‘Hey, they have a Hot Wings Challenge,” said my friend Ralph Walter, as we perused the Rex’s Burger and Brews menu. “I’d be up for that.”
“Yeah,” I replied. “You should do it.”
“No,” said Ralph. “I’m up for watching you do it.”
One thing about Ralph, he believes in getting outside of one’s “comfort zone,” especially when it’s my comfort zone.
So this is how I found myself back at Rex’s Burger and Brews on Thursday night, ordering the $14.95 Hot Wings Challenge. The rules go like this: You have 20 minutes to eat eight hot wings covered in Rex’s super-secret hot sauce. You may not have anything to drink during those 20 minutes. Once finished, you must wait an additional 10 minutes before you can have anything to drink.
If you succeed, your hot wings are free and your picture goes up in the Hall of Fame, which is so far a pretty tiny hall, since Rex’s has been open for only a couple of weeks. If you fail, you have to fork over the $14.95 and your photo goes up in the Hall of Shame.
I was accompanied by Ralph, and two other friends, Rich Landers and Tom Clouse. None of them was dumb enough to take the Hot Wings Challenge himself. They considered it to be a spectator sport.
“You’re gonna love it!” said my three Wing Men, patting me on the back. “This is gonna be great!”
I have always loved hot chilies, but I have never entered any kind of challenge. So I suppose I was naïve about the gravity of the situation. I was thinking, “It’ll be hot, like Tabasco, or jalapeños, or maybe even habaneros. But nothing I can’t handle.”
My first hint of trouble came when the restaurant owner came over, shook my hand, and told me how he makes the sauce.
“Well, first I take 40 pounds of ghost chilies …” he said.
“Wait,” I said. “Did you say, 40 pounds?”
“Yeah, of ghost chilies, and then …”
“Wait, did you say, ‘ghost chili’? Is that like a habanero?”
“Oh, a thousand times hotter than a habanero …”
He went on and on, but I didn’t hear any more of it. I was still shaken by that line “a thousand times hotter than a habanero.” I felt numb.
Then, the plate of hot wings arrived, and I wished I was numb. Eight wings were covered in a dark, deep-red syrup. I leaned down to inhale the essence. I recoiled as if I had just snorted Drano.
Ralph, my cornerman, had wisely advised me not to pick up the wings with my fingers. He did not want me to get toxic ghost-chili acid all over my face and fingers. So I took a knife and fork and cut the meat off one of the wings.
I lifted a big, old forkful and shoveled it in. This was the moment when I knew I was destined for the Hall of Shame. My mouth, my throat and all of my nasal passages had been, essentially, napalmed.
“Dude,” Tom said. “Your pupils have disappeared.”
My goal, from that moment forward, was to try to get through half the plate just to save face. To make the torture even more exquisite, they had brought out a tray containing ice water and two pints of milk. But I wasn’t allowed to touch them.
“Dude,” Tom said. “I can see every capillary in your eyes.”
The restaurant staff was gathered around, cheering me on. I shoveled in one wing, two wings, three wings, and tried to ignore the screaming from every nerve ending.
“Dude,” Tom said. “I think your eyes are bleeding.”
Then I jammed the fourth wing into my no-longer-functional face. A late-night trip to the emergency room seemed like a possibility. So, with a complete lack of ceremony, I reached across for my carton of milk.
“Uh-oh,” said my Wing Men. “He’s going for the …”
I ripped the top open and before anyone could stop me, I sucked down a clean, cold draught of tissue-restoring milk.
“It’s all over,” said Ralph, not unkindly.
I talked Ralph and Rich into trying just a tiny morsel of wing. To my intense satisfaction, they both proceeded to hyperventilate. Rich said it was the hottest thing he’s ever tried, and I’m pretty sure he once accidentally bear-sprayed himself.
The waiter asked me if I wanted to order a beer. For the first time in my bar-going life, I uttered the following words: “No, I’ll stick with the milk tonight.”
After an hour or so, I began to feel like a normal human being, thanks to Darigold Two-Percent.
The evening did not end with a trip to the emergency room. In fact, the effects wore off almost completely within an hour or so.
As I write these words 24 hours later, I’m feeling just fine. Ralph claims he heard me yodeling the theme song to “Blazing Saddles,” but he made that up.
It was “Ring of Fire.”