Wing Man


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What is it that drives some members of the human community to defy their physical limits, to exceed the norms of logic and reason, and to stand alone on the frontier of the impossible?  I had occasion to contemplate these questions at the first bi-annual Hot Wing Challenge, held the other weekend at the Grand Marketplace, a suburban bazaar in Willingboro, New Jersey.

The event was hosted by Mild to Wild, Curly’s Creations, and Stolzfus Meats — the last supplying the wings, the first two the sauce. The Mild to Wild store stocks a variety of sauces including “F” Milk, Larry’s Hot Pussy Sauce, Salvation, and Neal’s Hairy Ass. But Curly’s Creations is the local brand, and Curly was there to fine-tune the sauces for the competition.

First round: super hot.

Second round: super-duper hot.

Third round: hottest on the planet.

Possible final elimination round: capable of blinding you if you rub your napkin in your eye.

There were 13 contenders. Most were on the youngish side, used to abusing their bodies on the playing field and at the keg party. There were a handful in the 40-something range who’d had long-term practice in unhealthy eating. And there was the Veteran, positioned at the end of the table in a motorized wheelchair. He looked to be about 65, had a serious beer gut, and a complexion the color of dirty putty. In other words, he’d been around the block where hot wings were concerned.

The judges explained the rules: no leaving the table during the contest, no drinking during the round, no “wiping” of the wing. Two contestants, raring to get started, were discussing their fondness for Curly’s Fire Alarm Sauce.

“Love that shit.”

“Broke myself in with some this morning.”

The absence of women in the competition was noted.

“My wife likes hot, but she wouldn’t sign up,” someone complained.

“Women can take the heat, but they can’t do the speed,” explained the Veteran sagely.

Rules stipulated that you had to eat the first set of six wings in five minutes. There was a crush of spectators, including a nice showing of Amish from the bakery next door and a number of irritated-looking wives. The wings were distributed and the countdown began. 3-2-1-Go!  The 13 dove in. When the first round was over, everyone had finished.

“Good appetizer,” boasted one.

“Bring on the heat,” said another.

The second round began.  Three wings apiece with super-duper hot sauce, five minutes to clean them to the bone.

“Paramedics!” called out one of the judges. A young guy, second from the left, had his head back with a nose bleed. Two paramedics who had been standing with the bunch of Amish near the Mild to Wild store entrance pushed through and tended to the bleeder.

Some of the guys had turned green and were sweating buckets.

At the end of the second round, it was two out, 11 remaining.

“Enough already!” screamed the wives, “You’re gonna kill yourself!”  But no one listened.

Wings were positioned for the third round: two apiece with sauce hottest on the planet. Countdown — Go! Sweat was running down cheeks; eyes rolling back in sockets.  Two guys put up their hands; they were out. “It’s the breathing gets you,” said one. “I tried to hold my breath, but what you gonna do? You gotta breathe.”

Everyone was struggling, except the Veteran. He’d finished first in the last two rounds, and he finished first again now, barely a drop of sweat on him.

“That guy’s an alien,” one of the young guys said in awe.

Time was up and the judges inspected. A few contestants were eliminated for not cleaning their wings (decision final, no arguing).

There were six left for the overtime round, and Curly went back to concoct something special. It was quiet. No one looked relaxed, except the Veteran.

The final wings emerged — only two per contestant this time, but you could smell the heat. The purveyors had put on plastic gloves and warned bystanders to stand back. Countdown — Go! Six guys, teeth tearing at chicken flesh, heads down and about to explode. One of the older guys, with years of hard eating and drinking behind him, put up his hands; he was out. So too the young guy with the earring. But by then the Veteran had already cleaned his wings. In victory, he wiped his mouth gingerly with a napkin, and pushed aside his plate. A slight sweat dotted his upper lip. “Not half as hot as my mother-in-law’s scalding breath,” he pronounced.

The remaining four battled it out for second place. The black guy with the baseball cap, tears streaming down his face, pushed through a coughing fit and finished up to a roar of applause from his family. Third place was still a contest between a cool-looking dude with a mane of black hair and a bald guy who looked like a stockbroker. The cool dude was getting red but he was breathing through his nose and eating fast; the stockbroker was falling behind.

“I was only a bite away,”  he bemoaned later. But in hot wing competition, a bite is as a good as mile. It was over. Nickel-plated trophies with chickens on top were distributed.

“Give the guys some milk,” someone in the crowd bellowed. But it was beers they wanted; then, maybe more hot wings.

I’ve been to lots of sporting events in my life, but the first bi-annual Hot Wing Competition stands apart. Here is a test of the body’s inner resources in the most literal sense — its capacity to ingest what defies the humanly ingestible. Eyes, nose, stomach, heart, lungs, and kidneys are involved, and you can see the toll taken right there in front of you, where the contestants sweat and gag, weep and bleed — all without moving an inch from the table. Take your football and your boxing, take your snowboarding and your Ultimate Fighting. For all the punishment that the athletes in these sports have to endure, the hot wing competitors take more in the way of sheer, concentrated abuse than any of them. This is sport at its most unadulterated: a combination of willpower, practiced technique, and unaccountable, serendipitous prowess. This is sport where a guy in a wheelchair who looks like he might keel over from a heart attack any minute can emerge the winner. This is sport — cleaned down to the bone. • 19 March 2009


Paula Marantz Cohen is Distinguished Professor of English and Dean of the Pennoni Honors College at Drexel University in Philadelphia. She is the author of 12 books, including six scholarly/nonfiction works on literature and film, and six novels, some spin-offs on Jane Austen and Shakespeare, and a thriller involving the James family and Jack the Ripper. She is a frequent contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Times Literary Supplement, The Yale Review, and The American Scholar, a co-editor of jml: Journal of Modern Literature, and the host of the nationally distributed television interview show, The Civil Discourse (formerly The Drexel InterView). Her book, Talking Cure: An Essay on the Civilizing Power of Conversation will be published by Princeton UP in February.