It was, quite literally, the hottest event in town. Fourteen heat-seeking, pepper-popping participants convened at the Highland Park Farmer’s Market Friday, August 23, 2019, for what must now be deemed the spiciest tradition in town.
Main Street Highland Park, the town’s non-profit community development organization that manages the downtown Business District for the benefit of the merchants, business owners, and residents of Highland Park, hosted its first-ever pepper fest, attracting dozens of rubberneckers, pepper-curious onlookers, and pepper-eating fans who cheered on the fire-breathing contestants through a grueling 75 minutes of piquancy.
In the end it was all about Pat Devlin and Keith Gerstmann, the capcaisin version of Roger Federer vs Rafael Nadal at the 2008 Wimbledon Championship. Pat Devlin, a Yale University assistant mathematics professor who got his PhD at Rutgers and is still based in Highland Park, who was the last person sitting at the pepper-consumption table. As he was being congratulated by astounded onlookers and consuming large amounts of bread and ice cream to counter the effects of the torturously hot final peppers, he tried to explain why he endured this ‘hot time, summer in the city’ experience. His basic response was “now he can claim an expertise in doing something that very few others have succeeded in doing.
The event started off innocuously. Local pepper master, Highland Park resident David Bell, a public school teacher who also owns Capcaisin, provided the peppers. http://capsaicinchiles.com/
The Scoville units— the unit of measurement of pepper heat – started low, and then grew higher past a quarter million, past half a million, and finally culminating past a million with fabled Ghost Pepper.
Emcee Javier Zavaleta, project manager at Main Street Highland Park, skillfully mixed humor with professionalism to narrate exactly what the contestants could expect and, with the help of David Bell, described the peppers to the crowd. Highland Park Middle School Students Lily Solomon and Sophie Huttner helped set up the contest stage; assisted in organizing the process of distributing the peppers to the contestants and the process of judging consumption; and finally made sure all contestants got adequate ice cream and bread to quell the burning from the peppers after each contestant dropped out of the contest.