During my first semester at UW-Stout, in the Fall of 2019, I was enrolled in a class titled General Ethics. It covered the topic of moral philosophy and was taught by a man named Glenn Kuhn. This guy was the complete opposite of what one would expect of a philosophy teacher. Many would expect a much older man, wearing khakis and a tweed jacket, smoking a pipe through his Aristotle-like beard. This was not Glenn. Glenn was a jolly, flamboyant character who came to class with his hair dyed a different color every other week. This is why I admired the man.
See, Glenn was not only a philosopher, but also moonlighted as a banquette chef at the 29 Pines Restaurant near Eau Claire, WI. One day, when we were discussing Aristotle’s virtue ethics, he explained how Aristotle thought that courage is a spectrum, where cowardice lies at one end, and foolishness at the other. Near the end of the class, he offered each of us a small spoonful of the Carolina Reaper chili that they serve at 29 Pines and asked if any of us where courageous enough to try. He first warned that this was one of the hottest foods on earth, and that he once ate a whole bow. He said that it was one of the most painful things he had ever experienced. I and three others accepted. And it hurt.
The chili that he gave to us in the classroom was a bit watery, and that was probably intentional, so that wouldn’t be responsible for any deaths that way have occurred. He told us that 29 Pines Restaurant offers this chili as a challenge. If one eats an entire ten-ounce bowl in under ten minutes and can endure five minutes of pain without any drinking anything after finishing, then they get a free T-shirt, and the chili is free.
I wanted to win this challenge, but I do not know why. Not because I needed a shirt, not because in really liked spicy food. Not even because I thought that I was super courageous. Maybe I just wanted Glenn and my classmates to think I was cool. I do not know.
Eventually I did find time to take the challenge, on a Saturday, December 7, 2019. I went to 29 Pines, asked for Glenn, and told the lady at the entrance that I was taking the challenge. She gave me a table, took my single item order, and left me to ready myself for the storm. In only a few minutes, Glenn appeared, holding a bowl of chili in one hand and ice cream in the other.
He sat down with me and I gave him my phone to record what might be my final moments. If I died, then of course the rest of the class might want to see it. Before I started, he warned me that once I finished the bowl and waited the five minutes, that I must immediately go to the bathroom in case body rejects the peppers and tries to throw them up. It happened to him.
I was ready. I stared at the bowl in front of me, planning to eat it as fast as I could, as per his advice. I took a spoonful and smelled it, and the capsaicin in the steam made my eyes burn. I breathed in twice to ready myself, then ate it. This was not a good idea.
The chili that I ate in the classroom was thin and watery, as I mentioned, but it was good. It had three kinds of beans, it had tomatoes but wasn’t too acidic, and had plenty of meat. It was a solid chili, better than what is served at other restaurants. But this first bite did not taste like that, it didn’t taste like anything. There was no flavor. There was only pain. An unending pain. I do not have the words to describe what this pain felt like. Imagine what it feels like to place your hand on a hot stove. The kind of pain that causes your body to pull away on its own to once your cells start dying. This is what I felt on every surface in my mouth, except I couldn’t pull away.
That first bite stopped me I my tracks. I had planned to inhale to entire bowl as fast as I could, but that was no longer possible. I was already sweating, and tears were in my eyes. I took another bite, and the pain increased for a second then remained constant. I put the spoon down and checked to see if my heart was still beating. Unfortunately, it was, so I had to keep eating. I took another bite and recoiled into my seat, shuddering at the third shock of pain I felt in the back of my mouth. Glenn was laughing as he recorded me. He understood exactly how it felt.
I kept eating, making small talk between bites to try and stall the next punch that the peppers would throw at me. I ate at a pace of about one large spoonful per minute. I nearly threw up at the table, but I was ready to use the coffee creamer bowl if I had to.
I finally finished with one-minute left, but the reaper wasn’t yet finished with me. The five minutes of waiting was probably the worse part of the experience. It felt like an hour, probably the adrenaline in my body distorting my perception of time. I stopped the recording, to preserve some of my dignity, and covered myself with my jacket and laid down in the booth and convulsed until the five minutes had passed.
Eventually, they would pass, and I was congratulated for doing the nearly impossible. I ate the ice cream, but it wouldn’t put out the fire. Not even a tall glass of milk would help to cool the burns in my mouth. Soon, the waitress who seated me returned with black T-shirt with Carolina Reaper pepper on it, with the statement” I don’t fear the Reaper”, clearly an homage to a well-known song by Blue Öyster Cult.
Unfortunately for me, eating the chili was only half of the battle. I did eventually throw up, not even ten minutes after finishing, my finally body rejecting the chemical weapon that I subjected myself to. The drive home was frightening. The delirium, sweating, and painful cramps forced me to stop at a Kwik Trip to puke for a second time, and then buy more milk and antacids. The rest of the day was worse than actually eating the chili. The details are not suitable for polite conversation, but I spent a portion of the night cramping and convulsing in a cold shower, wishing to die and see an end to my suffering.
The next morning, I felt hungover because of the stresses that my body had endured. I couldn’t enjoy my beloved coffee, or even an ironically named Dr. Pepper, because of the chemical burns in my mouth that diminished my sense of taste for the next three days. I had no appetite until Sunday night, and was nauseous all day, due to the battle scars in my stomach.
By Monday I felt better, except for my inability to taste, and I came to my ethics class wearing my hard-won trophy. I was once again congratulated by my teacher, and even the rest of the class, and we continued our end of semester discussion. Though we had long since moved on from Aristotle’s Virtues, and had a new understanding of what courage means. At on end of the spectrum there is cowardice, having so little courage that you are afraid to try new and scary thing. At the other end, foolishness, having so much courage that you always put yourself in harms way. Through this experience I learned that I am a fool, and I fear the reaper.