'I'm watching my husband take part in a hot wing competition in Camden' is not my usual response to the obligatory "What's everyone doing tonight?" post-work question. Especially after being a staunch lacto-ovo vegetarian for the past 26 years.
Yet off I trotted to North London as official Hot Wing Comp Spectator to join fellow Alex-fans at the Camden branch of The Blues Kitchen, cheering on my hubby in his first official competitive eating contest.
The rules and regulations were crystal clear. Five rounds of hot wings, five levels of hot sauce provided by the brilliant The Rib Man. No liquids, no wiping and the signing of a disclaimer from participants to take full responsibility for their actions in entering the competition at their own risk. Gulp.
For those in the know, The Rib Man is a London street vendor whose meaty produce receive rare reviews. He also makes really hot sauces. Around twenty hungry contestants took their seat in the dark, bluesy bar surrounded by photos of jazz legends, awaiting their fate. They were raucous; air-punching and whoopping and almost beating their chests in greedy anticipation. They were, pardon the pun, cocky. Unaware of what was to come. As the first round of wings arrived smothered in buffalo sauce my other half remained unperturbed, calm in the knowledge he had been conditioning his body for weeks by eating 'a Rib Man' at every West Ham home game the past season (him and The Rib Man are both ardent Hammers you see). He even made a friend, a wing-man if you like and chatted politely to his eating companion as they munched.
A fresh batch of hot wings appeared, doused in Holy F*ck - the Hot Sauce as well as the exclamation from eaters - as clever The Rib Man had clearly upped his hot game. It was getting rowdier; the hilarious compere asking the guys to share their coping strategies. 'I'm drunk!" yelled one guy into the microphone, which if you ask me was a wise move as one man legged it out of the room at this point, unable to take the heat and getting out of the (Blues) kitchen.
Up next, Christ on a Bike Hot Sauce for Round 3 and this is where (chicken) sh*t got real. Tears, sweats, shakes, clamours and expletives. 'Can I wipe my nose?" said Alex desperately to one of the adjudicators and looked genuinely stricken when he was told he couldn't go the toilet to wash his hands. Rounds 4 and 5 merged into one painful mess - a whole table of participants got up and left - and as the final wings were presented, drenched in You May Cry Hot Sauce, this was clearly for the strong-stomached only. The tall man opposite Alex who had been calm throughout, nonchalantly texting in between rounds, threw his napkin down in defeat (apparently he'd only wanted to eat 12.5 wings and had therefore achieved his own personal goal). We all got a bit hysterical on the sidelines, whoopping enthusiastically and shouting encouraging phrases we never use such as 'You got this Alex!' and 'Dig deep dude!' as the last few eaters begged for mercy and for napkins. 'This guy is from f*cking Texas and he has hot sauce in his EYE and he doesn't give a sh*t!!' boomed the compere, holding up the Texan's sweaty hand as he squinted through a hot-sauce rubbed eye drunk on chicken and adoration.
People were stamping the floor in pain in the final minutes, but still Alex, with a definite trickle of sweat running down his nose, and four others persevered. Supporter Jason reported back live from the Gents that grown men were seen pouring water on their faces to extinguish the heat, looking bewildered and dazed. There was talk of shirts being taken off.
Back to the action. Alex exhaled one last little bit of air out of the corner of his mouth and went in for the final, delicious chomp with one minute to finish. Winner!! He'd won, along with four other amazing (mad?) hot wing eaters with fire in their bellies (literally) and shared love of The Rib Man. Alex accepted his prize gracefully, if not sweatily, and thanked his 'vegetarian wife' for her support before glugging a pink of milk and running to the loo. Beautiful.
Well done Alex and all those who participated and to The Blues Kitchen for such a great night. As I type, my husband is completely chilli-drunk and laying on the bed in a daze. Still wearing his 'Smoke Meat, Not Crack' T-shirt.