I'm not sure the men's restroom is where you want to spend a significant portion of your time at a Fiery Food convention, but that's where I ran into Justin Sewall. Someone was retching behind the closed door of a stall, and Sewall was hunched over a sink, staring at himself in the mirror like a vet who'd just returned from war and lost a few friends.
He'd just won the preliminary round of a wing-eating competition, which pitted 10 or so contestants against each other in a race to the bottom of a modestly sized, paper-lined basket of boneless chicken wings. I gave the guy some space and caught up with him outside the restroom a few minutes later.
"It's not about winning; it's about beating my brother," he said, nursing a cardboard pint of milk. His pink, beady eyes blinked behind thick glasses. Droplets of perspiration collected on his forehead. His face looked like the ass of a freshly spanked toddler. Sewall did not look comfortable.
Unlike other eating competitions, quantity wasn't the focus at ZestFest, unless you were counting Scoville units. The baskets contained only 10 or so morsels of breaded fried chicken -- nothing compared to the hundreds of wings consumed in professional competitive eating competitions. But they were covered in Wingstop's atomic wing sauce. The dark mahogany nuggets reeked of napalm as competition workers shuttled them from a hot box behind a curtain to the unknowing victims on stage.
Sewall beat his brother, Dale, who was eliminated in the following round, but he did not win the competition. Christian Fadul, a 24-year-old engineer, fresh out of school, took that honor and the 48-inch Westinghouse television that came with it. It was Fadul's first eating competition.
Most of the entrants were just amateurs looking to torture themselves on stage in front of a few hundred spectators. "He was just looking for a free lunch," a friend joked about Fadul. "The TV was a bonus."
Fadul pumped his fists toward the sky and grabbed the thin box from the stage, while the losers wiped red sauce from their fingers, chugged milk or dashed to the bathroom.
With the antics concluded, the crowd dispersed and searched for other spicy schadenfreude. They found it in booth after booth of fiery hot salsas and sauces, powdered peppers, and other concoctions, all designed to appeal to those hunting for the ultimate capsaicin glow.