COLUMBIA — Everything was fine until the Jamaican scotch bonnet.
It looked unassuming enough, chopped into bright orange pieces on a plate in front of me. But an adjacent page of taste ratings told the real story.
There, brave eating explorers had scribbled angry, unprompted reactions to the pepper.
“Face tingling,” one said.
“Freaking Very Hot!”
So, of course, I tried it.
There, in the middle of the annual Tomato Festival at MU’s Bradford Research and Extension Center, tears launched a hostile invasion of my eyes. My head was a pressure cooker, and I could feel steam building just inside my ears. I could do nothing to maintain my composure as I ran, desperate, for a glass of milk.
Outside, hunched over and gasping for air, I conceded defeat. This time, the pepper had won.
That particularly vicious vegetable was the last in a long series, the final battle in a self-imposed “Man v. Food” competition of epic proportions.
Incredibly, though, it was the very idea of gut-obliterating spices that first attracted me to the festival.
I wasn’t alone. Teenage boys and elderly women alike lined rows of tables for a chance to try the hottest peppers they could handle.
But unlike most festival patrons, I was on a very specific mission: To try a salsa made with the hottest pepper in the world, a Bhut jolokia — or, translated, a “ghost chili.”
It boasts a perfect rating on the Scoville scale, which measures spiciness based on the concentration of capsaicin, a chemical compound that signals spiciness to the brain.
A jalapeño pepper typically falls in the range of 2,500 to 8,000 on the Scoville scale. The Bhut jolokia pepper weighs in at 1 million.
Unsurprisingly, the ghost chili salsa was a draw. (What tastes better than a world-record pepper?) More unexpected was the overwhelming culinary courage of Columbia residents.
In a line that stretched around the room, I laughed with two women originally from New Jersey. We talked about East Coast weather, not one of us betraying fear at consuming a puréed death pepper.
As I tasted the tamer salsas at the table of doom, a man in a colorful, pepper-patterned shirt reassured me. He was a pepper expert of sorts, and I trusted he wouldn’t let me die from a salsa overdose.
At the end of my wait, as I took a chip in one hand and the salsa in the other, a kind man jovially informed me that the Bhut jolokia pepper is often used in military-grade weapons.
Gulp. It was war.
Fortunately, the salsa was a G-rated version of the R-rated pepper. There were no seeds, and the salsa was a blend of multiple ingredients.
Nevertheless, I could feel the burning sensation of spice on the edge of my tongue and at the back of my throat.
It was the taste of victory.
Ragged and reeling after two hours of tasting, I staggered with a new cup of milk to a table topped with mild tomatoes and bell peppers. Like old friends, their familiar colors and shapes greeted my jaded taste buds warmly.
I took a bite, and, sigh. At the end of my culinary trial, there was relief.
Some like it hot. As for me, I'll be leaving the spice out of my life for a while — at least until next year.
Rebecca Berg is an assistant city editor for the Missourian.