NEW YORK – Picture this scene: five grown men shaking, crying uncontrollably and sweating profusely. It's not a battle re-enactment from a war flick, but the aftermath of eating an order of Atomic wings from Quaker Steak & Lube.
That is, of course, after they signed medical waivers in order to eat said wings.
"I ... after being aware of the most extreme degree of heat ... am willing to hold harmless Best Wings USA Inc.," reads the waiver, noting that the undersigned is "giving up his/her right to recover for any acts involved with the ingestion of the above described food product."
"Your initial bite, you get the flavor and then it starts to get hotter," said Mike Colello, general manager of the Sharon, Pa., restaurant. "The burn starts to get worse, and that's when the customers start asking for the chocolate syrup."
The syrup helps quell the searing inferno in customers' mouths.
"Water makes it much, much worse," Colello advised.
Food's spiciness is generated by the amount of capsaicin an item contains, and is rated by the Scoville Heat Unit (search) scale, where a green bell pepper ranks 0 and a jalapeno pulls in around 3,000 units.
The sauce used on Atomic wings nets 150,000-300,000 Scoville units — 50 to 100 times hotter than a jalapeno (which are served with the wings "to cool down your palate") — depending on the batch of habanero peppers used in the sauce. Habaneros are the hottest pepper, containing the most capsaicin of any chili.
Like bungee jumpers and other risk-takers, there's a legion of spice freaks always searching for the ultimate extreme — or the spiciest concoction.
"The first thing people always ask is, 'What's the hottest stuff you've got,'" said Dave DeWitt, author of more than 30 spicy cookbooks and organizer of the National Fiery-Foods and BBQ expos, which hold hot sauce contests.
Eating something as jacked-up as the Atomic wings "triggers the release of endorphins to kill the pain," said DeWitt, who runs www.fiery-foods.com and is known as the "Pope of Peppers." He explained that those who opt to stomach such fire achieve something akin to "a runner's high."
Quaker Steak & Lube, established in 1974 in Sharon, Pa., is now a 13-strong chain and has earned its stripes as a top hot-wing restaurant. Equal parts eatery and mechanic shop, it serves inexpensive, casual grub and nearly every dish bears the name of something automotive, such as Edsel Pretzels and O-Rings Ontenna onion rings.
But it's the assortment of 16 wing sauces that separates Quaker Steak & Lube from other restaurants. Sauces like the award-winning Buckeye BBQ, Louisiana Lickers and Munchurian Madness meld a spicy kick with tangy flavors.
But for straight "Buffalo" style wings, there are rungs in the fire ladder: Mild, Medium, Hot, Suicide and the mouth-detonating Atomic.
Granted, the release form is as much a publicity stunt as it is a warning, as Colello joked, "It's definitely a fun thing, but they are hot to the point where we have to warn."
Despite the waiver, Quaker Steak & Lube said they're not aware of any customers being hospitalized. Medical research shows spicy foods have positive health effects, including aiding weight control and clearing nasal passages. On the downside, fiery foods can make heartburn worse, trigger hot flashes and increase the heart rate.
DeWitt said he's witnessed "fainting and spontaneous vomiting," from some of these sauces, and his prime health concerns lie in the consumer's "sensitivity issue and allergic reactions possibly causing anaphylactic shock," which induces dangerously low blood pressure.
As the protective-glove wearing server brought the order over, another staffer told a tale of an overwhelmed diner who ran outside and ate handfuls of snow after just one Atomic wing.
The misleading first bite is all marvelous flavor, but before you know it, the pins-and-needles style discomfort spreads like a brushfire. The sting continues to a scorching climax, and you begin to wonder if the chef mistakenly coated the wings in lava instead of edible sauce.
After nearly 10 minutes, the burn that once resided in your mouth heads south, nestling itself nicely as a wicked case of heartburn.
But after a few antacid tablets and an "Atomic Wings Survivor" bumper sticker, the only question remaining among the group was: "When can we come back?"