Competitive eating, that strange world of no-hands pie gobbling and hot dog inhaling, has about as much appeal as flame and sword swallowing for most of us, but for a passionate and sizable population (an estimated 7,000 Americans participate in the sport), there’s no greater challenge than a mound of doughnuts (or any number of other foods) and a ticking clock. In chile pepper-eating contests, the heat is an obstacle unto itself. Some, like the Ohio Chile Pepper Festival, prize endurance most of all and demand that contestants rest for periods during the competition. Others, like the La Costeña Jalapeño Eating Contest in Laredo, Texas, are all about speed. Below, two of our favorite chile-eating champions tell us their stories._
Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti** is a 190-pound, 24-year-old, mohawk-sporting Chicago chef who currently holds more than 20 records in competitive eating.
People don’t choose to be competitive eaters; you’re just born with it. I’ve done hot dog contests in Coney Island, hamburger contests in Tennessee, oysters in New Orleans, even a plum dumpling contest in Prague (233 plum dumplings in an hour; I broke the record). My first chile pepper contest was a few years ago, in New Mexico. I ate 177 pickled jalapeños in 15 minutes. Since then, I’ve done six jalapeño contests. My personal best: 266 in 15 minutes in Laredo, Texas.
I always do pickled jalapeños. Pickled is easier than fresh peppers. They’re not that spicy, but it’s definitely a snowball effect. When you keep compounding the capsaicin [the molecular compound that accounts for chiles’ heat] in your mouth, it gets really intense. Outside of competing, I’m very limited in the spicy foods I eat. I like sriracha, but that’s about it. I can’t even eat Tabasco.
For most eating contests I just wing it, but for chile peppers, preparation is really important. You need to coat your stomach with dairy and Pepto-Bismol the day before. Afterward, you experience a kind of euphoria. Your body is dealing with so many peppers and toxins. It makes you feel out of it and loopy, kind of like being drunk.
**Peach Moore is a 59-year-old resident of Glouster, Ohio (population 2,000), a grandmother, and the reigning hot chile pepper eater in her town.
The chile festival here is just a small community carnival. It started in 1999, and I won that year, and then I won again in 2000. In 2001 I would have won, had a reporter not been asking me so many questions. I came in second place that year. The first year I ate 19; the second year I ate 28 and a half. I ate that extra half ’cause I wanted to make sure I was the winner. Nobody’s ever broken that record. I don’t have anything to prove anymore, but I still love peppers.
Sometimes the kids will say, “Grandma, you should enter that contest again!” Jalapeño is my favorite kind of pepper. I also like sorrentos and cayennes. (I’ll eat anything but habañeros; they do weird things to my teeth and my mouth.) I eat peppers with anything at any time of day.