In 1968, as Washington, D.C. was overcome by riots, Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street not only stayed open, but served the rioters on one side and the police on the other, proving that governments may be protested, chaos may reign in the streets, but chili brings only peace.
The streets of D.C. this past October 12th are very quiet: The usual hum of government activity silenced due to the shut down. However, at the Taste of D.C., 30,000 vocal locals have gathered, not in protest, but in celebration of the great food and drink of the district.
Food trucks, like the Cajunator line the fenced off streets while pop up stands from El Tamarindo, Woodlands Vegan Bistro and the Thunderpig Confectionary offer their signature items. Puposas mingle with samosas, pizza with pho and donuts with dessert wine. Ben's Chili Bowl has two pop up tents serving their signature chili cheese dogs, half-smokes and bowls of their presidential approved beef chili. The center stage bears the banner that is the backdrop for the World Chili Eating Championship and each 32-ounce bowl contains the chili that will make or break a competitive eater's day and stomach.
Two years ago I slogged my way to three-quarters of a gallon of chili while Joey Chestnut bested my total by a gallon, wiping his victory stained hands on the back of my jersey, as if to say, "Better luck next time, chili chump."
That day was special because a mystery military eater, nicked named "Tomahawk" graced the stage. In a previous Huffington Post blog, I wrote about my trips with Navy Entertainment and the joy of interacting with the armed forces while eating quickly overseas. The C.O. of the U.S.S. Fitzgerald had worked with Tomahawk carrying the nuclear football at the White House. Tomahawk introduced me to four of the seasoned White House photographers who had shown up with camera in tow for the 1st Chili Championship. The photos that they produced were not dissimilar from presidential portraits in their mise en scene, their composition and clarity... they were beautiful, except of course, that they were all of competitors with chili dripping from chins, ladling in more chili to open mouths. It was as if Richard Avedon and Jackson Pollock split duties on a photo.
The other highlight of that day is that the chili eating contest opened for the band Styx. Backstage, as the rock gods and eating gods mingled, I mentioned to one of the band members that Paradise Theater was the first cassette I owned. He paused and then asked how messy the chili contest would be on the stage so I excused myself by simply back peddling out of the tent.
In 2012, Tim "Eater X" Janus set a new chili world record with two gallons in six minutes. Chili is too dense to be a soup, too solid to simply be a stew, so Eater X's record sits (heavily) by itself in the "other" category of food consumption. Despite the government shutdown, Eater X, clad in face paint, not dissimilar to Mel Gibson's William Wallace, would yell, "They can take our livelihood, but they will never take our free chili!"
The 2013 contest would go to overtime as Eater X and Bob Shoudt would tie at the two gallon mark. An overtime in competitive eating is about as much fun as water-boarding on the weekend, but both competitors dug into a frenzied "first to finish" another 32-ounce bowl. Bob won by three seconds or 14 beans and a bay leaf.
The highlight of the contest for me, was when 400-pound Badlands Booker, whom I was eating next to, couldn't produce a burp and instead shot a wad of chili shrapnel onto myself and Miki Sudo (who despite her dry cleaning needs, would finish third). Technically, not a reversal as the chili spittle was more of a spray than, "an urge contrary to swallowing." It didn't hit the table and as someone who once shot half a chewed oyster onto Ms. Louisiana, I was glad to see Badlands recover. I rubbed his back, eliciting a large belch and Badlands dug into another bowl.
I never made it passed my second bowl. Was my second bowl a cornucopia that magically refilled itself with every scoop? I didn't know. In the first bowl I encountered giant balls of beef that a casual diner would look upon as gold nuggets in their chili, but proved to be roadblocks towards my progress. The second bowl simply would not empty and sat half full at the buzzer.
In an earlier military round, Ronnie Hartman would eat two bowls in under two minutes. My total was good enough for last place and as I continued to stare, searching for my reflection in the chili, I wondered how this had happened? MC Sam Barclay saw my befuddlement and motioned me to the side of the stage. He gravely said, "Major League Eating did not want me to tell you this before the contest, but your stomach is currently owned by the U.S. Government and due to the shutdown, the stomach you ate with is not your own." Science be damned, I asked, "Whose stomach did I eat with?" Sam replied, "You ate with the stomach of Millard Fillmore, the 13th U.S. president who looks a lot like Alec Baldwin on a bender and has the capacity of only three pounds of mutton stew." I was shocked. I asked Sam, "Where is my stomach? Will I get it back in time for the Twinkie Eating Contest at Bally's Casino Tunica on October 26th?" Sam paused and then said quietly, "Your stomach is at Area 51, and if the government is back up and running, you'll have it in time to stuff it with newly minted Twinkies." Sam then disappeared behind the J. Edgar Hoover FBI building business entrance. I wiped some errant chili from my beard and wondered how much canned beer would fit in Millard Fillmore's borrowed stomach?
Crazy Legs Conti can be reached at www.crazylegsconti.com where he is deconstructing Twinkies with tweezers and sporks.