The hotness of a chili pepper is measured in Scoville units, named for American chemist Wilbur Scoville, who devised the scale in 1912. The scale measures the amount of capsaicin in a particular pepper — from the capsaicin-free sweet bell pepper to the wickedly hot habanero. For a group of friends in Greater Bangor, Wilbur Scoville is a patron saint.
“I’ve got an entire shelf in my fridge that’s just hot sauce,” said Serge Drage, an audio-visual engineer at the University of Maine and a Bangor resident. “It’s an obsession. I’ve been all over the country in search of really good hot sauces. And I make my own.”
On Tuesday evening, Drage, Paula Codrington, Kim Mitchell and Carey Haskell, all of Bangor, Andy Soule of Dover-Foxcroft and Jason “Frenchie” Freeman of Orono all stepped up to a challenge set by Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, a restaurant on Wilson Street in Brewer.
The “Nuclear Wing Challenge” asks willing participants to eat 20 of the restaurant’s “nuclear-strength” hot wings in 20 minutes. Winners get a T-shirt and their pictures on the “wall of flame.”
“I did a practice run yesterday,” Freeman said. “I ate five in two minutes and 45 seconds. Not bad.”
Though the group shares many interests besides spicy foods, hot sauce is what binds them together. The friends, most of whom work in radio or television, began meeting about 10 years ago on Wednesday nights at the Bear Brew Pub in Orono, although at the time it wasn’t because of a shared love of spicy foods. Mainly, they just wanted to unwind after work with a couple of beers and some grub.
What started as a simple social gathering, however, turned into something much hotter. Much, much hotter.
“They used to have all-you-can-eat rib and wing night at the Bear Brew. They were just so good,” said Kim Mitchell, a videographer who developed a taste for spicy food when he lived in Texas. “Eventually, the heat factor on those wings just wasn’t enough. We built up our tolerance. We had to go further.”
Serge Drage, the unofficial king of hot sauce, concocted his own recipe — hotter even than the hottest sauce the Bear Brew had to offer. So hot that now the Bear Brew offers four flavors of hot sauce — mild, medium, hot and “Serge.” Freeman initially found Drage’s habanero-heavy sauce to be almost unbearable.
“It burned for a half hour,” he said. “Serge is insane. I don’t think he has taste buds. He’s burned them off.”
Drage’s girlfriend, Paula Codrington, always has liked heat, though she has found a new appreciation for it since meeting Drage.
“My mom used to crave jalapenos and hot peppers when she was pregnant with me,” said Codrington. “Besides, capsaicin is good for circulation. It’s an aphrodisiac. It prevents cancer. I don’t know if any of that is actually true, but why not?”
All agreed that the best hot sauces aren’t too thin — a chunky sauce is much better. Tabasco tastes like spicy vinegar to them. For store-bought sauces, Frank’s Red Hot or Dave’s are, generally speaking, the best around.
“There’s a place in Portland that makes great hot sauce, called Captain Mowatt’s,” said Haskell, who was at the challenge with his wife, Loretta, and daughter Victoria. “You always find new stuff. But personally, I still think the Bear Brew’s are the best.”
Victoria Haskell, a 10-year-old fifth-grader at Mary Snow School in Bangor, isn’t as big a fan of spicy food as her father, but she’s growing to appreciate it.
“I tried a tiny taste of Serge’s sauce, and I drank almost a whole glass of water afterward,” she said. “I liked it kind of hot. Not super hot.”
Beef ‘O’ Brady’s hot wings got a resounding note of approval from all participants.
“They’re really good,” said Mitchell. “They aren’t as hot as our wings, but they’re really flavorful and tasty.”
Drage brought a vial of pure ground habanero, which he acquired while vacationing in New Orleans. During the challenge, he sprinkled a generous amount of it on several of his wings, then continued eating.
“This stuff is basically edible pepper spray,” said Drage, who barely broke a sweat as he polished off the spicy wing. “People think it doesn’t have any flavor, but I think it does. I think it’s nice.”
After all was said and done, and all participants were wiping bits of hot sauce off their faces with the two rolls of paper towel provided by Beef ‘O’ Brady’s, the winner was Drage, who ate all his wings in a few seconds under nine minutes. Haskell followed, with 9:20, Mitchell with 10:45, Frenchie with 18 minutes exactly, and Andy with 19:05. According to Beef ‘O’ Brady’s staff, the fastest finish was a little more than six minutes.
“My mouth is finally starting to return to normal,” said Haskell, a few minutes after finishing wing No. 20. “However, now I’ve got hot sauce all through my beard and on my nose. Comes with the territory, I guess.”
In total, 60 chickens were sacrificed to Wilbur Scoville, patron saint of hot sauce, as the six participants ate 120 wings in total. Well, 118. Codrington found herself unable to stomach her last two wings — not because of the heat, but because that’s a lot of chicken. Fortunately, Haskell and Drage were on hand to finish the last two for her.