Two of the contestants looked like they might need stretchers.
Their faces were red; their eyes streamed tears. They gasped, groaned, coughed, spluttered.
“Does anyone know CPR?” a comedian in the crowd asked.
The occasion was the Nampa Farmers Market’s second annual Hot Pepper Eating Contest, featuring 16 contestants and some of the hottest peppers grown anywhere in the world.
I’m a bit late with this. The contest was held last month. Writing just one column a month has made me late getting in the paper, but it was too good to pass up. I couldn’t resist an opportunity to cover a story about others suffering as I did as a kid, when an uncle got me to eat a pepper so hot my mother threatened to call for an ambulance.
One of my daughters and a friend of hers attended the contest to cheer for a friend of theirs – “Hot Pepper Mike” Vessel. Vessel had been training for the competition for several months by downing bottles of hot sauce every day. One was so hot his daughter had to sign a waiver to buy it online.
Vessel would need all the preparation he could get to hold his own against some formidable opponents, the most formidable being Toby Waters, last year’s winner.
Several of the contestants squirmed or fidgeted as the event began. One looked as if he was meditating, or perhaps praying. Waters was the embodiment of calm and collected. He looked like he might be thinking of taking a nap.
The competition began with relatively low-voltage peppers. To the surprise of many in the crowd, one contestant dropped out after failing to finish a jalapeño. Child’s play.
Peppers are ranked for spiciness, or heat, using a tool known as the Scoville Scale. The scale measures the amount of capsaicin, the chemical responsible for the heat. A pepper with a low number of Scoville Heat Units, is mild, like a poblano. The higher the number of units, the hotter the pepper.
The scale was invented by pharmacist Wilbur Scoville in 1912. He did it by adding extract of capsaicin to a beaker of sugar water and putting it on people’s tongues. (And how much fun would that have been to watch?)
Scoville diluted the sugar water by adding plain water until the tasters told him it didn’t taste hot any more. Numbers were assigned to peppers based on how many times the water had to be diluted. There is no record of whether any of the tasters dropped out, screamed obscenities or broke Scoville’s beaker over his head.
Anyone who has eaten peppers knows that some peppers of even of the same variety are spicer than others. Because of that, each variety is given a range of Scoville units. Jalapeños are rated at 2,500 to 8,000 Scoville units. A Purple UFO pepper is rated at 30,000 to 50,000 units. If Scoville dropped 50,000 drops of sugar water on his tasters’ tongues, he wasn’t paying them enough.
After downing his Purple UFO, a contestant named Kyle closed his eyes tightly and put his hands over his mouth, clearly in pain. An announcer told the contestants that painful as it might be, eating hot peppers wouldn’t harm them.
That’s usually the case, but there have been exceptions. Two British journalists were hospitalized after taking one bite of a chili burger made with sauce said to be hotter than pepper spray. In 2016, according to health.com, a man “burned a hole in his esophagus after consuming and subsequently retching ghost peppers during an eating contest.”
In other words, don’t try this at home, folks.
Contestants cruised through the early rounds of the contest, but the Sugar Rush Red Pepper – 100,000 to 150,000 units – was hot enough that two dropped out after all but hyperventilating. They couldn’t get to the milk table fast enough.
The dropout rate accelerated as the peppers grew ever hotter. Vessel’s undoing was a chocolate habanero pepper – 300,000 Scoville units.
“For some reason, sitting down made it worse,” he said. “When I was training at home, I could get up and walk around. At the contest, we had to sit, and sitting there after the chocolate habanero was unbearable.”
By the time the Crazy Head Double Dipper pepper was introduced, the number of contestants had dwindled from 16 to seven. This was the point at which Kyle shook his head, wiped his nose, reached for a barf bag and exited. He had suffered enough. A crowd favorite, he was enthusiastically applauded.
The T Rex Yellow Pepper – 1.4 million to 1.8 million Scoville units – winnowed the number of contestants down to five. All showed signs of stress except for Toby, who from all appearances might as well have been eating bonbons.
All five contestants made it through the Carolina Reaper, listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s hottest pepper, but an even hotter pepper was lurking in the wings for the final round. The insanely hot Primotalii pepper is rated at over 2 million Scoville units – hotter than some pepper sprays.
Four contestants made it through that round. Three were grimacing, sweating, wiping their eyes on their sleeves. Waters look looked almost bored.
With four contestants still in it after surviving the planet’s hottest peppers, it came down to a tie breaker. The contestant who downed six Primotalii peppers fastest would be the winner.
It wasn’t even close. Waters gulped them down in a mere 11 seconds. For the second year in a row, he won the first-place prize of $300.
How does he do it? Does he even feel the heat?
“Definitely,” he said. “I’m not some super human. I mentally prepare. I compartmentalize. I look at the plate and the trees and compartmentalize the pain. I feel it, but I’m able to set it aside.”
“When I get home, my stomach gets tight, and I have cramps. I sit in a Lazy Boy with a fan blowing on me and sleep for two or three hours. Then I have a couple of glasses of milk and I’m fine.”
Hot Pepper Mike says he’ll be back next year.
“The camaraderie of being with the other contestants and having people cheer for me made it 100 percent worth it,” he said.
I asked Waters if he’d return next year to defend his title.
“Sure,” he said. “I love peppers. And it’s free money.”
Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday in The Idaho Press and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.