Illustration by Sam Woolley

When I was a kid, I once visited a small retail shop in South Carolina that was stocked with nothing but hot sauces. This was the most fascinating place on earth. All the labels on all the hot sauces offered various brags about their spiciness, as if what they had to sell was not the joy of eating or the deliciousness of their ingredients, but the actual physical pain their concoctions would produce.

The best and most interesting of these hot sauces would boast about the ruin they would bring to the asses of whosoever dared to eat them. Names like “Ass Wrecker” and “Ass in Hell” and “By God You Will Shit Fire” really ensnared the imagination, and were helped along by little drawings of terrified men sinking into red-hot, melting toilets while Satan looked on in obvious delight. Most compelling was the notion that this or that hot sauce wasn’t just, itself, from hell, but that it had the powers to send a man’s ass actually to hell. Incredible!

All these years later, I’m sorry to report that most of these hot sauces lack the juice to truly send a man’s ass all the way to hell. The boldest among them might send your ass to Death Valley, but it takes something truly special to force the dimensional shift necessary to land a man’s ass in the fires of eternal damnation. Probably these sauces pull up short because there are many among us who only think we want our asses to burn in hell, and will learn only too late that hell is perhaps too severe a sentence for our own tender buttcheeks.

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Then there are those of us who yearn for the exhilarating, dizzying journey into the flaming abyss. Or, anyway, we yearn to send our asses on such a journey. What follows is a recipe for salsa capable of just such a job. It is fresh, it is cheap, it is delicious. It is loaded with just enough capsaicin to send your ass to hell, no more and no less. Onward!

Here’s what you’ll need: some habanero peppers; two or three tomatillos; a big onion; some garlic; some white vinegar; a couple limes; a bunch of cilantro. That will get you most of the way there. There being hell.

So, science tells us that spiciness in food—in particular, spiciness that nears a person’s threshold for spiciness—triggers the release of dopamine and endorphins in the brain. I don’t know what any of those words mean, but I do know that there are few eating experiences more thrilling and invigorating than those that send a person’s ass to hell. Anecdotally, I have always found that any small measure of spiciness in food seems to wake up and activate my palate. The response to capsaicin is mild inflammation, and an increase in saliva production, and the realtime experience of this is a mouth that seems more sensitive to temperature and sugar and salt, making the bite to bite experience of eating spicy food more exciting.

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Unexpectedly, I have also found that the spicier the food, the more compulsively I am driven to keep eating it. The raw agony of a severely activated and inflamed mouth is far worse in the moments between bites, when there are no sugars or flavors or textures to soothe or otherwise distract me from the pain of hellish spiciness. Implicit in this arrangement, though, is the requirement that the bowel-destroying food I am shoveling into my mouth be complex and delicious, and not just nuclear spicy. I will for sure get an urgent rush of rejuvenating endorphins if I just cram a handful of ghost peppers into my face (assuming I survive the challenge), but it will not have been a very delicious, satisfying meal, no matter the specific realm of torment in which my ass finally lands.

This is why we are going to do more than just blend up some habaneros and call it salsa—we’re gonna use other ingredients to fill in the space around the hell-spice with good aromas and flavors: onion and garlic will add a hint of sweetness, and friendly and reassuring allium notes; vinegar and lime and tomatillo will brighten things up and add very gentle sour and bitter notes; cilantro will seem to cool things down, without actually cooling anything down at all. Here I am going to recommend adding two more ingredients to the bare minimum list above: jalapeño peppers; and a can of chipotle peppers in adobo. Habanero peppers, for all their cheerful orange-yellow color and killer spice, don’t have the solid capsicum taste of milder peppers. Jalapeño peppers taste like peppers, and that will be a welcome addition to our salsa, if for no other reason than familiarity. And the chipotle pepper(s) will add a warm dose of smoky redness.

All we’re doing here is adding layers of flavor to this thing. Here’s what’s gonna happen: you’re gonna dip a spoon into this salsa and touch the tip of the spoon to your tongue, and the furious capsaicin blast is going to overwhelm your whole mouth and all your senses with such incredible speed and potency that you are going to take a panicked step backwards from the counter and blink wildly and audibly gasp. What should happen next, and quickly enough that you haven’t had time to start hacking and spitting and urging someone to call the paramedics, is a warm flood of aromas and flavors, fast on the heels of the spice, climbing your engorged lingual papillae and engaging in acrobatic sex with your taste buds. The more types of flavors we put into this eating experience—salty, sour, bitter, sweet, umami—the more taste buds will be grabbed into this sudden orgy, and the sooner the various parts of your mouth that were only moments ago screaming in agony will come around to enjoying the pleasure of, you know, eating good food.

So! Let us leave no stone unturned in our quest to send our asses to hell! Haul out your cutting board and peel and cut your big onion into quarters, then put the onion chunks onto a cookie sheet and slide them under your broiler. The idea is to give the onion a couple minutes of intense heat on one side, so that some parts of the onion are pushed towards caramelization, while the rest of it retains its raw onioniness. You could, in theory, do the same with your garlic, but this is a dicey way to handle garlic—it will not roast on the same timeline as the onion, and will burn faster, and then your garlic will have that nauseating acrid sweetness of overcooked garlic, and you will hate everything, forever. Leave the garlic raw, I say, and put some char on that onion.

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Check the broiler frequently over the course of, say, five minutes. As soon as the onion’s got some char on it, haul it out of there and dump it into your blender or food processor. A food processor will probably be the best device, here—after all, we’re processing food—but since the end result we’re shooting for is really more like a sauce than chunky pico de gallo, a blender will do the job. Also, chuck into the food processor two or three peeled cloves of garlic.

Now comes the part where you’re gonna prep some habanero peppers. I want to say, here, that habaneros are nowhere close to the spiciest peppers—partly I am saying this to preempt the shitheels rushing to the comments to smirk and brag about ghost peppers and scorpions and reapers—but they are several times hotter than good old jalapeños, and their capsaicin content is no joke, certainly equal to the task of sending many poor human asses to the underworld. Guinness had it as the hottest pepper in the world as recently as 1999. What I’m saying is, you should handle these little fuckers with care. The very last thing in the world you want to do is clumsily trim and handle some habaneros and then touch your eyes or the interior of your nose or, God help you, anyone’s dick and balls. That will not feel very good at all.

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Thankfully, the potent interior of habaneros is protected by a waxy skin, and we will not be doing any advanced preparing of these things. Use a sharp knife to slice off the stem end of your habaneros, then dump the habaneros into your food processor. Here’s how I recommend doing this: bring a big bowl onto your cutting board; grab a habanero by the bottom, away from the stem; lay it on the cutting board and slice off the stem end; grab it, again, by the bottom, away from the cut end; dump it into the big bowl. Repeat this process until all the habaneros are prepared, then dump the bowl into the food processor. Then IMMEDIATELY go wash your hands with whatever soap you’d use for hand-washing dishes, like Dawn or Palmolive or whatever. If you were cautious in the handling of the peppers you’re probably fine, but do it anyway.

But how many habaneros? Honestly, two habaneros will make this salsa very, very spicy. But for the full gut-busting ruination we’re after, you should use at least six. Last weekend I made a batch that had more than 10. You’ve gotta ask yourself, are you really here to plunge your ass into the molten lava of hell itself, or are you only here for one spinning glance into the infinite. Adjust accordingly.

If you want a sense of just how outrageously hot this salsa’s gonna be, go ahead and pulse your food processor a couple times, then lean over it and gently inhale. Later, after you climb through the hole your body left in the wall as it rocketed backward at mach speed, and your mucous membranes no longer feel like you washed your face in chemical mace, you can pick up this cooking project where you left off. I’ll wait.

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Right now most of what’s going on in that food processor is outrageous, terrifying heat, with the onion and garlic struggling to lend it some shape. This is where the tomatillos will come in handy. Let’s talk about tomatillos, real quick. Tomatillos are not green tomatoes. They are green, and they are tomato-like, and their name is “tomatillo,” which, hey, the word “tomato” is totally in there. None of this shit matters to you—they could be called potatillos and we’d still be using them—as much as this: their flavor is more tart and fruity than your average tomato, with a bigger acidic punch. They will add a lot to this salsa, all of it good.

That is not to say you are screwed if you couldn’t find any tomatillos. Most of what we want from tomatillos is also in, yes, tomatoes, although in different ratios. If you use tomatoes, your Ass Devastator salsa will be different from my The Satan of Asses salsa, but it will still be delicious. If you can’t find two or three good, ripe tomatillos, get two or three medium-sized good, ripe tomatoes. If you do find two or three tomatillos, go ahead and peel the rough husks off the tomatillos, and give the waxy green skin a thorough rinsing, to remove that weird sticky film.

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Whichever fruity nightshades with “tomat” and “o” in their name you’re using, chop ‘em in half, lay ‘em down on that cookie sheet skin-side up, and slide it back under your broiler. We’re gonna give our tomato things a few minutes under there until the skin has a blackened, blistered look. Once the tomatoes/tomatillos are adequately roasted, haul them back out of the oven and dump them into the food processor. That quick roasting will add a little more sweetness to the finished salsa, which we are nudging more and more towards some sort of balance. While we’re here, cut the stems off the jalapeños and drop them into the food processor. Also, open the can of chipotle peppers and drop one or two of the peppers into the food processor, along with some of the adobo. And, finally, rip off a handful of cilantro and dump it into the food processor.

Pulse the food processor until all the ingredients are pureed. Sniffing this mixture will still make your eyes bulge and your sinuses scream, but the mixture itself is now fairly delicious. It’s also dry as a mofo. Cut a couple limes in half and squeeze all their juice into the food processor. Getting closer! Add a splash or two of white vinegar. I was out of white vinegar the last time I did this, so I wound up using rice vinegar. It was fine!

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When I make this kind of sauce/salsa, where everything is finely processed, I like for it to be loose enough that it could be poured like liquid instead of dumped like semi-dry cement. I suppose you could just keep adding vinegar, but it’s gonna get mighty vinegar-y if you do. Here’s where I would add a splash of water. But maybe you want it to have a little more structure to it, so that it is scoopable with, say, a tortilla chip. I think there’s basically no way you’re gonna want a whole scoop of this on a tortilla chip, and I think you’d almost instantly regret eating that much of it in a single bite, but, hey. Do your thing. Use some combination of lime juice, vinegar, and water to get it wherever you want it, texture-wise.

Okay. I’m afraid further progress will be impossible without tasting this frightening mush. Grab a spoon. Dip just the tip of the spoon into the salsa, so that the tip picks up a coating of mostly liquid. I strongly urge you to not scoop any salsa onto the spoon. Just wet the tip of the spoon, then ease the tip of the spoon into your mouth.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHH NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO NO WHY DID I DO THIS NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

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Ride it out, my friend. This, too, shall pass.

If you didn’t faint or rip your tongue out of your mouth, you might have noticed between sobs that what the salsa needs is a couple pinches of salt and maybe even a pinch of sugar or a squeeze of honey. Maybe even a pinch of cumin! Black pepper? Sure. What’s hilarious is, in order to get this right, you’ll need to taste it again. Oh God.

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Here’s something I have noticed each of the times I’ve done this (I’ve done it so many times): The insane heat of this salsa dissipates pretty quickly. I know of no scientific explanation for this, but I swear it’s true. At any rate, I predict your terror reaction will be lessened with each subsequent tasting. I also predict you won’t strictly need more than one or two more tastings: a second tasting to see if you got the salt/sugar ratio correct; maybe a third tasting to see if that little hit of extra lime you added after the second tasting did a job, if that dusting of cumin hit the spot. There! You’re done! You survived it, and now your mind and body are buzzing with bitchin’ neurotransmitters. Ride the wave!

So, what does it taste like? Well, it tastes like you took a gulp of boiling oil. Ouch. Also, it has a bright, fresh taste to it, as any good salsa must; it has fruity sweetness and acidity from the tomatillos and charred onions; the jalapeños lend a clean green flavor and the earthy aroma of bell pepper; there’s a citric sourness from the limes, and a big tart kick from the white vinegar; the smoky cooked flavor from the chipotles gives it an unexpected depth of flavor. It’s delicious! Like a very good, very fresh roasted tomato salsa, and also your hair in on fire.

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The right thing to do with this salsa is to drizzle just a thin line of it over your tacos; or have a measure of it at the ready when you tear into that flank steak; or that hot grilled skirt steak; or your most decadent nacho preparation. Good animal protein is what will really set it off—that rich umami and hefty chew of a fatty skirt steak will never be more incredible than in a mouth as activated as one half-ruined by the potency of habaneros. It would also be a good idea to have something starchy—like, say, some warm tortillas—nearby, for their impressive ability to soothe a traumatized mouth; and some sort of alcohol, for diluting and dispersing the capsaicin. Sour cream will help, also—the casein in dairy binds with the capsaicin and drags it down into your gut, relieving your mouth of some of the burn. This is why tacos are perfect: you can wrap all these things into one self-contained handful of food, and let them work on each other while you ride the resulting pain-to-pleasure sine wave, roasting and then relieving your poor, thrilled mouth over and over again.

The dairy and fat and alcohol will not, however, do much to relieve your ass. It is now burning in hell, alongside all the brave asses who went before it. Mission accomplished.