By Sarah Colson
Last Friday evening, a large crowd gathered near the courthouse in Jonesborough to watch six competitors stoically, and at times, tearfully, consume some of earth’s most fiery delicacies at the fourth annual Jonesborough Days Pepper Eating Contest.
What was the prize? According to some of the contestants, mere survival. But if escaping with their lives was not enough, other prizes included ice cream from the General Store, hot sauce from the Boone Street Market, ghost pepper seeds (just in case they didn’t get enough during the competition) and, of course, bragging rights.
Was it worth it? According to first-place winner Michael Gillen, last year’s runner up, it absolutely was.
“I had to win,” Gillen said with tears in his eyes and a smile on his red face. “I don’t like coming in second.”
Gillen said his only strategy was to, “Just eat them and hope that somebody else was going to quit.”
A can of lemonade sat on the table in front of each competitor, tantalizingly refreshing and off-limits until one threw in the towel. No drinking was allowed, and each pepper had to be consumed to the stem.
One contestant who seemed like he might never give in was second-place winner, James Thompson from Johnson City.
Thompson was a surprise entry, coming in at the last minute when the sixth contestant was a no-show. He volunteered to eat some of the world’s hottest peppers. News & Neighbor asked him why he would want to do such a thing.
“I’m a glutton for punishment,” he said.
Perhaps the person there who could understand Thompson’s sentiment best was the host of the evening, 2013 Guinness world-record holder, Jason McNabb, a dentist from Shively, KY. In 2013, the 36-year-old consumed 15 ghost peppers in two minutes. The ghost pepper has tested over 1 million scovilles, the scale used to measure the spiciness of a chili pepper.
That’s 300 times hotter than the jalapeno.
Ghost peppers were last in the five levels of peppers participants consumed. The first round consisted of the jalapeño pepper, which most people might consider to be too spicy for consumption.
ETSU student Sarah Smith was among the competitors and said for her, jalapenos have always been a treat. But when it came to the third round in the competition, her swollen tongue and numb lips convinced her it was time to cut her losses and drop out. She had outlasted Geoff Snyder of Telford to finish fifth.
“When I was younger I could eat jalapeños with my friends. We’d have little competitions,” Smith said. “I’d put down like 30 or 40 and beat them. So I thought, ‘Oh, I can do this.’ But then about round three I thought, ‘Nope, I can’t.’”
Other contestants included Hunter Estep of Jonesborough and Larry Steuck. With Smith and Snyder out, the fourth round featured habaneros, which are said to be 100 times hotter than a jalapeño.
A sizeable audience looked on, alternately gawking at the contestants’ displays of willpower and applauding each one who fell by the wayside. Estep labored through a cup of three habaneros, but fell when a second cup of the orange peppers was put before him.
Steuck munched his way through to the ghost pepper round with Thompson and Gillen before succumbing after downing two of them.
Thompson and Gillen, meanwhile, each finished off one cup of ghost peppers, bringing on a final round. Gillen kept on smiling and crying, but Thompson remained stoic. In the end, Thompson left one pepper on the table while Gillen consumed three more to take the crown.
“I just like the hot stuff,” Gillen said about why he wanted to enter in the first place.
When asked if he regretted volunteering last minute to participate in the competition, Thompson answered, “Nope, not at all.”
Meanwhile, Gillen celebrated his win with a kiss from his wife, Darlene, who was perhaps equally brave.