It is only now, almost a year on from our ordeal, that I feel able to recount it. The wounds had not healed, the horror was too fresh. Even now, as I cast my mind back to that fateful night on Cowley, I feel the burn.
Four foolhardy young Queen’ s Men set off to Atomic Burger that night. A small crowd followed close behind. Such interest was aroused for one reason; these silly young brigands were going to take on The Godzilla Challenge. A burger so fierce they named a mythical Japanese monster after it. A sauce so hot it had destroyed Tokyo, New York City and Mothra.
The three men who sat by my side that night had nothing but curiosity and college in common; Will, an eating titan with an experienced curry palette, Branigan, who had come down out of the frozen north to eat tonight and Dinsdale, who looked for all the world like canon-fodder. A motley crew indeed. I sat there just hoping to avoid scenes like the cream-cracker-catastrophe of ’10.
The early confidence was replaced by jittery anticipation when the crowd were given a small sample of the sauce to try. We assumed they were play acting, trying to freak us out with their tears and running to the loo. Surely it couldn’t be that bad. It was about this point that we had to sign the disclaimer. As we confirmed that we had no previous heart conditions and were, in fact, not pregnant, dread began to fill our empty stomachs. The mandatory rubber gloves did nothing to ally these fears.
The burgers loomed large as they arrived on the table. Triple meat, triple cheese, triple jalapenos and triple sci-(read chilli baked)-fris, all liberally doused in the sauce. One hour was all we would have to consume this culinary construction but all knew that it was the temperature not the time that would be the problem.
‘It’s not that bad!’ muffled Brannigan, tears and snot streaming from every orifice. The initial shock of 1,000,000 scovilles chilli heat was profound. The sauce, made using the former hottest chilli in the world, the Bhut Jolokia or Ghost Chilli, is potent stuff. The chilli alone is higher on the Scoville scale than many pepper sprays and four hundred and sixteen times hotter than standard tabasco.
Against all odds Will powered through the burger in less than ten minutes. As his red face cooled there was even talk of making the top-ten-times leader board. Though his rate did slow he eventually finished the platter in an impressive twenty-two minutes. That left three of us, fiery mucus filling our mouths and noses, kind friends occasionally blowing them for us (the sauce can’t contact the skin, hence the rubber gloves). ‘Milk!’ cried the competitors, ‘Eat!’ retorted the crowd. We were all ploughing through the pints of milk faster than the food in an attempt to nullify the sizzling in our oesophaguses (that statement may not be grammatically or medically correct).
At around the twenty-minute mark the stomach begins to send signals to the brain to say it is full. At about thirty minutes it also begins to reject chilli on principle. Between these two key times we lost two good men. Branigan and Dinsdale had stared into that flaming pit and said ‘no more’, leaving me to journey on alone.
Things got pretty dark in that final stint. The body was finished, spent, but the mind was not to be beaten. Several close calls led to the bin being nudged closer by the sympathetic staff, the claustrophobic heat encouraged my shirt to be unbuttoned. These important precautions along with the encouragement of my team-mates and blaring synth-pop urged me on.
First the burger, then the chips, then the bread, all gone, I was looking down the barrel of a sloppy double jalapeno for victory. Forcing that final unhealthy fruit past my scolded lips released a deep sense of peace and calm. Victory did not taste sweet but it was victory none the less. Admittedly, at over fifty minutes, one of the slowest times ever to be recorded, this was not a contest to trouble the leadership board but as a spectacle it was unrivalled.
Four naïve young men went out to Cowley that night expecting to eat burgers. Two were consumed by flames beyond their imagining; two were forged within that fire. They become something stronger than they had ever been before and they had the t-shirts to prove it.
Later that night I scrolled through Atomic Burger’s website to see whether Johnny Cash had taken the challenge prior to his 1963 album. As the second, more private, leg of our gastric challenge began I couldn’t help finding new meaning in his lyrics ‘it went down, down, down and the flames leapt higher, and it burns, burns, burns, the ring of fire, the ring of fire’.