Thousands get ‘fired up’ in Asheboro

by Brian Clarey

They gathered on Saturday in downtown Asheboro to eat chili and drink beer in the street — or, at least, drink beer in a small parking lot off the corner of Sunset and Fayetteville streets. They came to defy the notion, put forth by Forbes magazine, that theirs was the fourth-fastest dying town in the United States in a communal party that celebrated those who are proud to call Asheboro home. And some of them came to burn… their tastebuds, that is! It’s true: As part of the 2009 Ashoboro Chili Cook Off, contestants squared off to see who could consume the most hot sauce.

I don’t normally go for stunt eating myself, but I’m always game to see someone else eat something they probably shouldn’t, like, say 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes, which is the world record set by Joey Chestnut on July 4, 2007 on Coney Island, which is pretty astounding, if you think about it. The world record for corn dogs is less impressive: a dozen in 10 minutes, set at the 2003 Texas State Fair by competitive eater Richard LeFevre. I mention this because LeFevre also owns the chili-eating record — one and a half gallons in 10 minutes — and he would have really appreciated this event. More than 40 teams prepared their own recipes in restaurant kitchens, backyard kettles and home stovetops to vie for the prize, which was chosen by voters. Vendors hawked their chili from underneath blue tents, served with tortilla chips, oyster crackers, Saltines and accoutrements like sour cream, cheddar cheese and guacamole. I’m no LeFevre, but I managed to make a meal from the 10 samples I collected. The best I tried came from a group called Steve’s ’Stache, made with ground pork and Polish Kielbasa, carrying just a hint of chipotle. Served with a dollop of guacamole, it was sublime. The worst one I tried tasted almost exactly like fresh vomit. I also tasted a pecan pie with dried cherries and butterscotch, which was delicious. The world record for pie-eating, by the way, varies widely, from the four and 3/8 pumpkin pies consumed in 12 minutes by Eric Booker in November 2004, to the 11.1 pounds of shoo-fly pie put away by Patrick Bertoletti in eight minutes in June 2007. There are no world records for hot sauce as documented by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, but there is a record for pickled jalape’o peppers. Two, actually — one held by Bertoletti, who took down 266 of them in 15 minutes, and the other by LeFevre, who swallowed 247 of them in eight minutes at the 2006 Texas State Fair, which is a bit like the World Cup of competitive eating. A jalape’o pepper carries about 2,500 to 5,000 Scoville units, the basic measure of the “heat” of a pepper or sauce. A habanero pepper has much more, between 100,000 and 350,000 Scoville units. A pepper’s heat comes from varying levels of capsaicin, which in its purest form measures 16 million Scoville, and it could probably kill you. Police-grade pepper spray measures just 5.3 million. Contestants in the 2009 Hot Heads hot sauce contest had to make do with a bottle of Liquid Stoopid Hot Sauce, which measured a muscular 1 million Scoville. And the contest itself was not about volume and speed. Event organizer Joel Leonard procured an infrared camera to measure the amount of heat generated internally by each contestant’s ingestion of capsaicinoids. Capsaicinoids, by irritating the mouth’s trigeminal nerve cells, actually trick the body into thinking it’s being burned. Enough capsaicinoids can raise blisters or flay skin. And as I watched the contestants dump Liquid Stoopid over chunks of bagel, I was pretty sure one of them was going to end up in the hospital. My money was on Charles Turner Jr., of Knightdale, whose face visibly paled after choking down a big gob of the sauce and then began to emit heavy sweat. But he barely broke 100 on the thermodynamic scale Contestants Rob Newman, in shades and a topknot, and Jeff Owen, in blue, broke the 100-point barrier with a 101 and a 103, respectively as other contestants ingested more and more capsaicinoids 1 million Scovilles at a time. Jeff Tolvert, in black sunglasses, began to climb as his number rose from 113 to 120 on the camera’s display, his only competition a skinny teenager with a happening mop of hair. After the body ingests high levels of capsaicinoids, the brain responds by sending out endorphins, the body’s good-time chemical. So it is said that chili eaters experience a natural euphoria after overindulgence. And it’s true as a kind of sweet relief passed over the faces of the 2009 Hot Heads contest as the afternoon sun wore off and their thermodynamic numbers began to drop. At last count it was Tolvert at the high mark with 108, and it was he who took home the first-place prize: a backyard grill.