Competitive eating is not a team effort. Instead, its very method—of using willpower to gorge beyond all bounds of satisfaction, comfort and health—makes it an entirely selfish activity, an ultimately American extension of both ego and intestines. Your abilities are not shared, your obstacles not offloaded. These are your calories. Those are your bowels. And yes, this is your stupid, painful pride.
On Friday night in a hot-pepper eating contest at Ninth Street Bakery in Durham, I squared off against the indulgent loneliness of competitive eating, an occasional and disgusting hobby since college. (Last year, I placed second in a pickle-eating contest, and have won pizza, pancake and taco competitions.)
Beneath a bank of fluorescent lights, there stood or sat a few dozen observers, sadistic witnesses to self-inflicted torture. The nine other competitors gathered around a table holding six large bowls of hot peppers, ranging from pleasant to hellfire. In time, I watched those people wince, grimace, sweat, moan, scowl, cough and vomit, intimate gestures that I tend not to share with those I've just met. But I can remember only two of their names. Later I saw a photo of the battle and I realized I had looked at only about half of them in any meaningful way. They were strangers at the start, and if I were to win, they needed to stay that way.
For about half an hour, 10 people wearing latex gloves peeled stems from scalding, curvaceous red and green beauties and ate them in one to several bites, seeds included. We started with bright, ripe cayennes before moving, in ascending order of Scoville Heat Units, to Red Fresnos, bulging and bulbous jalapeños, stringbean-like serranos, beautiful orange habaneros and, at last, the withered, sanguine ghost pepper, one of the hottest foods in the world.
We were allowed one bottle of water for the entire contest, and we were given some time between rounds to catch our breath and gather our gastrointestinal fortitude.
Accounting for attrition, organizers expected the contest to last six rounds, and then select the winner after the first ghost pepper was eaten. But almost everyone made it that far. More than half of us also survived Cycle 2, at which point the cayennes, Fresnos and jalapeños, the relatively mild of the bunch, had all been consumed.
The four of us that remained continued, eating a third serrano, a third habanero and then a third ghost. My stomach was stuffed, and I could feel the capsaicin radiate upward and outward. The contest started to become a measure not only of how much heat you could handle but also how much food mass you could hold.
So after we'd eaten that third ghost, we called a truce. We were all sweating, beginning to turn the color of cayenne and generally full. Sickness was inevitable. We'd split the $100 cash prize and at least buy ourselves a nice dinner—later.
But just before we put our peppers to rest, someone protested. "No way," the voice proclaimed, the utterance breaking the reverent silence as though a preacher had asked for objections and expected none.
I knew that voice. I looked to my left, and my wife smiled but did not blink. She waved her hand toward me, palm facing forward. I understood: We did not come here to waste Friday night and probably most of the weekend for $33.33 and a newspaper page. "Win," she demanded, sweetly.
And so I did: One contestant quit so that she could return to work (a true champion deserving of a seat at next year's State of the Union address). The other final glutton and I ate a serrano and plucked another habanero from the bowl. I made a joke, but he seemed confused. As the countdown began, he jerked and suddenly spat in his hand before being ushered outside. I'd won.
During the drive home, my wife admitted that she'd fought the urge to cheer when my adversary began to barf. I'd suppressed a smile, too, I confessed. That reaction may be selfish and shameful, but you don't eat a few million Scoville Heat Units to lose—or to tie.
It would be disingenuous to end the story here, on a glorious note of personal and flawless victory. Winning actually hurt for days. On Friday night, after the manager of a local grocery store had already stormed into a restroom stall to check on me, I sat upright in bed, clutching my stomach and moaning my Ghost Pepper Blues until I fell asleep. I've never actually experienced the sensation of a small family of rodents trying to chew and scrape its way out of my stomach, but I feel as though I have.
On Saturday, I was fully functional but certainly reeling, like someone who has overcome an intense sickness and is gung-ho about returning to society, despite a lingering veil of attenuated symptoms. Glasses of water tasted cloyingly sweet, no matter how much lemon I added. Uninterrupted periods of activity felt like amusement park rides left running too long. A game of pin the tail on the donkey at a kid's first birthday party suggested I was actually riding the donkey, and the donkey had slurped liberally from the communal sangria bowl.
But by Sunday, I'd mostly recovered. It was my wife's birthday, and she had made me promise that, if I competed, the resulting trauma would not interfere with her day of coffee, laser tag and automotive maintenance. Perhaps the ultimate gift for her, though, came when I suggested I'd likely won my final eating contest and probably would not defend my capsaicin title—well, at least if the title fight lands on her birthday.
I'm probably that selfish, but hopefully I'm not that stupid.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heat of the moment."