By Dennis Minich
Two big events of note come this weekend. The first of course, is Star Wars Day on Saturday and then on Sunday comes Cinco de Mayo. It is my sincere hope that everyone is fully prepared to observe each of these holidays with the reverence and solemnity they rightly deserve.
What more can I say about Star War Day? May the fourth, “May the force” be with you. This is the type of day the world needs once a year simply to gather everyone together in unity and appreciate what “The Force” has brought us: movies, merchandising, amusement park rides and of course, Yoda.
Cinco de Mayo is a holiday on a much different scale. Much like St. Patrick’s Day, most people don’t really know why we observe it, but we know it’s a chance to be festive, and by being festive, I mean drink. On St. Patrick’s Day, you eat corned beef and cabbage, wear green and drink beer. On Cinco de Mayo, you eat burritos and tacos, wear anything you want and drink beer.
Usually the celebrations of these special events are festive and occasionally get out of hand. I remember one Cinco de Mayo in particular.
The whole story started about a week before Cinco de Mayo. If I knew the Spanish word for 23, I would use it, but my Spanish counting ends at 10. But anyway, it was about the 23rd of April and a friend and I stopped at a local establishment following a baseball game and they were promoting a jalapeno eating contest on May 4 to honor the holiday. The first prize was an all-expenses paid trip for two to Mexico City. One of my very first jobs was cooking in a Mexican restaurant so the prospect of some pickled peppers was not that daunting to me. My friend and I agreed to come back on May 4 for the contest, I would participate, he would cheer me on.
On the big night, the rules were explained: five minutes, eat as many jalapenos as you can, pretty simple. Having worked around the little green belly bombs for years, I knew the key was sugar, so before we started, I ate about 10 packets of sugar. For a drink I requested a glass of tea which I loaded with another dozen or so sugar packets to be drank at strategic times during the contest. I had my strategy, I had my secret weapon, I was ready to go. So were about another dozen soon-to-be losers. The clock started and the first five or six went about as easily as I could have imagined. Two bites, no chewing, get them down.
About that time a hint of heat alerted me to take a second to breathe. The breath was hot, but I had eaten hotter so I dug back in and downed the next three. Suddenly it was taking about three or four bites per pepper and the more the pickle juice hit my pallet, the less enjoyable the event became. I took a chance to study my competition and saw I was easily in the top two or three, so this was no time to consider quitting. After another jalapeno or two, it was time for the strategic drink of the heavily-sugared tea. Despite my good planning, most of the sugar stayed at the bottom of the glass and the tea itself did little to eliminate the sting of the sting of my vined torturers.
About three minutes in I was still munching. Again, checking the competition, over half had given up and rejoined their parties so there was incentive to keep going. It seemed the size of the peppers had grown considerably, what was once two-bite veggies were suddenly taking eight or nine nibbles to get through. When the 30-seconds left announcement was made, there were three of us still in it. Like a great runner sprinting to end, I dove in and with every ounce of energy I could muster I consumed pepper and after pepper. When time was announced I felt battered and beaten, but was ready for my trip to Mexico City.
The first competitor’s peppers were counted, he had eaten 23. When mine were counted I was at 26. With great anticipation I watched as the final competitor’s pepper stems were sorted: he had eaten… 29. I had finished second.
And like in life, the prize for second place was nothing. To be honest, I thought about the contest for several days after that: I had no choice, it was like my entire digestive tract was on fire. I will state this as delicately as I can: what is hot going in is also hot coming out. I felt as if I had eaten a light sabre.
I never saw the guy who won the trip again so I don’t know if it was a good prize or not. In fact, I don’t know if I ever went to that restaurant again. I do know I have never been in a jalapeno-eating contest again, although I have recovered to the point, I will still put peppers on my food.
But that was my foray into celebrating Cinco de Mayo. I now leave its celebration to others. I will eat Sunday; however, my menu will be much more tummy friendly, I am thinking maybe corned beef and cabbage.