Some people like it hot, and I happen to be one of those some people. So much so that I decided to enter a hot pepper eating contest during my second year at college. To prepare, I bought jars of habanero peppers and ate as many as I could without passing out. My best friend and roommate Mel was constantly awoken to loud moaning and feet pacing back and forth across our dorm suite at odd hours of the night.
“Amy, is that you?” Mel asked, peeking her head out of her room. “Why are you holding a gallon of milk and a box of Saltines?”
Rather than concoct an elaborate story to explain away my midnight madness, I decided to confess my aspirations of becoming Boston’s first hot pepper eating champion. Now, I didn’t have any career plans and must have changed my major at least a dozen times, in fact, on the first day of classes, I drove to campus only to turn right back around when I couldn’t find a parking space, but the idea of becoming a hot pepper eating champion put a fire under my ass like I’d never experience again.
“And what is the grand prize for winning this thing? Money? Jewels? Brad Pitt?”
“A bottle of tequila.”
Of course, Mel had been with me the night of the appropriately named “tequila night” that occurred during our first week at Brandeis. Although we were mere freshmen, we boldly got behind the bar of our first frat house party and served upperclassmen drinks all night—for every one shot for them, we drank three. It seemed like a good ratio at the time, but then again, math was never my thing. During her first night on duty, our skittish RA was in a state of panic as she tried to take care of an entire hall of freshmen rolling on the floor in agony and puking in buckets. Worst of all, she was down a resident. They found me later that night in the infirmary, still holding a shot glass. I had registered a .1415 on the breathalyzer—and that was after I had stopped drinking for three hours. I wasn't able to eat so much as a margarita Jelly Belly without getting nauseous after that night.
Suffice to say, I was not in this thing for the bottle of tequila. I was in it for the glory. I couldn’t just eat the hot peppers in anonymous merriment; I had to be the best.
On the day of the contest, I was feeling confident. I walked into the taqueria with Mel and took a look around at my competition. My stomach dropped. It was me, a fat Jewish kid, and about 20 Hispanic men. I was in trouble.
“Do they have any parting gifts for the losers?” Mel whispered.
“Hey! I am in it to win it. Don’t be bringing me down.”
I took my seat next to the pasty white Jewish guy. In front of us was a plate and a giant glass of milk.
The Jewish kid perked up. “Hey! Washing down the peppers with milk will make this thing a lot easier!”
One down, 20 Hispanic men to go. “Uh … this is my first hot pepper eating contest, but I’m pretty sure you take a drink when you give up upon realizing the fire in your mouth is causing permanent damage.”
The kid looked at me with the fear of Moses in his eyes. Good. This wasn’t our Bubbe’s hot pepper eating contest.
Our first pepper was the rather tame jalapeno. I swallowed it easily and looked over to my Jewish friend. His eyes were bulging; he clutched his throat with one hand and took in huge gulps of milk with the other. I quickly covered my mouth, pretending to be in pain from the jalapeno to cover my smirk.
The peppers got increasingly hotter. We went through Scottish Bonnets, Hungarian Hots, Taiwanese Tongue Numbers (OK that last one I made up, but come on, how cool a name is that?) all the way until we reached the grand daddy of them all: the deadly habanero.
At this point, the contestants had dwindled down to seven, but I was no longer feeling confident. My head was pounding, the peppers were becoming blurry, and I could no longer feel my tongue or left pinkie. I ate one habanero, and then another, then another. Everyone kept pace with me. Finally, on my seventh habanero, I had to admit that I was beat.
“Hunh!” I grunted, lunging for my glass of milk. It toppled over.
“Hunh!” I looked at Mel in pure panic. She immediately ran over to me and whisked me out the door, like some kind of hot pepper EMT who had been helping people out of hot pepper eating contest situations all her life. We ran over to the nearest corner store and I made a beeline for the dairy aisle. After the cashier rang up the quart of milk, I grabbed it out of her hands, ripped the sucker open, and started chugging. The cashier put up her hands and started slowly backing away.
“I wath juth in a peppah eathin contheth,” I explained. She widened her eyes in horror.
Mel just shrugged her shoulders and aided me back home before the locals could grab their pitchforks and run me out of town.
I have never experienced such pain as I did that night. I paced around the suite until the next morning, going through an entire box of Saltines and two gallons of milk in the process. My mouth was still numb the next day, so I was unable to participate in class; instead I had to hand in an embarrassing note to all my professors explaining my situation.
“I am unable to answer questions in class today because of … does this say a, um, hot pepper eating contest?” My astronomy professor actually had to adjust her glasses.
I nodded my head in response.
She, in turn, shook her head in wonder. “Do you mind if I keep this note, dear? I’d like to use this in my upcoming salary negotiations.”