The congressman eyeballed the jalapenos and flinched.
"Uh-oh," said Jim Matheson (D-Utah), "they got the big ones this year."
"These look like Texas pickles," said Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.).
He was right. At the third annual congressional hot pepper-eating contest yesterday, the jalapenos were big and bright green -- not like the small yellowish peppers the pols gobbled by the dozen last year. They were hotter, too -- developed by Texas A&M University for their "fire burst effect," said Mickey Diamond, the Texas jalapeno mogul who supplied them.
"This could put me at a disadvantage," said Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). "Last year, I was swallowing those small ones whole."
Issa turned to the seven TV cameras that were recording this momentous event for posterity and held up his secret weapons -- a roll of Tums and a bottle of Pepto-Bismol.
"We did come equipped," he said. "I learned that last year."
Last year Issa ate 35 jalapenos in the contest -- enough to cause digestive distress but not enough to win. Rep. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) took the title with 47.
But this year Baca did not show up to defend his title as Congress's "Zestiest Legislator." Neither did Rep. Max Sandlin (D-Tex.), who won the first contest. Perhaps they hadn't recovered yet. In competitive jalapeno-eating, victory can prove painful.
Only Issa, Matheson and Sessions dared compete this year. They stripped off their suit jackets and donned black aprons decorated with the logo of Chile Pepper magazine, which sponsors the contest.
"Tell me the rules," Sessions said.
"It's three minutes," said Joel Gregory, Chile Pepper's publisher. You eat the peppers and put the stems on the plate, Gregory explained. The man with the most stems wins. And you can finish whatever you've got in your mouth when time expires.
"Joe had 12 in his mouth at the end last year," Issa said.
"Okay," Sessions said. "Let's get this thing on."
"On your mark," Gregory said. "Get set. Go!"
The pols popped peppers into their mouths and started chewing.
"Mmmglugm," said Matheson. Then he swallowed. "These are big," he said, before stuffing another into his mouth.
"This is harder than last year," Issa said. Or maybe he said, "This is hotter than last year." It was hard to tell because his mouth was full of jalapenos.
Sessions didn't say anything. He just kept chewing, opening his mouth only to stuff in more peppers or to let their juices drip on his plate.
"Somebody pour the milk," Issa said. He'd brought a gallon of milk, which is alleged to be an antidote for jalapeno heat. "Does anybody have a cup?"
Nobody did. So Issa swigged right out of the jug. Then he stuffed more peppers into his mouth.
"The contest is heating up," Gregory said, parodying a sports announcer's voice.
"I'm working up a sweat," Matheson mumbled between bites.
"Thirty seconds to go," the timekeeper said.
The pols took that as a cue to scarf up one last pepper.
"Fifteen seconds . . . five, four, three, two, one."
The pols swallowed. Matheson wiped his red face with a napkin.
Gregory counted the stems. Issa had nine. Sessions had nine. Matheson had six. It was a tie.
Immediately, wiseguys in the media called out for a runoff round.
Wanting no part of that, Issa grabbed Sessions's hand and held it up in a joint victory celebration. "How do they do it in the Olympics?" he said. "Two gold medals."
Gregory agreed. "This year," he said, "we'll have two Zestiest Legislators."
As the pols hustled off to the House floor to vote, Sessions grabbed a full bottle of the jalapenos. "I'm gonna go home and prepare for next year," he said.
Matheson grabbed a bottle, too. "I'll eat a few tonight," he said.
Issa was clutching a different bottle -- a pink one full of Pepto-Bismol. "We're promoting products," he said. "And this is the product I'm gonna be promoting for the next 24 hours."