Friday, January 15, 2010

Hell Night: A Culinary Adventure That Will Make You Cry Like a Baby

[This article originally appeared on, a local news site which no longer exists.]

At 9pm, I downed a preemptive shot of Pepto-Bismol.  At 9:30pm, I arrived at East Coast Grill in Inman Square with five adventurous friends.  We were there for Hell Night, a celebration of spiciness that occurs a few times a year.  Reservations fill up nearly two months in advance; Massachusetts is apparently full of masochists.

It was the first Hell Night experience for everyone in my group, and we entered the restaurant with a mix of sheer excitement and a bit of trepidation.  Decked out in caution tape, skulls and crossbones, and other threatening decorations, East Coast Grill was full of adrenaline, sweat, and the near-toxic smoke of chili peppers sizzling in the open kitchen.  As we waited for our table, a siren went off: one diner couldn't handle the heat and ordered "the antidote" - a glass of milk and a creamsicle.  The sound of the siren triggered the kitchen staff to gleefully chant "Wimp! Wimp! Wimp!" as the diner swallowed his pride in an attempt to salvage his digestive system.

Hell Night is not for the faint of heart (or stomach).  Sure, you can order from the aptly named Wimp Menu, but if that's your plan, there's really no reason to take up a table when so many chili addicts are dying to attend.  The Hell Night menu does feature some relatively mild (and delicious) entrees - look for the choices rated at two or three bombs.  But the star of the menu, the challenge that we just couldn't resist, is the Pasta from Hell, rated at nine bombs, made with the infamous Bhut Naga Jolokia, the "ghost chili."  It's the hottest pepper in the world.  The menu advises you not to order this nightmare-on-a-plate.  The host of the evening, Dr. Pepper, advises you not to order it, and then gives you a frightening consent form to sign.  He also waves a wand with flashing neon lights over your head.  We weren't sure why.

The task of signing the consent form regrettably fell to me, even though 5/6 of our table planned on trying the pasta.  I almost lost my nerve when I reached the last paragraph:

"...Imagine an angry Goliath Birdeater crawling down your throat, the irritating sting of its barbed urticating hairs penetrating the membranes of your tongue and esophagus.  The large hairy spider reaches your stomach and sinks its fangs into your intestines...Hours later it tears out the other end, alive."

Stupidity prevailed and we ordered the pasta.  Five of us vowed to try at least five bites.  Roxanne, the wise one, opted out with the excuse that she would like her colon to remain intact.  Fair enough.

Some other dishes arrived first, like the Russian Roulette Deviled Eggs, each one flavored differently - anywhere from two to eight bombs.  Roxanne ended up with a seven- or eight-bomber, spicy karmic revenge for not trying the Pasta from Hell.  The five-bomb peel 'n' eat New Orleans-style BBQ shrimp was delicious, although one must be careful to remember to wash hands thoroughly before using the bathroom if one has been handling spicy foods.

The pasta arrived completely saturated in orange and yellow sauces, topped with a huge pile of what appeared to be finely chopped ghost chili.  It sat on the table mocking us as we tentatively smelled it and decided to wait for our cornbread to arrive.  A scowling busboy came to our table several times while the pasta was untouched, and he glared in disapproval, thinking that we were too wimpy to even try a bite.  Finally, Joel decided he couldn't wait anymore, and Chaz and I followed suit.  "Please don't die," begged Roxanne.  Geoff and Michael wisely decided to enjoy some more food before destroying their taste buds.

Imagine being pepper-sprayed in the mouth for about ten minutes straight.  Everything that touches your lips tastes spicy; you can't find relief in bread, and don't even think about trying water - it'll just make it worse.  Finally, the pain dies down...until you realize that it is traveling through your digestive system, and you can still feel it every step of the way.  It comes in waves: a few minutes of near-comfort followed by torture.  Sweat dripping, tears pouring.  And even when you feel halfway decent, you realize that tonight or tomorrow, there will be hell to pay.

Joel, who used to work at a Thai restaurant, somehow downed eight bites and even dipped the bread in the sauce a couple times.  (He paid for it later.)  Chaz and I stopped at five.  "You keep not eating it, and it gets hotter!" exclaimed Chaz, several minutes after his last bite.  Michael and Geoff were done after one.  After Geoff's first - and last - bite, all he could utter was a pitiful "no."  A biology teacher, he had been informing us of some interesting capsaicin facts before our food arrived.  For example, if ghost chili were in liquid form, it'd have a pH level of one.  Other acids with a pH of one include hydrochloric acid and sulfuric acid.  In a more dilute form, sulfuric acid is found in batteries.

Cornbread was a welcome relief, especially once we realized that just eating the accompanying butter helped a lot, and we didn't have to order milk and get berated by the waitstaff.  With the few taste buds we had left, we enjoyed the rest of the food, such as the seven-bomb harissa-smoked lamb shoulder with merguez sausage, which tasted very mild after the pasta.  We also tried the Wings of Ass Destruction.  I will leave it to you, adventurous readers, to try these next time and see if they live up to their name.

As the night drew to a close, we headed home in a sort of capsaicin high.  I felt great; pepto-bismol before and after the meal was probably what saved me.  At least one member of my group, though, suffered some devastating gastrointestinal aftermath that night and the following day.  So, a few pieces of advice for you daredevils that would like to attend a future Hell Night and eat the Pasta from Hell:

1)  Coat your digestive tract before and after.  Pepto-bismol, ice cream, milk, Rollaids.
2)  Don't overeat.  Take it slow.
3)  If there's a chance you touched the pasta sauce, wash your hands many times - and with dish detergent, not just soap - before taking out contact lenses or handling any sensitive body parts that you value.
4)  Don't make any important plans for the following day.
5)  Hell Night is probably not a good idea for a first date.
6)  Eat more ghost chili!  In some parts of the world, it is used as a cure for stomach troubles.

See also: Cinco de Mayo Dinner at East Coast Grill

East Coast Grill on Urbanspoon

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Panettone: Fruitcake Too Good to Re-Gift

An article I wrote for "North End Scene Magazine" - Holiday 2009:

Panettone: Fruitcake Too Good to Re-Gift
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