As I sit here debating whether to attend a chili festival in Bigfork, I’m torn. You see, unlike most people, I nearly died at a chili cook-off in Georgia a few years back, after sampling some atomic chili ladled out of a toilet bowl. I barely survived, and ever since, I have a new appreciation for the hazards of spicy food festivals.
Don’t get me wrong, I love spicy food, and my tolerance for it is actually pretty high. I load up my sushi with wasabi and whether its Thai food or buffalo wings, I usually order it on the hot side. My aunt in New Mexico has introduced me to the wonders of the green chili.
All of which explains why I thought I could hold my own sampling the goods at the Miller Lite Chili Cook-Off in Stone Mountain, Georgia, back when I lived in Atlanta. The cook-off was, and I guess still is, a competition among chefs where the public is the judge, and voters choose the best chili – like democracy, only fun.
Armed with a warm cup of beer, my friend and I went from booth to booth, and received a small cup of chili and/or Brunswick stew in a small, plastic cup, similar to what they pour a shot into at bars where they don’t trust you not to break the glass over someone’s head.
Several times, the people on line ahead of us would sample the chili, and remark to each other at how spicy it was. Every time that happened, I would try some and not find the chili very spicy at all. You see where this is going. Under the hot Georgia sun, and after a few beers, I somehow began to develop an over-inflated sense of myself, and my capacity for spicy chili.
Wandering through a different area of the festival, I noticed a booth I hadn’t visited yet, offering two kinds of chili. One was their regular version, and the other, appetizingly presented in a toilet bowl, was their “atomic” or “fire-breather” or something. Without hesitation, I stepped forward, pointed to the toilet, and chewed and swallowed quickly whatever it was they handed to me in that cup.
Just remembering what happened next is making me sweat. You know those commercials for Pepto-Bismol that show a diagram of the substance soothingly coating the person’s digestive system? It felt like that was happening to me with napalm. I immediately ran to the nearest wastebasket to spit out whatever bits of the chili I could. My eyes teared so badly I couldn’t see. I was red, drenched in sweat. My ears throbbed. The pain was excruciating, and as I stood there I could feel the chili burning its way deeper into my digestive system.
The next hour or so was a blur. Rick Derringer was the headlining musical act, so over the sweet strains of “Rock and Roll Hoochie Koo” I stumbled around in a daze, like Will Ferrell in “Old School” after he shoots himself in the neck with a tranquilizer dart. In vain, I searched for a first-aid booth to get some Zantac 75. Johnny Winter was also performing, and as the crowd parted to let through the truck driving him up to the stage, I grabbed for the window, terrifying the white-haired rocker and leaving chili smears on his vehicle.
Eventually I was coherent enough to walk to my car and make the 30-minute drive back to Atlanta, but in the parking lot I was violently sick. I spent the next 48 hours on my couch, shivering and sweating. My Southern friends had no sympathy, delighted that a foolhardy Yankee got his butt kicked at a chili cook-off.
And I am now a wiser man, with a new respect for the dangerous dish. Take heed of my example, and remember, with great chili, comes great responsibility.
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