Here's a competitive eating tip: When settling in for a contest, shoulder-to-shoulder with your competition, far from the nearest bucket, avoid considering that your food looks like a plateful of fat, fried caterpillars.
That's one of a few lessons I took home Saturday afternoon, after the first annual Margarita Ranch stuffed jalapeño eating contest. Thankfully, the first bite was better than that -- not too greasy, with a gooey center that was still hot even after the legal waivers were signed and the contest rules were read. A little more kick to the jalapeños would have added a good challenge, but the seeds had been scraped out to make room for bright orange cheese stuffing.
The contest drew a dozen hopefuls to a table outside Mockingbird Station's answer to sit-down Tex Mex -- some friends of the restaurant's manager, others who heard about the contest earlier in the week. Two middle-aged women walked up in bright shirts with plastic jalapeño beads strung around their necks. While a more traditional contest might last 10 or 12 minutes, this was only three minutes long -- so it'd be tough for anyone to push themselves to failure. Even for an eating sprint, this one seemed to go by fast. At stake: the customary stew of glory, thrill and shame, plus a year's free eating at Margarita Ranch.
I made a big show of taking quick, messy bites and coming on strong out of the gate, I barely noticed the quiet eater in a sweater-vest across from me, doggedly outpacing me as time ran down. Once time was up, Jeanie in the pepper beads brought up the rear, having eaten just one ranch-dipped jalapeño. 16-year-old Hunter Pruitt, a repeat champion at his church's hot dog eating contests, put away 7.5 jalapeños to match most of the eaters at the table; against that pace, I was convinced I'd left the competition safely behind.
Of course the decision came down to me and the guy across the table. Had I known who I was up against -- a man who, I later learned, has known the jalapeño popper like few men ever will, an artist with a Tex Mex appetizer, who wakes to fajitas and dreams in spicy chicken and cheese -- I would have pushed a little harder to finish strong.
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Two weeks earlier, I lost by an ounce to the smallest eater at the table, and carried my regrets with three pounds of cheese. In the suspenseful moments of Saturday's count, I worried I hadn't learned a thing.
The guy in the sweater was none other than Ramon Solorzano, global culinary manager for Brinker International Restaurants, the chef behind the menu at Chili's, On the Border and Maggiano's Little Italy. Like the great eater-chef Pat Bertoletti, Solorzano spends his days surrounded by food, taking up eating challenges like some take a coffee break. "Anything that requires eating, I'll do it," he said.
The final count: Solorzano 14, City of Ate 16. But it had been a quick contest -- neither of us were full -- and he'd been gaining on me at the end. Politely, but matter-of-fact, he told me, "If this were a 10 minute contest, I would've had you beat." As Roy, the manager at Margarita Ranch, treated everyone to a round of celebratory tequila shots, Solorzano was still eating jalapeños off his plate, then from other plates nearby.
After a few minutes he dropped another deadpan announcement on the rest of us at the table: he'd just eaten 28.