St. John USVI Stories: The Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug Contest
by Gerald Singer ©2005
It was the Memorial Day weekend. Tal was on his way to Seychelles, the beachside restaurant where he worked as a dishwasher. The merchants of Wharfside Village mall were hosting their traditional beginning-of-summer celebration providing not only the usual music, food and drink, but also events and competitions such as bikini and Mr. Beefcake contests, tug-of war, volleyball and kayak and swimming races. Island Hoppers, a store specializing in the hot sauces of the Caribbean, was hosting a pepper sauce tasting followed by the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug contest.
Tal is a well-known figure on St. John. He had come to the island in the early 1970s from Waycross, Georgia. He was considered a hippie in the days when adopting that life-style was downright dangerous in the state of Georgia. Tal survived almost unscathed. He overcame the fears and suspicions of his neighbors and peers, due in great part to his genuine friendliness, endearing southern charm and also to the fact that Tal is a pretty big guy, about six-foot-four and over two hundred and fifty pounds of potential Georgia whoop-ass.
Tal had spent some time traveling, working as the road manager for the hot southern rock band, Lynard Skynyrd, and later turned up on St. John, which has since become his home.
"Hey Tal," a voice called out, "Come here. I've got something to tell you." It was Tal's friend, Jim.
"Hey Jim, what's happening?"
"Tal, they're having a hot sauce eating contest over at Island Hoppers, you gotta enter, you'll win for sure. I know, I've tasted your food."
Jim was referring to the time when he and Tal were having lunch together at Pussers. Tal had got up to go over to the bar and Jim made the mistake of sneaking a bite of Tal's burger. When Tal got back to the table, Jim was sweating and sputtering and trying to put out the fire in his mouth with cold beer. Tal sat down, put another big helping of hot sauce on the burger and hungrily finished it off while Jim just stared at Tal through unbelieving and tear-streaked eyes.
Jim should have known better. Tal has a reputation as a lover of hot sauce - the hotter the better. He would literally drown his food in the hottest of the hot sauces and could even chew up a whole habenero pepper, the hottest pepper in the world, and not even blink an eye.
"What's the prize?" Tal asked.
"Fifty bucks, and you get a free beer just for entering. Come on Tal; you'll win easy.
Tal thought about it for a second. He figured he would be a sure winner and hell, fifty bucks. "All right. I'll give it a shot. Let's go,"
Tal told his boss what he was planning to do and let him know that he might be a little late for work. Then he and Jim swaggered over to the Island Hopper Hot Sauce Store.
There were eleven other contestants, a few locals, but primarily sailors and marines on shore leave from the US Naval destroyer that was anchored about a half-mile offshore.
To begin with, the contestants had to sign a document releasing Island Hoppers and the Wharfside Village Shopping Center from any liability in the event of death by hot sauce or any other injuries, physical, mental, emotional or spiritual that might be shown in a court of law to be the direct or indirect result of the great hot sauce chug-a-lug competition. The rules called for the participants to drink one full shot-glass of the pepper sauce each round. No other food or drink, including the free beer, could be consumed during the contest. Whoever drank the most shot glasses of hot sauce would walk away (or possibly be carried away) the winner.
The pepper sauce for the contest was prepared by none other than Charlie Deyalsingh, better known as Trinidad Charlie, who as his name suggests, had come to St. John from the island of Trinidad. Among Charlie's many talents is the manufacturing of one of the most delicious pepper sauces to be found on this planet. The hot sauce for the competition, however, was much simpler and much hotter than his regular sauce, which is a blend of East Indian spices from his native island along with a variety of hot peppers and other goodies organically and lovingly grown in the lush Guinea Gut Valley. For this special occasion Charlie had prepared a large bowl of sauce made only with the hottest of his hot peppers and a small amount of vinegar. It was an extremely potent brew, to say the least.
The Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug competition began with all twelve participants simultaneously gulping down their first shot glass of Trinidad Charlie's specially prepared, extra-hot, East Indian pepper sauce concoction.
Two of the contestants immediately realized that this event was not for them. Soothing their lips, tongues and palates with free Heineken beer, they sat down and joined the spectators.
By the fifth round, all but three die-hards remained, a pretty young lady from Michigan, a tough-looking Puerto Rican Marine and Tal.
After the eighth round, the young woman gave up the ghost and retired to the bathroom from where sounds of serious distress soon emanated. Now with the competition down to two contestants, the event began to resemble a boxing match.
A group of Puerto Rican Sailors and Marines in one corner cheered wildly in Spanish after every shot that their shipmate successfully swallowed. Not to be outdone by outsiders, the locals assembled in Tal's corner. A lady friend of Tal's, who later won the bikini contest, took a damp washcloth, cooled it in a glass of ice water, and wiped off the perspiration that was beginning to accumulate on Tal's brow. Jim and his other local friends responded to the Puerto Rican cheering section by offering shouts of encouragement in English whenever it was Tal's turn to brave the fiery mixture.
It had become personal. Self esteem and machismo was now at stake. After a series of twenty-five shots, the last drop of Trinidad Charlie's special blend was gone. No, this is not a typo, nor an exaggeration, nor is it a form of artistic license. This is a verifiable fact. Tal and the Marine had consumed twenty-five one-ounce shots each. No one had expected the contestants to be able to drink so much pepper sauce, especially this potent stuff. Something had to be done so that the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug contest could continue, which it did despite this setback.
Bruce, the owner of Island Hopper, who was also judge and jury of the competition rendered a decision. Substituting for Trinidad Charlie's brew would be the pepper sauces that remained from the prior hot sauce-tasting event. Partly filled open bottles of an assortment of brands and blends were now poured helter-skelter into the contestant's shot glasses. And even though the commercial sauces were not as hot as Charlie's, they were not mixing well: one being mustard based, another papaya based, another tomato sauce based and so on.
At shot number thirty-five, this haphazard mixing of ingredients was beginning to make Tal feel queasy. He had been keeping about three shots ahead of the Marine, but for the first time, he contemplated quitting. "Is this really worth fifty bucks?" he asked himself. Just then Tal glanced at the Marine and saw that the tough guy's knees were shaking and that he was having difficulty standing up.
Tal understood that the time had come for psychological warfare. Taking two shots of pepper sauce, one in each hand, Tal turned to the Marine and warned, "You might as well quit now and save yourself a lot of grief because there ain't no way that you're ever gonna win this contest."
Tal punctuated his sentence by shooting down a shot of hot sauce and then licking his lips in feigned pleasure.
The Marine was completely demoralized. He looked at Tal and extended his hand signifying that he was conceding defeat. As Tal stood face to face with his defeated adversary he could not help but notice the tears rolling down the Marine's cheeks, the mucus streaming from his nose and the foamy white substance that bubbled from the corners of his mouth. They shook hands and the Marine bolted for the bathroom.
The locals cheered and Bruce raised Tal's arms in victory. The envelope containing the prize was presented to the champion and the great hot-sauce-eating contest was at an end.
Tal went back to begin work at the restaurant, but the stomach pains he felt at shot number thirty-five returned with a vengeance. He went to the refrigerator, poured himself a glass of milk, and sat down at one of the tables. The milk succeeded in partially calming his stomach; he took a deep breath and again wondered why he had ever gotten involved in such a ridiculous contest in the first place. But hey, fifty bucks is fifty bucks.
To put things in a better perspective, Tal removed the envelope from his pocket and opened it. Strangely enough, he did not see cash or find a check inside; rather there was a document of some kind. When he read it, he just about fell off of his chair. The prize wasn't fifty dollars; it was a fifty-dollar gift certificate - for hot pepper sauce.
Tal took off his apron and walked over to Island Hoppers. When he got there, he saw Bruce absorbed in an animated conversation with a group of people. When Bruce saw Tal, he started waving his arms and yelled, "See I told you he wasn't in the hospital. I told you all that he was all right. Hey, Tal, tell the people you're all right."
"I'm all right Bruce," Tal replied, "but to tell you truth I've had enough hot sauce, and I'd really appreciate some cash instead."
Just then Bruce's wife chimed in, "Come on Bruce, don't be a cheapskate; give Tal some money. He deserves it,"
Bruce brought Tal up into his office, but when Bruce went into his cash box to give Tal the money he found he only had twenty's. "Here Tal. Take sixty, like my wife said, you deserve it."
The sixty dollars made Tal feel better. It made the whole ordeal seem almost worthwhile. That is, until the next day, when Tal bumped into the young lady who served as his manager and coach during the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug. "How are you doing?" she asked Tal.
"Just fine, I even got an extra ten bucks," he replied, "and how did you do on the bikini contest?"
"Oh I won first prize," she told Tal.
"Great! What did you win?" Tal asked.
The young lady's answer made Tal question the values of western society.
"Five hundred dollars," she exclaimed.
"Five hundred bucks," Tal thought, "didn't have to do anything but look good. And all I got was a lousy sixty for winning the Great Hot Pepper Sauce Chug-a-Lug."
As Foxy Callwood of Jost Van Dyke is fond of saying, "Such is life. Such is life."
Note: A question that was often asked to Tal was how he felt the next day, did the peppers burn on the way out. Tal's answer was, "No more than usual," which is understandable knowing the quantity of pepper sauce that he routinely consumes. "But," Tal added, "the first time I peed after the contest; well now that burned."