Friday, May 11, 2012

El Pelón’s Habanero Hell by Matt Goisman

A nervous energy surrounded the jam-packed El Pelón Taqueria on Commonwealth Avenue in Brighton Wednesday night. Knowing glances, eyes slightly widened by fear, giggles with an undertone of dread.

Everyone knows 10 people are about to eat a gastrointestinal tract’s worth of chili peppers for a year’s supply of free burritos.

Among the 10 qualifiers who show up: Chestnut Growler, drummer for The Swaggering Growlers and MassBytes blogger; BC senior Matt “Dente” Chyriwski, who competed against Growler a month ago; and defending champion John Thomas, another BC senior, who last year ate 36 habaneros to win a year’s supply of free burritos.

The rules: contestants will have a minute to eat the peppers in his or her paper tray. Drinking anything or failing to finish on time equals elimination. The remaining contestants move on to the next round. Last person standing wins.

“This is a horrible thing to do,” El Pelón owner Jim Hoben warns. “Very dangerous.”

Before a single habanero arrives, everyone must first get through six preliminary rounds: a large green jalapeño, two smaller red cherry peppers, two rounds of tiny green Thai chilis (five total), plus two rounds of orange Thai chilis (four total).

It’s clear from these opening rounds that Growler, Chyrwiski and Thomas will in some order finish 1-2-3. The three of them breeze through, quickly downing the peppers and showing no adverse effects.

“I feel so self-conscious with everybody staring at me eating,” Thomas jokes with the crowd.

The other seven contestants, meanwhile, have already started to lag. Bodies start to twitch, faces start to glisten with sweat.

Telltale coughs, sneezes and hard exhalations start drifting up from the table.

Eyes grow puffy, noses need to be blown, and the enthusiasm with which everyone looked at the first few peppers has been replaced by sagging, desperate looks.

Two drop out during the warm-ups, and El Pelón staffers then bring out the bright-orange habaneros. After just one round, two more call it a day.

By the third habanero, a wide gulf emerges between the demeanor of the top and bottom three. Aided by Slayer playing through his earbuds, Growler chows down with the same Zen-like focus with which he approached the qualifiers.

Chyrwiski has clearly dressed to intimidate: an orange “tough mudder” headband, dark sunglasses, green “Dawg Lacrosse” tank top and chili-pepper pajama pants. He bounces with a nervous energy that disguises his stamina, plus he pre-gamed.

“Six shots of Rubinoff, couple spoonfuls of peanut butter, and a few swigs of vegetable oil,” Chyrwiski says. “And then I put Vaseline on my lips.”

Thomas, however, looks immune to the peppers’ hefty doses of capsicum. He relaxes on the bench after each round, chatting up the crowd, smiling and laughing.

“I think John downplays his abilities a great deal,” Hoben says. “I think that’s his trick.”

The other three however, are anything but immune to the habaneros’ heat. Beth Bokis quits after three, and Warren Huffman calls it after nine. Upon quitting, Huffman downs his horchata so quickly that most of it spills down his shirt and into his lap.

Miller Huffman makes it one more round, but he’s unable to shake this look of utter sadness. Needing to finish four peppers at once to move on, Huffman quits, leaving only the Big Three.

At Thomas’ request, the next round features SIX habaneros – the most of any round so far.

“Well-played, sir,” Growler says. Chyrwiski just holds his fist in front of his mouth and coughs quietly.

“I’m bored of the pain,” Thomas responds.

Having now eaten 19 habaneros, Growler asks for two in the next round. Growler finally starts to lag a bit, though he gets them both down.

“The habaneros were easier to get down, [but] there were many more of them today,” Growler says. “My problem tonight: I got full.”

Chyrwiski next plays it safe, calling for just one pepper. Everyone eats his, but now Growler looks like the one on the verge of vomiting.

He doesn’t, and Chyrwiski shouts, “Damn it!” at his seemingly failed plan. Just as he finishes cursing, however, Growler drops out.

“The batteries [of my music player] died,” Growler says. “Slayer is a crucial ingredient.”

That leaves just Chyrwiski and Thomas, duking it out for a prize Hoben calculates as worth just over $2,000.

Back and forth the two go, neither giving an inch. Chyrwiski slowly traces each pepper’s path down his throat, while Thomas’ eyes have turned puffy and bright pink.

“John Thomas is all that is man,” a girl shouts from the crowd. Calls of “Let’s go, Dente!” echo from the back.

Both “food athletes,” as Hoben calls them, break Thomas’ mark last year by finishing their 37th habanero, and Hoben starts bribing Chyrwiski to drop out. With each subsequent round, Hoben’s offer rises from $200 to $300 in gift cards, plus a free t-shirt and tank top.

Chyrwiski turns down every offer. He and Thomas have now eaten more than 100 habaneros combined. Nobody’s having fun anymore.

“I’m losing feeling in my hands,” Thomas says. “This is really bad.”

The two down their 52nd through 54th peppers, popping them in like candy.

“This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever done,” Chyrwiski says under his breath.

Finally, Hoben forces the issue: 11 habaneros, 1:30 to eat them. Chyrwiski eats three – Thomas eats nine. Thomas wins, eating 63 habaneros to Chyrwiski’s 57.

“I just knew that once you hit a certain point, it’s like the same consistent pain, so I can just outlast people,” Thomas says.

Hoben presents Thomas with a trophy filled with chili peppers. Thomas promises to burn them and never eat another pepper.

“Satan pissed down my throat, and his piss is gasoline, and then he dropped a match in it,” Thomas says.

Thomas bolts for the bathroom, while Chyrwiski dashes outside. Hoben says Chyrwiski will still take home $300 in gift cards.

“My mouth isn’t burning,” Chyrwiski says. “It’s just that my stomach’s full, and I can’t throw them up because there’s not enough room in my esophagus. … I hope I make it to tomorrow.”

Chyrwiski says he’ll never do this again. Thomas says he’ll try to three-peat if he’s still in Boston next year.

Considering Thomas went from 36 to 63 this year, God only know how many he’ll have to eat next year.