Photo by Mars Vilaubi
With hot nights and cool drinks, summer is a great time to go on a quest for spicy foods — and what better place to start your own personal Trail of Flame than the bars and dives in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York. It is here that camp counselors, who hail from all over, on their nights off hit the bars, swig Saranac, and ask for wings, which originated in nearby Buffalo. Tough guys, they insist nothing is too hot for them; indeed, the hotter the better. It is here that Armageddon was born.
Indeed, ground zero on the trail of flame may be the Red Dog Tavern, a bar outside teeny Inlet, New York, accessible only by snowmobile in the winter. As a tenth-generation Yankee raised on clam boils and pot roasts, I had bought into the assumption that there’s no hot food in the Northeast, but nursing my tongue at the bar, sweating, and hiccupping over the wings soaked in Nuclear Waste sauce, I discovered better.
“Dangerous food can be the best food,” one pit master told me, and he was right. When I visited the Red Dog, it was an innocuous place — a casual camp-style bar where dogs and babies were welcome and the bartender sold everything from long-stem roses to cheap cigars and whole milk (I should have known from this clue). A photograph of Sundance (the first Red Dog) hung on the wall, as did a photo of Bill and Hillary with the caption “Violate the Clean Air Act and Try Nuclear Waste.” The owner, Ted Klamm, a former Navy Seal, loved hot — he ate jalapenos daily and made a wicked horseradish-soaked pickle that shuddered through your sinus cavity like a freight train. He also made a line of incendiary sauces that culminated in Armageddon — “the end of the world,” according to Ted. If you could eat a dozen chicken wings marinated in Armageddon, he’d put your name on the wall at the end of the bar (behind the live tarantula) on his Wall of Flame. When I went there, only fifteen people had made the cut.
I fell into a burning ring of fireI thought I knew hot and started by nibbling on wings marinated in Sweet Revenge. I should have sensed what was coming when an old-timer at the bar decided to stick around when he heard some sucker from Massachusetts was going to sample Armageddon. "These sauces give people the hiccups," he offered solicitously. Next I tried Armageddon wings, and it is an experience I'll never forget. I took a baby bite — the size of a pea — and my mouth was seized with a paralysis that crept from my lips to my tongue and down my throat. For about ten minutes I thought I would faint. My husband took a bigger bite (of course), and within minutes sweat started creeping up his scalp and two-thirds of his head was soaked. He hoarsely asked the bartender for milk (no charge, thank you).
I went down, down, down and the flames went higher
And it burns, burns, burns the ring of fire
The ring of fire
— Johnny Cash
While Sweet Revenge had flavor, Ted’s Armageddon Sauce was gratuitously hot, made for the camp counselors who appeared and said, “Nothin's too hot for me.” When it’s hot it’s hot, and Armageddon took the cake. While I generally prefer more flavorful, less incendiary sauces, it was a memorable moment on the Trail, and in my own personal pantheon of hot. “You’re gonna remember me tomorrow, too,” he said. You bet.
As I got ready last week to make the pilgrimage up to Inlet, I called ahead. Turns out Ted had gone to the big chicken ranch in the sky. The new owner still serves Armageddon, but he chuckled that he didn’t maintain the Wall of Flame anymore. “It’s just too darn hot,” he said.
Or as Woody Allen once said, “My teeth are melting.”
Check these recipes to get you simmering, balancing fire with flavor:
Spicy Pineapple Margarita
More recipes from Hot Sauce! on our blog:
Fire-Roasted Tomato Salsa
Prairie Fire #3
Sweet Basil Habanero Bloody Mary
Jennifer Trainer Thompson is the author of numerous cookbooks, including Hot Sauce! and The Fresh Egg Cookbook. She has been featured in Martha Stewart Living magazine and has written for Yankee, Travel & Leisure, the Boston Globe, the New York Times, and other publications. Thompson is the chef/creator of Jump Up and Kiss Me, an all-natural line of spicy foods. She lives in Western Massachusetts with her family and a flock of backyard chickens.