Life List #54: Compete in a professional eating contest.
Competing in the World Cupcake Eating Championship.
Joey Chestnut chomps through his hot dogs with such ferocity that particles of wet bun hang in the air like dust in front of a window crack.
That is what I most crave to capture.
Over the years I’ve honed my own method for competitive eating photography: slightly overexpose to account for shadows and to add brightness (it’s a personal preference), high shutter speed (which often comes with bumping up the ISO) to suspend the debris in an isolated moment.
In photographs, throughout years, throughout contests, throughout types of food, patterns emerge in how some eaters choose to eat.
Bob Shoudt, AKA Notorious BOB, for example, hunches low over the table as if picking from a trough.
Others like Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti remain tall, looking upwards or out, often with an open palm maneuvering food products into whatever crevices of the mouth are left available.
Still some others, mostly newcomers, “table enders” (the highest ranked eaters are always in the middle of the table, the less experienced are at the ends), give up before the finish. They eat until they can’t eat anything else and spend the last few minutes leaning against the table and paying more attention to the frontrunners than to the food in front of them.
I didn’t know what type of eater I would end up being. So, before I drove the five hours to Waterloo, Iowa, for my competitive eating debut, I put on a sparkly pink headband, just in case I ate low, just in case I had to lean down on the table unable to go on, just in case I had to puke in the bucket that was tucked below my table, so at least my public would have something pretty to look at.
Yes, I had a public.
I’ve come to be known as one of the world’s biggest fans of competitive eating. A “superfan” if you will. I guess things like watching over 20 contests live, driving back and forth from Chicago to Tennessee in 24 hours or sweltering at a July 4th Coney Island just to watch, give you the credentials.
Despite my love of these gurgatory competitions, I’d never had the desire to eat in one. I’m a fan. I like watching. I like photographing, observing, seeing through my lens all of the beautiful grotesqueness of table lined with humans eating like a pack of wild dogs.
But the thought of doing it myself, some day, did intrigue me, and I had, at one time, added it to my bucket list. So when a cupcake eating contest was announced, I registered, because cupcakes seemed like the least offensive food I could choose to eat.
When Dave Keating, the straw-hat clad emcee, announced my name to the packed casino lobby, he related a prophecy of a one-true eater: one amazing gurgitator who would rise about all else and unite the world in food.
“That eater,” he said, “would be a woman.”
But would it be me?
I took my place. Surprisingly, although I was still in a “table ender” position I wasn’t the first to be called and stood second to the end. I was the only competitor that had never eaten in a contest. I was the only female. I was the only one in a sparkly pink headband, but Tim “Gravy” Brown, a top ten eater who always goes big, had me trumped by wearing a hot pink gorilla suit.
12 white cupcakes were on a plate in front of me. They looked smaller than the ones I’d been practicing on. They also weren’t wrapped like most bakery cupcakes are so I wouldn’t have to spend the extra seconds peeling them out of a wrapper. Both were good signs that I might actually meet the goal I’d set for myself to keep a one-per minute pace. If I ate 8 cupcakes in 8 minutes, I’d be golden.
But with my first bite I knew I was in trouble. They weren’t soft, melt-in-your-mouth crumbly cupcakes like the Bleeding Heart’s, the Crumbs, even the Betty Crocker versions I’d made for my birthday. These were dense, pound cake like, with only a small swirl of frosting for extra moisture. And when I bit into them I got hit with a slight tinge of waxy preservative flavoring.
I knew right away that, even though it was against the rules to dunk the cupcakes, I’d have to drink water with each bite to help them go down. I ate consistently with a cupcake in one hand, styrofoam cup in another and gobs of frosting and crumbs piling on my fingers.
There were a few times I thought I was going to choke, or maybe even worse, have a “reversal of fortune” and be disqualified. I crammed too much in and for moments I couldn’t breathe. I have a small mouth and a horrible gag reflex so there was only so much I could handle. It was never a question of my stomach feeling too full, it was a question of my throat feeling too full.
But I ate until the end. I ate every second that was allotted to us. And when time was called I stuffed the last remnants into my mouth and looked down to see I only had 3 cupcakes left.
The official count by Major League Eating recorded me at having eaten 7. But I started out with 12 and had 3 at the end. So I think it was more like 9. Or, 8.5 if you count debris. I guess it doesn’t really matter. In either case, I came in dead last.
To put that into perspective, the winner, Tim “Eater X” Janus, who always appears in face paint, who was at the time the number 5 ranked eater in the world (now number 3), ate 42, well over four times what I could choke down.
So, no. No I am not the one true eater. No, I am not going to ever be able to hold my own with Joey Chestnut, Pat Bertoletti, or Tim Janus. No, I don’t even think you’ll ever see me entering a contest again. But I held my own. And I will continue to go, to watch, to photograph, and to cheer on every single person up at that table.
p.s. here’s a little bit of video my friend Tim sent over!
p.p.s. when they recently released the new rankings, I was a little upset that my stellar performance didn’t get me into the top 10. What gives? 😉