I’ve had salads that pack more heat.
But in recent years, fast-food executives have embraced the ghost pepper, more for its name and aura of danger, I suspect, than its actual culinary or capsaicin properties. Should Wendy’s or Burger King serve nuggets that deliver the full blunt force of a ghost pepper — it can top 1 million Scoville units, more than 100 times stronger then a jalapeño — the chains would basically need to erect stations where they could dunk incapacitated customers into vats of milk.
I still remember the time, nearly a decade ago, when I was dicing a fresh ghost pepper in my kitchen. I was wearing food-safe gloves, silently telling myself not to touch my face under any circumstance. Here’s what I wrote then:
I tried a small seedless dice of the pepper, approximately the size of a pea, and within seconds, my right eye was streaming tears down my cheek, my nostrils were dripping and, worst of all, I began to hiccup uncontrollably. It was as if my head had become a wood-burning oven, lighting up my tongue and the interior of my skull. Milk provided little relief, until the burn began to subside on its own some 10 minutes later.
— “Caution, these peppers bite,” The Washington Post
I mean, there’s a reason the Indian government has weaponized the ghost pepper, using “chili grenades” for crowd control or to flush out terrorists. Such chaos may be catnip for a certain segment of diners — you brothers know who you are — but no chain with a competent legal department would ever release a genuine ghost pepper assault on the public. Not unless it actually wanted to see its chief executive do a perp walk on TV, charged with involuntary manslaughter by way of super hot peppers.
So while fast-food companies have been tripping over themselves to introduce ghost-pepper-infused items, they have often done so in a way that diminishes the chile’s power. Consider the ghost pepper wings that Popeyes rolled out more than seven years ago: They were marinated “in a blend of spicy peppers, including a dash of ghost pepper.” The wings were to ghost peppers what Little League is to MLB.
Countless fast-food operators have developed ghost pepper products in the years since then. A small sampling: The twin furnace of ghost pepper fries and a spicy chicken sandwich with ghost pepper sauce from Wendy’s; a ghost pepper McChicken from McDonald’s Canada; ghost pepper nuggets from Burger King; and a ghost pepper ranch sauce from Wendy’s.
The latest offerings arrived this month from Burger King and, perhaps surprisingly, Baskin-Robbins, both developed and promoted its items to mark the season, which is perfect: The ghost pepper has been reduced to Halloween kitsch. If we’ve learned anything about late-stage capitalism, it’s this: Given enough time, corporations can render anything toothless, even the mighty ghost pepper.
With my expectations low and cynicism high, I was shocked — shocked! — to discover the heat packed into a single scoop of Baskin-Robbins’ seasonal Spicy ’n Spooky ice cream, which, according to publicity materials, combines white chocolate and ghost pepper-flavored ice cream with dark chocolate ice cream and spicy blood orange flakes. I had expected the milky and fatty elements to basically counteract the peppers. The anticipated flavors do register first: the sweet silkiness of the ice cream, the dense richness of the dark chocolate and the candied fruit of the blood orange flakes, but once those pass, the chile pepper takes over and refuses to leave. Its heat expands like a gas on your palate, the spice both pleasurable and painful.
That’s when it hits me: I have become a human jack-o’-lantern, a head full of fire. I might as well plant myself on a stoop and wait for some teenagers to kick my face.
With its wrinkly, orange-tinted bun speckled with black sesame seeds, the ghost pepper Whopper looks like a jack-o’-lantern gone to seed. Its desiccated appearance is reinforced by the lack of traditional condiments. Without its complement of mayo and ketchup, this specialty Whopper is an unusually arid sandwich. The spicy queso and ghost pepper cheese just can’t supply the necessary moisture. Garnished with fried strips of jalapeño and bacon, the burger is reduced to a pair of imposing flavors and sensations: the heat of the ghost peppers, and the smokiness of Burger King’s famous flame grilling. That the latter can match the not insignificant heat of the ghost pepper tells you something about the intensity of BK’s flame-grill process, which the company has told me in no uncertain terms is not attributable to Liquid Smoke or anything else added to the burger.
With both dishes, however, I encountered an interesting phenomenon: The spice of the ghost peppers suppressed my desire to finish them. I left both cone and burger half-eaten, my palate fatigued by the heat. It’s as if I grew tired of fighting with the ghost pepper to get what I was really after: the sweetness of that ice cream and the savoriness of that burger.