Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Del Valle Chronicles, Part 2: Fastest Mouth in the West.

For part 1, click here

FASTEST MOUTH IN THE WEST
3/2004

I was just barely settling into my sophomore year of high school when my life was moved from the New York City area to rural Del Valle, Texas. Although now home to Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and an increasing amount of bland, suburban sprawl, the Del Valle I found myself in was a loosely held together community of ranchers, pecan farmers, and poor Mexicans. Raised with a city sensibility and a love of all things urban (I actually had an elective class called “Big Apple Studies”) suffice to say I didn’t quite fit in. The culture shock could have registered on the Richter scale.

I was a punk city kid in a school of painted-on Wranglers, shit-kicking boots, wide-brimmed hats, and long, flowing dusters. Texans.

Sometime during my second week there, my homeroom teacher read a list of names, all meaningless to me, of the students that were going to represent the sophomore class in the upcoming spirit competitions for homecoming. After listening to a boring read through and watching my classmates high-five each other after every name, she ended the list with a suggestive “and we still don’t have a sophomore signed up for the Jalapeño-eating contest.”

Well shit, eating was something I was pretty good at. I’d never had a hallo-peen-o before, but, seriously, how bad could it be? I raised my hand and had the homeroom teacher sign me up to eat jalapeños for the sophomore class. As soon as my name was committed to paper, I suddenly found myself in a press conference fielding questions from the cowboys and Mexicans in my class. “Duuuude, you sure you can handle it?” “Ain’t they got peppers in New York?” “You know they’re hot right?” “Son muy calientes!”

That homeroom discussion was the last I heard of the contest for the rest of the week. I went back to living an outsider’s life of relative anonymity. I went to my classes, navigating the now familiar halls and unpaved roads that led to the “temporary” buildings that housed the art rooms where I spent a lot of my free time. Nearby, students were grooming livestock for competition and most others were getting excited about homecoming, sporting the school colors and practicing whatever they had to contribute. I noticed the girls started walking around with ridiculously Texas-sized mums pinned to their shirts, dragging trails of ribbons and charms behind them. I didn’t feel any school spirit, I didn’t care about the sophomore class at all, but damn if I wasn’t going to eat me some jalapeños…

As it turned out, Texas homecomings are a big deal. Huge. Each day was a celebration not only within the school but also in the community. Parents, alums, dropouts, and all sorts of people showed up to the events of spirit week. I was amazed as I looked up at the sea of faces assembled in the gym when I took my position for the contest.

To my left was the freshman: a short, rotund, dark-skinned Mexican stuffed into tight western clothes. He looked like he had been eating jalapeños since birth and I could tell from his breath that he probably had a few that morning. To my right was the junior: a tall, pale-skinned, red-necked cowboy decked out from hat to heels including a giant rodeo belt buckle that strained to hold back his massive beer belly. Looking back, it seems odd that a high school student would have a beer gut but that body type seemed fairly common then. The senior was standing to my far right and was less memorable than the others; just a goof off that didn’t seem to be much competition. The senior class, I later learned, never took spirit week that seriously.

The rules were simple: each of us would be given a bowl of peppers and then we’d have sixty seconds to eat as many as we could. For each pepper we downed, we would save the stem and the person with the most stems at the end of the minute would win. Cakewalk.

The judges then opened up an industrial-sized can of giant ass-kicking jalapeños and proceeded to dump a bowl full of the little bastards in front of each of us. I got my first whiff of the fumes and, as I felt the chemical burn in my nose, I realized that I had inadvertently signed up for some serious punishment. Hell, I was someone that considered salt a spice and the most intense flavor I’d ever experienced until then was probably ketchup. Yet there I was, an out of place New Yorker, standing between two intense iron-stomached southwestern eating machines, about to subject myself to gastrological torture for the sake of a sophomore class I didn’t care about in a school where I didn’t fit in.

“GO!”

The start of the contest caught me by surprise, but I quickly grabbed my first jalapeño by the stem and shoved it into my mouth. I bit the end and tried to swallow it whole, thinking that if none of the juice escaped onto my tongue I’d be okay, but it was too big. I bit it into two and swallowed both halves along with the burning juice, trying hard to shuffle my tongue and all of its sensitive taste buds to the side of my mouth and away from the poisonous fluid I had just released. As my right hand lowered the remaining stem into my empty bowl of completes, my left hand quickly stuffed my mouth with another.

My system seemed to be working. As long as I got them down my throat with minimal contact on my tongue, the peppers weren’t that bad. I broke out in a sweat, spilled juice all over my shirt, and felt nauseous as I frantically stuffed pepper after pepper into my face but at least my mouth wasn’t on fire. What’s more, I seemed to be keeping pace with my competitors. One after another I swallowed whole jalapeños, sans stems, and did what I could to ignore my increasing level of discomfort.

As the clock ticked, I could feel a burn creeping into my mouth. Starting with a match and a little kindling, it soon progressed to a full three-alarm fire just behind my gums. It took everything I had to keep myself from crying as I continued my regimen of forced-feeding.

“… and…STOP!”

I was so relieved to reach the end of one of the longest sixty seconds of my teenaged life. After the contest, I was spitting flames which I tried in vain to dowse with water as the judges counted up each contestant’s stems. I stood there, sweating in agony as I noticed the others didn’t seem to be as effected by the peppers as I was. Figures.

When the final counts were announced, the judges determined that I had eaten 27 full jalapeños in a minute. I won. Hooray for the sophomore class. The Mexican came in second, followed by the cowboy and neither had eaten anywhere near my number.

After the contest, I had to go clean up and arrived late to my homeroom class where I was greeted with a round of genuine, enthusiastic applause. And it didn’t stop there. For the rest of the day I was congratulated, pat on the back, high-fived, and otherwise acknowledged by my new peers. I made new friends and found myself being invited to all sorts of parties and events. Sure I felt ill, and my mouth was still in pain, but for the first time since leaving New York, I felt accepted.

It wasn’t a rodeo, but I had competed with Texans, in one of their games, and won. In just sixty seconds I had made the transition from outsider to cowboy and all it took was a few hot peppers.