A row of men plus one woman faced the bar amid a crowd of cheering, beer-hoisting onlookers. In front of each person was a glass of milk and a ceramic plate holding a single red Carolina reaper pepper. The bartender, Curtis Thornton, hushed the crowd and made an announcement.
“The rules of this competition are as such: You’re all gonna eat it at once, and the last one to reach for the milk wins.”
The lone female contestant suddenly bowed out, as had 11 men before her.
“Gentlemen: one, two, three, eat!”
The Carolina reaper is currently ranked as the world’s hottest pepper—hotter than a habanero, hotter than a ghost pepper. Hot peppers are measured in terms of Scoville units. To put the reaper in perspective, a habanero may have up to 350,000 Scovilles. Most cayenne comes in at around 30,000. The Carolina reaper has been measured as high as 2.2 million Scoville units.
The barroom contest was hosted last week at the Livery Stable, a restaurant and bar off the Downtown Mall across from the Omni hotel, at the suggestion of this writer. After a certain quantity of beer had been consumed one night by myself and the owner, Ian Dugger (a former keyboard player for the ’80s band Men Without Hats, among other accomplishments), I implored him to order a shipment of Carolina reapers to put out on the bar to invite some sort of mayhem. Dugger immediately pulled out his smartphone and placed an order.
Once the peppers arrived, we concocted the rules for a contest. Each contestant would have one hot pepper and a glass of milk to tempt him into tapping out. The last person to reach for the milk would win a $100 bar tab.
Half an hour before the contest started, I stood in the doorway in front of the Livery Stable talking to Alex C., a tall professional man in his late 20s who was wearing a pink winter hat.
“It’s going to be the worst thing I’ve done physically to myself ever. I know,” Alex said. “I know it is but I’m still willingly doing it. I love anything that makes me feel anything.”
I also chatted with Jack Graves, a local artist whose work has been featured in a solo show at The Bridge PAI and is currently exhibited at Live Arts and McGuffey Art Center.
“It’s going to be hellacious,” Graves said calmly. “Just try not to overthink it. It’s mind over matter. Honestly, I think the worst part will be using the restroom later. …They’re offering you a glass of milk once you give in but that one glass isn’t going to save you. It’s like a placebo. Wait it out. All you’ve done is cancel your chances. I’m going to win.”
As the bartender gave his order to commence suffering, the contestants chewed in silence.
I have eaten a scorpion pepper, which held the hottest pepper title a few years ago before the Carolina reaper eclipsed it. The scorpion is “milder” at around 1.4 million Scoville units. It isn’t clear to me how exactly one can be hotter than the other: When every nerve ending in your mouth is fully engaged with horrible pain, I don’t see how you turn that amp up to 11. When I ate the scorpion pepper it wasn’t a contest, but I ran for the milk. In my experience, these types of peppers take about five to 10 seconds to really kick in.
Sure enough, Alex began to tremble about 10 seconds in. A young man to his left was panting heavily. Graves carefully removed his phone from his pocket, plugged in a pair of headphones and began to listen to the album …And Justice for All by Metallica. He closed his eyes and almost seemed to be napping.
The crowd cheered and jeered. “Drink…the…milk! Drink…the…milk!” one woman chanted.
Alex stood on his bar stool shaking frantically. He reached toward the milk and then seemed to change his mind, grabbing instead the thick ceramic plate on which his pepper had been served.
He shoved the plate into his mouth and bit down hard. Pieces of broken ceramic scattered across the bar.
“No, Alex, no!” shouted Dugger.
Every breakable object within an arm’s reach of Alex was immediately rounded up and guarded as he stood on his bar stool and attempted to swing from the exposed steel joists above him.
More than five minutes had elapsed and nobody had gone for the milk yet. Ian and I hadn’t planned for this contingency. How do we break a tie?
But Graves suddenly settled the issue for us. He reached toward the plate on the bar containing the remainder of the peppers and popped a second Carolina reaper into his mouth.
The crowd erupted. A gauntlet had been thrown down. Alex reached for a second pepper of his own. But in his agonized state, he couldn’t get it down. He took a bite of it, spat some out in a spray of tiny red chunks and dropped the remainder on the bar.
“Going once, going twice, the winner!” cried Thornton.
With a little help from Metallica, Graves had won the Carolina reaper challenge.
“How do you feel?” I asked him a few minutes later.
“As much as I did earlier, that I’m Jack Graves,” he said. “It was strong but I met it, you know? And I’ve just eaten a second one a minute ago just to bully everyone else out. …It’s hot, like you said. Jittery. Trying to keep my face composed. It wants to twitch a bit. I’m still fighting it.”
Alex was unable to comment.