You Are What You Eat: Spicy Chicken Wings

Chicago's most daring gastronomes tackle the spiciest chicken wings around.

CHICAGO, Feb. 1, 2008 — -- Visit Jack Melnick's Corner Tap, where the neighborhood pub in Chicago is serving up chicken wings, and you might be surprised to hear a range of expletives.

They're so hot that patron Dave Brooks equated them with "torture."

"It's basically like getting tear-gassed," said Dave Butts, another brave customer.

And culinary adventurer Sam Jones described eating the wings as the "dumbest thing I've ever done."

Melnick's says its chicken wings are the hottest in the world. In fact, they're so spicy that customers have to sign a waiver before eating them.

When your order arrives, so does a bell. If need be, a customer can ring out an SOS and the waitstaff will immediately respond with food to extinguish the fire in his or her mouth.

"We have sour cream, we have ice cream, we have bread, we have orange segments and milk," said chef Eric Kelly.

What sets these wings apart is what Melnick's claims is an extract from one of nature's spiciest peppers, the Red Savina. It's imported from India. Kelly says that when he buys the peppers, he has to sign a waiver saying "that we are going to be responsible — that we are chefs, it's a culinary-driven purchase."

He even has to hand over a copy of his driver's license so the sellers know his identity.

Level of Spiciness

Just how hot is the Red Savina?

To find out, "Nightline" sent a vial of pepper extract to the Chile Pepper Institute in New Mexico.

Experts measured the level of spiciness on the scientifically tested Scoville Scale and found Savina measured twice as hot as a Habanero pepper and 65 times spicier than a jalapeno. In fact, the Red Savina's oils are so irritating to the human body that they're used to make pepper spray.

Back at the restaurant, Kelly showed "Nightline" the secret recipe.

The recipe starts by mixing pureed habaneros with a house sauce.

"All by itself that's plenty hot," Kelly said.

He then carefully added five drops of the Red Savina extract and poured the mixture into a blender before finally adding it to the chicken wings.

Aspiring to the Wall of Flame

Customers are immortalized on the restaurant's Wall of Flame.

But why would people aspire to such a thing?

John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist and professor of psychology at the University of Chicago, has a few theories about the people who endure such pain … for chicken.

"Young males with other young males, particularly watching some competitive event, like a golf or Super Bowl game," he said.

Eating hot wings may hurt at first, but eventually, endorphins kick in and pain turns to pleasure. "It would mimic what some people describe as a runner's high," Cacioppo added. "The first quarter-mile isn't the best part, that's not why people run. They run because of the exercise, but also because of the pleasure they feel after they're finished."

Adding Spice to Your Life

And there's another reason why young men, eager to prove their dominance, may be whipped into a wing-eating frenzy. "Aren't you proud?" one pub patron who managed to choke down the chicken asked his girlfriend.

"I am so proud, babe," she said.

Hot wings, whether you're married or single, can literally add spice to your love life.

"In the case of hot wings, you can imagine how with a date … the whole date might be more fun if both of you dive into some alcohol and engage in some painful eating of these hot wings," Cacioppo said. "So they're both aroused, they don't know necessarily that it's due to the food or the pain associated with having eaten it, so they attribute it to each other, and so it's a more enjoyable date."

It's an Acquired Tolerance

Compared to women, men generally tolerate spicy food better because of a less acute sense of smell and taste. Jon Stahler has been eating hot peppers his whole life. The 32-year-old librarian devoured an entire basket of 10 wings.

"Librarians are tough," he said.

Sure enough, others took notice. A woman approached to ask whether he needed CPR, which lent credence to Cacioppo's theory of attraction.

"I mean, I think he's like a celebrity," she said.