From jalapenos to yurts, festival insiders offer a few how-tos

As festival season opens with a triple header of favorites this weekend, insiders reveal some secrets.

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Chimgee Haltarhuu inside a ger (the Mongolian word for yurt) at this weekend’s Festival of Nations in St. Paul’s RiverCentre.

Photo: Richard Sennott • richard.sennott@startribune.com ,

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Festivals are mostly about having fun and stuffing your face, but learning opportunities abound, as well — and we don’t mean the tedious kind. To whet our appetites, we asked insiders from three popular fests this weekend to share a few secrets.

Cinco de Mayo: How to win a jalapeño-eating contest

West St. Paul’s celebration of Mexican heritage draws crowds for its low-rider competition, but there’s another one that can only be described as hot, hot, hot.

Benjamin Theisen Escobar, who helps organize three separate jalapeño-chomping “heats” — for reyes (men), reinas (women) and a final coed faceoff — said it’s not always Latinos who take home the prize.

“I’m impressed by the gringos who can eat 10 peppers in three minutes, because I couldn’t handle that many,” he said. “People think it’s all professionals doing this, but amateurs often win.”

You have to choke down all the seeds, the hottest part, but “once you go through a few peppers, all you can feel is the burn, so it’s mind over matter,” Escobar said. “Focus on the clock, not what’s going in your mouth.”

Serious contenders increase their intake of food in general, especially spicy stuff, starting days before the contest. Chewing a lot of gum strengthens the jaw, and regular exercise helps to metabolize the food more quickly, he said.

As for after? “A swig of milk never hurts. And if you’re not feeling too amazing a few hours later, try ginger ale.”

May Day Parade: How to wrangle a giant puppet

The May Day bash thrown by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet Theatre is legendary for its colorful variety of floats and puppets, but the most breathtaking are the four huge ones — representing woods, prairie, sky and river — used in the “Tree of Life” ceremony at Minneapolis’ Powderhorn Park. This year, after a hiatus, those puppets will return to the parade route as well. So how are these beloved behemoths and the parade’s other super-sized creatures maneuvered down people-packed streets, sometimes through wind and rain, without toppling over onto bystanders?

With practice, teamwork and young, tall reinforcements in the wings, says veteran puppeteer Esther Ouray, who’s been a parade participant for 32 years.

“I loved operating the big ones in my 20s, but now I’m 56,” she said. “A lot of us who have been doing it for years are getting old, and they’re too heavy for us. It takes three people just to move one onto a truck. So we’ve recruited some fresh young muscles. For them, part of the excitement of the performance is the challenge of the weight.” Those in the know strap small empty aluminum cans to their belts to rest the pole tips in now and then.

To make the hands move in a lifelike way, the trick is a sharp inhale and uptake before each movement. “The breath is what brings it to life,” Ouray said.

Height also helps. “Whenever we see someone tall walk in, we ask if they want to be one of the poles, and we make it sound really exciting. And it is. ”

Festival of Nations: How to live well in a yurt

Is the constant bickering in your house working your last nerve? Pack up the family and move ’em into a yurt, a portable home made of felt stretched over a rounded wooden frame, recommends Chimgee Haltarhuu. At the Festival of Nations, Haltarhuu, a former circus performer who coaches at Circus Juventas in St. Paul, will preside over just such a home, called a “ger” in her native Mongolia.

Haltarhuu lived in a ger with her parents and four siblings until she was 7. “We couldn’t fight, it’s too small,” she said of the one-room dwelling, which is about 20 to 25 feet in diameter. “All us kids slept together on the floor. It was cozy. I miss it.”

  • related content

  • Volunteers hoisted the massive sun puppet that’s a central part of the annual May Day celebration in Powderhorn Park.

  • May Day parade puppeteer Esther Ouray (center, ponytail) has what it takes to handle a giant puppet like this tiger, with a little help from her friends.

  • Ed Cortinas ( in the red Vulcan suit) and other contestants during a Cinco de Mayo jalapeño-eating contest last year in St. Paul.

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