would make me feel better.

Does anyone want to go to San Jose for some wings?   

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