The 6 Toughest Eating Challenges in St. Louis and One Foolish Man's Attempt to Beat Them All


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The Inferno | Zach Garrison

The Inferno
$16.50
de.lish Cheesecake Bakery & Cafe
(1060 Rue Saint Catherine, Florissant; 314-831-7400)

The Inferno Challenge is downright scary, and here's why -- the inclusion of the infamous "Three Horsemen": the Trinidad Scorpion pepper (which Guinness Book of World Records lists as the hottest pepper in the world), the ghost pepper (second hottest pepper) and the habanero. By itself, the regular "Inferno" (a foot-long, twelve-ounce top-sirloin sandwich served with jalapeños, pepper-jack cheese, homemade Cajun sauce and fried onions on toasted French bread) sounds delicious. But the addition of the "Three Horsemen" transforms the sandwich completely. Owner and chef Jeff Mullersman personally grinds the peppers into a fine dust before adding it to a remoulade that coats the sirloin. Server Mark Muehling once sampled the sauce so that he could describe the intensity to customers. He placed a tiny dab on his tongue and then did not stop sweating for ten minutes.

Add to that the requirement that after the first bite, I had to wait one full, agonizing minute before taking a drink. (A beverage is permitted, with the exception of milk -- Mullersman explains that mixing dairy with the peppers pretty much guarantees that I'll puke.) There's no leaving the table, the plate must be clean and a 30-minute time limit is in place. This challenge is so intense that I had to first sign a waiver and wear a pair of latex gloves to protect my skin. Mullersman warned me that only 3 challengers out of more than 50 have ever won. The rest ended up on the wall of shame.

Before starting, I rubbed lip balm all around my mouth, thinking that this might help prevent burning. I love spicy food and felt relatively confident that as long as I ate quickly, with a pitcher of water close at hand, this would be a piece of cake.

The sandwich looked amazing -- thick slices of meat with sauce covering every inch...but looks can be deceiving. The first bite was no biggie, and I felt fine as I sat there for the required one minute. But after about five bites came the ultimate sucker punch: A blast of heat ignited on my lips and spread down my throat. It was so intense that my nose felt as if it were literally on fire. (I might have been hallucinating.) Sweat cascaded down my forehead. My hands shook uncontrollably and my eyes watered. A nearby patron showed real concern for my health.

Not surprisingly, the challenge ended after eleven minutes and almost half the sandwich eaten. Mullersman commented that my performance was "slightly above average," though I think he mostly pitied me. I drank more than two pitchers of water and a bottle of Sprite before Mullersman instructed me to pour sugar into the water. Only then did the heat begin to subside. True relief, though, came only after eating one of the most superb slices of chocolate cheesecake I've ever tasted. But this was far from the end of my struggles.

Aftermath: From the moment I threw in the towel, my insides began to protest such foolish behavior. For the next 24 hours, general anarchy broke out in my digestive system. My stomach was wracked by waves of pain and sharp convulsions -- just breathing proved difficult (I assume this is as close as I will ever come to being in labor). But the absolute worst part was that as bad as it burned going in, it was far, far worse coming out. I cut a clear path between my bedroom and the bathroom, so frequent were my trips. The mix of nausea and acid reflux had me briefly considering a ride to the emergency room, but instead I curled up in a ball, gently rocking back and forth, and weathered the storm.

Difficulty: +++++
Fire consumes all.

Conclusions

Sheer hubris allowed me to believe I could conquer my list of food challenges. I began this journey believing it would be a success story. But this is a story about failure. Every challenge far exceeded my expectations and concluded with me sitting in agony, wondering why the hell I'd agreed to do this. A few days later I would rally, as if my hours spent in the bathroom and days of bloated discomfort would not be repeated. But the result was always the same.

Rather than glory, all I got out of this was thousands and thousands of calories. Though I spread the six challenges out across a five-week time period, the effects carried over and built as I went along. After the final challenge, I just felt unhealthy. I haven't gained weight, nor can I point to any other quantifiable measurement, but something was just off -- enough so that I will never undertake such an idiotic mission ever again...probably.

Although I went in thinking I was a man of enormous appetite, it turns out I was just an average eater, faced with daunting odds and the likelihood of permanent intestinal damage. I'd like to think my journey, my sacrifice, will serve as a warning, a lesson in the dangers of such gluttonous behavior. But I doubt it. Instead, I suspect that many will read this and immediately conclude, "I could take down that challenge. Sign me up."
But even if you manage to beat the challenge, here's what my hours of agony taught me: The food always wins.

Gut Check is always hungry for tips and feedback. Email us!





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