The Taste Bud: Tasting the mystery

I’m normally not a big fast-food guy, but I had to watch in amusement and curiosity when I first saw the Popeye’s Louisiana Kitchen commercial for the chain’s new Ghost Pepper Wings.

“Taste the mystery,” the woman beckons in the spot, as bright orange, heavily breaded sections of chicken wing bound downward in slow motion.

The ghost pepper, of course, is a hotter-than-hell pepper also known as bhut jolokia, and until 2012 was considered the hottest naturally occurring pepper in the world. Hey, the thing tops out at more than 1 million Scoville units, which is roughly 900 times hotter than Tabasco sauce. That’s hot stuff. Seriously, these things have been used in not just pepper spray, but also hand grenades. Think about that for a minute. And people are eating these things?

So, my initially thought was, “How do they advertise and serve this product without scalding people’s mouths or at last scaring them away?” I mean, sure, I love the heat, so I was intrigued. But most people I know would recoil in horror at the thought of eating a ghost pepper or anything to do with something that had ever been used as an ingredient in a hand grenade.

Naturally, I had to try these wings.

On New Year’s Day, my girlfriend Cynthia and I made a trip to the Popeye’s in Jeffersonville, Indiana, to pick up some chicken to go. She got tenders, I got half a dozen of the Ghost Pepper Wings. When we got them home, I opened the box and found that the blazing orange color from the commercial was not exaggerated. These things looked treacherous.

However, I noted that the scent didn’t really phase my sinuses – usually, extreme heat can quickly be identified from smell. As I had expected, these wings were going to be extremely restrained on the ghost pepper spice. I later read that these wings are marinated for 12 hours in “an exotic blend of peppers,” that blend containing some unknown quantity of ghost peppers. That tells you what you need to know.

What I wanted, however, was the flavor. Ghost peppers remind me of very hot versions of habanero peppers, which are my favorite peppers by far. The unique, sharp flavor is simply one of those flavors my taste buds can’t get enough of, heat be damned.

So, I took my first bite of the rather small wing section I plucked from the box. After one bite, I noticed a bit of spicy flavor, but none of the heat. On the second bite, the heat made its first subtle appearance. After three good-sized bites, my lips and tongue began to tingle with spice.

Now we’re getting somewhere.

The drummette sections were actually a bit meatier and also more heavily coated in batter, which also helped ramp things up somewhat. But instead of a giant heat onslaught of ghost pepper proportions, what I got instead was a fairly moderate, lingering heat that didn’t cross any lines. Sure, I got myself a mild endorphin rush, which is always nice, but it wasn’t hand-grenade level.

The good news was that, occasionally, the habanero-esque flavor would peek through, even if the heat was about half what my buds were looking for. Of course, the palate of the general population may still want to tread cautiously; Cynthia took one bite of one of my wings, paused for six or seven seconds and then said, “Oh my stars.”

She took a long drink from her iced tea and a moment later said, “That’s the kind of heat that spreads.”

Well, maybe for some palates. If you’re accustomed to the heat, these Popeye’s Ghost Pepper Wings will be a nice diversion from what normally passes for spicy at chain restaurants. Hats off to Popeye’s for at least making an effort. They got close. But as we know, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades.