A not-so-fun Cinco de Mayo celebration

By Dennis Minich

It seems I have a story for about any occasion and sadly, in many cases the story involves alcohol. Such is the case with Cinco de Mayo which in my memory bank is one of the least enjoyable and maybe one of the most painful memories of my lifetime.

To really appreciate my story, you do need a little background. Two of my first jobs were cooking in Mexican restaurants. The first when I was only 15 or so when I made the awesome salary of 50 cents per hour. The next came a couple of years later and I think my salary soared to around $1.35 or $1.50 per hour. But I did learn a thing or two about cooking, especially Mexican food. I also did a lot of sampling, experimenting and developing a taste for the spices.

So, now the story zooms ahead a few years to the week before Cinco de Mayo in 1987. A friend of mine and I went to a Royals game and on the way home decided to stop at a restaurant at Bannister Mall for some tacos and liquid refreshment. Soon after our arrival, the announcer said they needed two volunteers for a taco eating contest. Given my gluttony and unabashed enthusiasm, I volunteered. I also won. When I was done, the waiter seemed really concerned about my condition, was I OK? Did I feel ill? I was and I didn’t. Finally, he explained there was a gag in the contest as the tacos had been laced with jalapenos. I hadn’t noticed. That’s when things turned ugly. The announcer then invited everyone back on May 5 for a jalapeno-eating contest, the first prize was a trip for two to Mexico City. Considering how unfazed I was by the tacos, I decided it was a must do. I wish I had not done that.

The evening of Cinco de Mayo, I showed up for the big event. About a dozen eaters came ready to show the world how tough we could be. Having worked in Mexican restaurants, I knew one of the keys to surviving the pangs of red-hot peppers was sugar and water so I made sure I had plenty of sugar packets and water on hand. The judge said we had five minutes to eat as many of the little green monsters as possible. He said go and off we went. Sadly, these were not little no-chew torpedoes, they were big honking peppers, meaning you had to bite and chew to swallow. I got through about seven before I tried my first packet of sugar. It seemed to help and I downed a few more. Another packet of sugar didn’t seem to help my now endangered tastebuds. Some water was also little help.

I won’t go through the stages of pain I endured, I will simply say that at the end of five minutes, I had amassed 27 pepper stems meaning they had gone down my gullet. It was not enough as someone else ate 29. I had the privilege of finishing second, but as is often the case, second place was simply the top loser. First place got a trip to Mexico City, second place got about 72 hours of severe pain. I immediately met most of the other 11 competitors in the men’s room. I kept mine down, but barely.

As my uncle would say for the next few days, my innards were singing “South of the Border.” Just to drive the 30 minutes home required three pit stops, one of which consisted of buying and consuming a large bottle of chocolate milk. The other two did not. Life was miserable for me trying to work. I will simply say I was in pain. I will let you use your imagination as to how that pain manifested itself.

I have never entered another jalapeno-eating contest. I don’t know as I have ever really celebrated Cinco de Mayo again. And now when I tell the story I leave out many of the details and simply state I finished second out of 12. I wonder if the winner really got to go to Mexico City.

On a final note, I have not heard of any mandates lately to wear a mask. I guess we are free to come and go as we wish, as we actually always were. But I will say I continue to wear mine most of the time because to me, it was never about a government mandate, it was hoping I could keep from exposing others to a deadly virus.