Columbus, Ohio USA
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The Fire Eaters
North Market Fiery Foods Festival
By Allex Spires
March/April 2014 Issue

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Sunday, the Sixteenth Day of February in the Hundred-Score-and-Twice-Seventh Year since B.C.(E.)

Steve "The Machine" Smallwood is a hot food eating world record contender.
Photo © Gus Brunsman III

An idiot at the back of the bus lit a cigarette and began to rap – poorly. A woman seated nearby informed him that she had asthma and didn’t like for people to smoke around her in enclosed areas. Unfazed, he asked if she got seizures because his sister had asthma and got seizures. She answered no, she just had asthma. The man put out his cigarette and began to complain about how he should be able to do whatever he wants. It’s a free country, he said. Back when he was younger you could smoke on the bus. Then he tried to rap. I think he was drunk. He got off at Broad and High at 12:02 p.m., and the bus continued through downtown and across Nationwide. I got off in front of the Greater Columbus Convention Center and walked west through the icy slush and softly tumbling flurries to the Fiery Foods Festival at the North Market, 59 Spruce St.

On the ground floor of the Market there was almost no indication that anything was any hotter than the freezing temperatures outside. I climbed the southeast staircase and entered the No Ma Kitchen. Just through the door, to my left, a pleasant blonde woman sat at a table selling raffle tickets for a drawing to take part in the hot wing eating competition. I gave her five dollars for a ticket. I was here for the full experience. The smells were already making me sweat.

If you think Taco Bell’s “Fire Sauce” is hot you’re in the wrong place. This is a festival for folks who strive for the next level of heat, people with leather tongues and iron bellies. The North Market’s Fiery Foods Week had culminated into the Fiery Foods Festival, and makers of the best and hottest hot sauces had come from all over town, throughout the state, and across the country to the southern edge of the Short North. The people of Central Ohio were invited to taste the most unbearable and the most palatable heat, and they came: a standing-room-only crowd filled the No Ma space shoulder-to-shoulder. The soft of taste bud and faint of heartburn were not represented. I felt ready to take the ride: I made my way through the crowd from table to table sampling the vendors’ sauces, and for the most part they were good and hot. Some were spicy chocolate sauces and pepper jams. Most were standard hot sauces, hot wing sauces and hot barbecue sauces. Though at times intense, the heat was generally nothing to write home about. When I got to the Puckerbutt Pepper Company’s booth, I chose my actions poorly. Puckerbutt promises pure, all natural heat, but so does fire. They developed the Carolina Reaper, which holds the Guinness World Record for “hottest pepper.” The Puckerbutt booth had some out for sampling. This pepper can be between 1.5 and 2.2 million Scoville units.

In 1912, American pharmacist Wilbur Scoville developed a measure of pepper heat known today as the Scoville scale. It starts at bell peppers which are usually 0-100 Scoville units, cayenne peppers tend to fall somewhere between 10,000 and 50,000 Scovilles, habaneros can be up to 350,000 Scovilles, and the infamous ghost pepper can be over a million Scovilles. I bit into a Carolina Reaper and chewed. It had a strong tomato flavor and a mild burn. Then I put the rest in my mouth and slowly chewed. There was a tingling in my mouth. I swallowed and I could taste the heat. Then the tingling became a stabbing and at last it felt like my tongue was being cut to ribbons with flaming knives.

I once won a friendly pepper-eating contest with a buddy. We each ate a habanero and waited to see which of us could go the longest without grabbing a glass of milk. I’ve eaten Dave’s Insanity Sauce, so crazy-hot it’s banned from many hot food competitions the world over. I’ve even been pepper-sprayed. Maybe it was because I let the Reaper linger so long on my tongue and allowed it to completely coat the inside of my mouth, but I swear I had never before tasted anything so hot. I tried to take it like a champ but no-can-do. My mouth felt like it was on fire. My face was hot. My throat was a kiln and the burning went down into my belly. I felt as though the inside of my mouth was developing blisters. I swore to myself I would never be in another hot pepper challenge, not ever.

I returned to the ground floor and made my way to Curds and Whey where I bought a half-gallon of milk. While I sipped it and swished mouthfuls from cheek to cheek, dousing the heat, I watched a man in a motley cap named “Luke the Juggler” spin a plate on the end of a stick that he would put into the hands of children whose parents oohed and aahed and took pictures of their kids performing this amazing feat.

It felt like the burn was subsiding from my mouth, so I went back upstairs to sample Puckerbutt’s sauces. When I got to their booth, Elizabeth English, who came to the Fiery Foods Festival as part of her birthday celebration, ate a Carolina Reaper and received a birthday gift bottle of pepper sauce from “Smokin’ Ed” Currie, Puckerbutt’s founder and owner, which she gratefully accepted. Dale Gilbert, a man from Nashville, Tenn., who is well-versed in pepper heat, tasted the Reaper and acted as though it was nothing. He ate a second one. His eyes went wide and he said, “This is gonna be bad.” For an encore, he turned bright red, crouched down low, and developed hiccoughs. During my stay at Puckerbutt’s table, people continually approached, interested in discovering the Reaper. Along with the peppers themselves, there were three Reaper sauces and seeds laid out for sale.

The day’s main event was the hot chicken wing eating contest at 3:30 p.m. It featured six three-minute rounds wherein each of ten contestants had to eat three hot wings with the Scoville value increased for each round. A seventh round serving of ten wings would decide the winner. Contestants were drawn from the raffle I’d entered. My ticket was not a winner.

In the middle of the second round, a small woman with glasses dropped out of the competition. Her wings for the third round were given to the audience and I kept one. In the fifth round, two more people called it quits and I collected a fifth-round wing. By the seventh round only three contestants remained: two young men, one in a hoodie and the other in an OSU tee, and three-time hot wing eating champ Steve “The Machine” Smallwood who, in October 2013, ate between five and eight ghost peppers in one minute, beating the Guinness world record of three ghost peppers in one minute and eleven seconds. He had taken less than a minute to eat the wings in each elimination round. The seventh-round wings featured a sauce made with the Carolina Reaper, and he went through them like nothing. It was supposed to be an endurance test to see if a person could eat more than three, but The Machine ate every last wing on his plate. After he won, receiving a trophy, gift certificates, and the adulation of onlookers and hot food fans the world over, Mister Smallwood told me he felt hot. He said he’d managed to get through the competition so easily because he eats fiery foods every day. I congratulated The Machine and took my own prize: a pair of seventh-round wings which I added to those I’d collected earlier.

I took my wings to my friend DJ’s house. He has an eclectic hot sauce collection and insisted we sample our way through them before moving on to the contest wings. We started with a chocolate hot sauce and then moved on to flavorless pepper sauces that delivered nothing but heat. Not hot enough. When we got to the wings, I started with the third-round wing and DJ had the fifth-round wing. He announced an immediate burn mixed with a delicious cumin flavor. Mine began with a mild burn building up to blazes with garlic undertones. DJ continued trying to describe the flavors, but his face started twitching and he couldn’t keep it up. My wing was unbelievably hot. Shortly after we finished our first wings, DJ’s girlfriend arrived, commented that she never understood the point of a chicken wing so hot you couldn’t eat it, and got us each a glass of milk. It took several minutes to recuperate and DJ developed a mild case of hiccoughs, but we each ate a seventh-round wing. With Reaper sauce stuck around my lips, in my mustache and down in my throat, I had some trouble breathing, and DJ twisted in his chair uncomfortably until he fell out of it and lay gasping on the floor. I swore to myself I would never be in another hot pepper challenge, not ever.

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