I asked my server about it, and she looked like she had seen a ghost - or, anyway, a ghost pepper.
"They ate it all," she said without a hint of humor. "When I tried it, I blacked out and had to go home from work."
I looked again at the photos. A red-faced, teary-eyed man seemed to be having a spiritual experience. Another probably was having a stroke. I counted 15 people on the wall, only three of them women.
You don't just show up and get yourself onto the Wall of Flame. It's an exercise in conquering, first of all, fear. What confronts you is a dish with a terrifying name, "Demon Gapow," which you must fully consume within 30 minutes. Its ingredients are simple: 2 cups of white rice; minced tofu, steak, chicken or pork; and two fried eggs. And hot peppers.
More than 50 hot peppers.
Shovel every last bite into your face hole, and you get a T-shirt, a free meal and a $50 gift certificate. Assuming you live.
"No problem," I said. "I got this. Next time."
I procrastinated a bit - 24 months - but last week I felt it. I had on my side the right combination of recklessness and inspirational Facebook memes propelling me to action. Bonus: a thoughtful boyfriend who promised to be my designated driver.
I pre-gamed by skipping lunch and buying milk and grapes at the Westport Sun Fresh, at the suggestion of some Facebook friends. (None of them had actually attempted the challenge, but a couple claimed to have eaten ghost-pepper salsa once.) Fucking pussies, I thought, recalling the time I finished half a jar of ghost-pepper salsa in 10 minutes standing over the kitchen sink.
We arrived at Thai Place around 8 p.m. on a Thursday (the only day of the week when the challenge can be taken). I told our waitress that I wanted to get my picture on the wall. She looked at me with a mixture of pity and incredulity.
"I don't even like to be in the kitchen while they're cooking it," she said. "Are you sure?"
"Yes," I said. "Bring it."
What she brought was paperwork. I was asked to sign a waiver releasing Thai Place of responsibility "for any consequences as a result of my participation in this challenge." I hereby announced myself as being older than 18 and in good health - a heart condition would have disqualified me. I signed. My boyfriend signed as a witness. This was serious.
About 20 minutes later, the Demon Gapow arrived. It was an insane amount of food, piled maybe 6 inches high and completely filling a very large bowl. It looked like way more than just 2 cups of rice.
"It is physically possible to eat that much," my boyfriend assured me. "Mind over matter."
I stabbed the pile with my fork and started for the bottom, and the server began the 30-minute countdown. The first few bites? Easy. Then shit got weird.
Let me stop here and talk about the flavor of the dish. Demon Gapow has no flavor. It is all heat. It is not so much an entrée as it is a mechanism for tear and snot production, and very soon fluid was streaming freely down my face. A table of polite diners across from us stared openly. My behavior was no longer socially acceptable.
Just 10 minutes in, I had to stop and drink some milk. I'd barely dented the thing, let alone earned bragging rights. "It's winning," I said. "I think I might be done."
I kept going, though, and I found a rhythm - a tiny sip of ice water, then a bite of hell dish. For a time, I thought I might finish it.
But even tiny sips were making the rice expand. The fried eggs atop the dish had swollen into pillows I was going to have to chew through. I lifted one with my fork and found more peppers lurking underneath. There was a wave of nausea. There were 15 minutes to go, but I knew this wasn't my night to be immortalized on the Wall of Flame.
But the challenge - the true challenge - had only just begun.
The Demon Gapow entered my digestive tract like a flaming coal wrapped in barbed wire and shot from a tiny cannon into a wall of 98.6-degree Jell-O. I could feel everything it did. I knew the exact moment it entered my stomach, settling there like a mound of smoldering ash.
At home later, I talked about God and rebirth, about ancient cures for hysteria. Demon Gapow had rendered me effectively stoned. In the morning, I chased my caramel latte from Mud Pie with Pepto Bismol - a cocktail whose path could also be fairly traced and which I won't recount here.
Let's leave it at this: If you eat the Demon Gapow, win or lose, stay close to home. Stay very close to home. For a couple of days.
Near the front door of Westport's Thai Place is the restaurant's "Wall of Flame," where a large frame is filled with photos of wild-eyed people who have undertaken the place's "Super Thai Hot Challenge." Everyone pictured looks sweaty and exhausted. Also: proud.