FIRST-PERSON HEAT ACCOUNT
By Inness Asher, as published on October 19, 2009 in THE DAILY IBERIAN
It was a crisp fall day, as good a day as any to voluntarily risk pain and possible embarassment in pursuit of hot pepper eating glory at the 2009 St. Martinville Kiwanis Pepper Festival.
The question of why anyone would voluntarily eat a variety of peppers, including arguably the hottest pepper in the world, the habañero, is difficult to answer. The festival officials jokingly described the competitors on stage as being either crazy, drunk or both. In my case, it was none of the above. Or that's what I believed while signing the competition waiver promising not to hold anyone at the festival responsible for long or short term pain and suffering. In retrospect, however, there may have been a little craziness involved. A tolerance for pain is one thing. Competing in what essentially becomes an agonizing contest of endurance is another thing altogether.
Nine contestants eventually made their way to the stage for the contest, a record number according to the judge who explained the rules. The five of us who had signed waivers well before the call for the event watched in dismay as more contestants showed up, some decidedly not in the crazy category, but who had obviously been enjoying refreshments before deciding scorching palates would add to their day's festivities.
The challenge was a timed event, with every contestant given a minute and a half to eat as many hot peppers as possible. Contestants were given two plates, each containing five peppers--a jalapeño, banana, cayenne, an unidentified red pepper and a habañero. A flaw in the playing field immediately became evident as contestants found that there had been no attempt at distributing peppers of equal size. Some had banana peppers six inches long, others only three, and so on for the others.
The only pepper close to uniform size among all the competitors seemed to be the habañero, the hottest of all. Everyone's ultimate intimidating pepper was about the size of a large chicken's egg, shaped like a paper lantern, and about three times the size of habañeros normally found in supermarkets. Contestants immediately began trying to maneuver for each other's plates, particularly those with smaller peppers of less volume, but there was little time for that strategy moments away from the first bite.
Before we knew it, the contest was underway. Let me end the suspense here by pointing out that I lost. Heartbreaking, but true, and it wasn't for lack of trying or my inability to withstand pain. Everyone on stage was giving it their all, although some of the last-minute contestants slowed down considerably after the first pepper or two, with one poor contestant who started strong, only to wind up back at square one due to a weak stomach.
In all honesty, the better man won, but in my defense, I blame the failure of my initial strategy. I intended to get the habañero out of the way first, making the rest of the competition a downhill race in terms of heat. It seemed logical. Unfortunately, my throat, working independently from the rest of my body, decided against that course of action. Once I bit into the habañero valuable seconds were wasted as I horrifyingly discovered an instant inability to swallow. Not only could I not dispose of the pepper quickly, I found myself having to chew slowly and thoroughly to even swallow the first tiny bit of what rapidly became a glowing charcoal briquette in my mouth.
While part of my strategy proved sound, that the remaining peppers had little or no noticeable effect after that first nuclear explosion, I know the loss of those initial seconds doomed my chance at the championship. Once time was called I had finished four and one-third of my peppers, almost my entire plate, but two competitors had finished a plate and one pepper. After an additional thirty second eat-off, Tim Gunter, five-time former hot pepper contest winner, had eaten nine of ten peppers and was awarded his 2009 trophy.
Despite my regret at not winning, I congratulated Gunter on his achievement, having endured about half the pain he did and knowing what he went through for fifteen to twenty minutes after the contest ended. Somewhere there is a picture of the two of us, pints of cool, heat-tempering milk in hand, smiling through watering eyes at a camera. Imagine flames enveloping your mouth, throat and sinuses, fanned hotter by each breath and you'll come close to the sensation we were suffering as that picture was taken.
So in the end, the competition wasn't about endurance or pain or even winning--although the latter would have been great. In the end, I realized that for me at least, the hot pepper contest was about doing, about participating, about being a little crazy and a little alive on a beautiful fall afternoon. And if getting out and living means being hurt a little bit sometimes, then that's a small price to pay for the stories and the experiences we get in return.
But next year a trophy will be nice, too.
WEBMASTER NOTE: Photo of Inness with five-time Pepper Eating Contest Champ, Tim Gunter, provided by Ronda Gunter