The moment I saw the commercial for the new ghost pepper wings at Popeyes, I knew the product would be a triumph of hype over hyper-burn. I mean, if Popeyes actually allowed the pepper to express all one million Scoville units of its capsaicin heat, the chain would have to install hiccup stations coast to coast, complete with milk, bread and an officious little legal twerp explaining the company is not responsible for any sudden loss of motor coordination.
I'm only half-joking.
A couple of years ago, I sampled a few of the "super-hot" peppers available at farmers markets, including the ghost pepper known as Bhut Jolokia in its native India. So-called super-hots must average, in replicated and scientifically controlled trials, one million Scoville heat units or more. If that scale means nothing to you, consider this: The jalapeno has a heat range between 2,500 and 8,000 Scoville units, which, more or less, makes it the pipsqueak of peppers. (The hottest pepper on earth is currently the Carolina Reaper, which looks like a wart removed from the devil's middle finger. It averages between 1.4 million and 2.2 million Scoville heat units.)
Popeyes, of course, didn't become a popular national chain by arbitrarily subjecting its customers to random acts of sadism. In its promotion for the limited-time-only offering, Popeyes announced the wings and drumettes are marinated "in a blend of spicy peppers, including a dash of ghost pepper."
In the parlance of Popeyes, a "dash of ghost pepper" must mean the prep team bows in the direction of India while marinating the chicken.
It's not as if the wings aren't spicy. They are. They're just not ghost pepper spicy. Consider the reaction I had in October 2012 when I sampled just a teeny piece of Bhut Jolokia:
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.
By contrast, these wings have a slow-building burn, as if you were placed in a cauldron of lukewarm water while the cannibals slowly added more logs to the fire. Except the temperature never gets hot enough to cook your goose. The spice level is more subtle; the peppers simultaneously pinch your tongue and sprinkle their fragrance in and around the insanely crispy meat.
The truth is, if these weren't marketed as "ghost pepper" wings, with the implied threat of self-immolation, I'd love them. In fact, I do love them: They're small, succulent, nicely seasoned, slightly spicy and so easy to destroy six at a time. (A half-dozen wings runs $3.99, which will get you a biscuit, too, to absorb all that nonexistent ghost pepper spice.) But I simply can't endorse them as advertised: It would be a betrayal of all true gastromasochists, who seek heat for its own warped pleasure.