A few brave (or foolish) souls test the might of the world’s hottest pepper
Author Justin Goldman Illustration Marc Rosenthal
NEW YORK CITY – Sunlight streams through the windows of the Brooklyn Expo Center. The weather’s nice; the beer’s flowing. But things are about to get darker. “Next up, we have the Carolina Reaper eating contest,” an MC announces from the stage at the front of the room. “Someone’s gonna die.”
The NYC Hot Sauce Expo has never been for the faint of heart (or tongue), but this competition borders on the suicidal. The Carolina Reaper, a small, devil-red chili, is the world’s hottest pepper, reaching 2.2 million on the Scoville heat scale (jalapeños max out at about 10,000).
“It’s going to be like those people who swallow swords,” says a woman in the audience.
“I think swallowing swords might be safer,” her companion replies.
Onstage, the bearded, sleeve-tattooed MC stands next to a prim young woman in a blazer and skirt. She’s with Guinness World Records, here to observe the contest. Also onstage is Ed Currie, the creator of the Reaper, who’s tossing peppers into the crowd. A man in the front row tests his mettle—and throws up.
Finally, the show begins. A red-haired woman wiggles her fingers and tongue like Jimi Hendrix, shoves a few peppers into her mouth and screams. The next contestant gets four down before he starts jumping around, spitting expletives. A nerdy hipster-dad type ends his effort by chugging milk so fast it runs through his beard and onto his plaid shirt.
In the end, the reigning record holder, Russell Todd of Allentown, Pennsylvania, defends his title, downing a remarkable 17 peppers. “I feel great,” he says afterward. “A little shaky, but great.” Things aren’t going so well for another contestant, who’s curled up on the men’s room floor, emitting a groan from the now fiery pit of his stomach.