The 90-degree weather on Sunday, June 8, could't compare to the heat contestants of the Spicy Lolly Lick-A-Thon experienced at the annual two-day Pinellas Pepper Fest.
With the winner taking home a trophy, more extreme lollipops and a hot sauce set, nine competitors lined the stage on the festival's second day, battling it out for the coveted title of Best Licker.
The rules were simple — no biting or chewing — but the kicker was the lollipop itself.
Made with several hot sauces and dry flakes, this lollipop ranked much hotter than habaneros with 1.6 million Scoville units. The spices were sandwiched between a top layer of sweetness, and the lolly transformed from a sweet sucker to a heat-punching pop in less than five minutes.
Last year’s winner and spicy-food fanatic Paul Pulkownik, who cleverly placed first under the name Robert Scoville, shared insider tips on how to handle the heat.
“The best technique is only licking and abrasion,” he says. “And water will only spread the capsaicin oil around more, but yogurt helps.”
It didn't take long for the competitors' faces to twist and turn red. While most held their composure, one contestant rolled around the floor for relief.
After nearly 10 minutes, Shane Varga was named winner. Second and third places fell shortly behind.
Although the lollipops were gone, the heat remained long after.
“You get an endorphin rush, but sometimes there’s a capsaicin overload after," says Pulkownik, who’s competed in hundreds of heat challenges and once spent an entire day in bed shivering from a spiced-out burger.
For the rest of us tame-tongued observers, this year's Pepper Fest packed more than enough heat, with something for everyone.
Sauce vendors, salsa experts and pepper plants crowded England Brothers Bandshell Park, and a variety of competitions, including amateur hot sauce and salsa recipe contests, occurred throughout the weekend.
The festival benefited the Elizabeth Animal Rescue Sanctuary.