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Grilled Cheese Salvation 

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And what became of the so-called Virgin Mary grilled cheese sandwich that, a few months ago, sold on eBay for $28,000 (even though the image looks more like a brunette Mae West)? It was purchased by online-gaming giant GoldenPalace.com and has become a mascot for the company’s popular eating contests. Last week, the company bought the similarly significant McDonald’s “Lincoln fry” — a 4-inch strip of fried potato that contains a partial bust of President Lincoln at one end — for $75,100.

“This is a great day for marketing,” GoldenPalace.com CEO Richard Rowe stated in the company’s press release. “And a great day for Abe Lincoln.”

A few days prior, on the afternoon of Abe Lincoln’s 196th birthday, an enthusiastic crowd of about 200 fills the bleachers at Muscle Beach to watch “The Passion of the Toast,” a 10-minute all-you-can-eat competition, and to get a glimpse of the Virgin Mary grilled cheese, which GoldenPalace.com’s Steve Baker carries around in a sturdy glass case.

With cash prizes totaling $10,000, the event — sport? or food porn for a nation of obese voyeurs? — is a showcase not only for the competitive eaters, but also for master of ceremonies Richard Shea, president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, who raises the intensity level with his evangelical charm and matching barker’s hat.

“Ladies and gentlemen!” Shea announces. “From Denver, Colorado! The West Coast chicken-wing-eating champion of the world — of the West Coast — who has eaten 107 chicken wings in 12 minutes! He’s a rising star in the competitive-eating circuit! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you . . . Donovan Busta!”

We, the ladies and gentlemen, are similarly introduced to all of the contestants, including the 6-foot-4, 420-pound “butter-eating champion of the world! Seven quarter-pound sticks in five minutes! Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker!” . . . “The baked-bean-eating champion of the world! Six pounds in one minute and 40 seconds! I give you the former matzo-ball-eating champion of the world, Don ‘Moses’ Lerman!” . . . “The jalapeño-pepper-eating champion of the world! One hundred and fifty-two jalapeños in 15 minutes! The hot-dog-eating champion of Texas! Twenty-two hot dogs in 12 minutes! Here today to try his hand at the most sanctified of foods, the grilled cheese! I give you Jalapeño Jed Donahue!” . . . “The big man! The pizza-eating champion of the world! The ice-cream-eating champion of the world! The corned-beef-hash-eating champion of the world! Former chicken-wing-eating champion of the world! Ladies and gentlemen, I give you the rib-eating champion of the world! Edward ‘Cookie’ Jarvis!!” . . . “The oyster-eating champion of the world, with 36 dozen in 10 minutes! The hot-dog-eating champion of America — 32 in 12 minutes! She has more titles than anyone in America! She’s ranked No. 1 in America and No. 2 in the world! At 100 pounds, she is a cross between Anna Kournikova, Billie Jean King and a jackal wild on the Serengeti! Ladies and gentlemen! From Alexandria, Virginia! Sonya ‘The Black Widow’ Thomaaahhhhssss!!” And the diminutive Ms. Thomas takes her place at the table, like the others, to the sound of thundering hard-rock guitar riffs.

The crowd now joins Shea in the countdown. An ambulance driver stands beside the stage, wearing rubber gloves, waiting for potential customers. As we hit zero and the eating begins, Shea cranks up the spirituals: “Not simply a contest, it is a journey, my friends! A journey down the alimentary canal! A journey to self-discovery! WITNESSETH HISTORY HERE TODAY! IN HONOR OF THE VIRGIN MARY! COMPETITIVE EATING IS THE BATTLEGROUND UPON WHICH GOD AND LUCIFER BATTLE FOR MEN’S SOULS! WE ARE FIGHTING FOR VICTORY, FOR DOMINANCE! BUT ALSO FOR AN UNDERSTANDING. FOR PASSAGE INTO THE GREAT HEREAFTER!”

The eating continues and so does Shea: “Nostradamus warned, in the early 16th century, of the grilled cheese championship in his poetic yet cryptic quatrains! He said, And at one point under the bright sky, they shall gather to eat the cheese that has been couched in bread and grilled! That’s actually a translation, because Nostradamus spoke French . . . Ladies and gentlemen, the universe has no end and no center. And, like Sonya Thomas’ stomach, it is ever-expanding. She has eaten 11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes! That is 11 percent of her body weight — thankfully, she weighs exactly 100 pounds, making it possible for me to put that into a percentage. Is she the best eater in the world? No. That is Kobayashi. Is she the best eater in America? Yes! Without any question! Will I phrase everything heretoforward in the form of a question? No!

“Oh my God, ladies and gentlemen! The clouds have parted to allow us here today to demonstrate our commitment to the Virgin Mary! . . . I am absolutely overwhelmed by emotion! I have not felt this much emotion since the birth of my first child! We are down to ONE MINUTE! I AM FEELING THE SPIRIT OVERCOME ME, LADIES AND GENTLEMEN!”

Shea’s now screeching in tongues, reciting Hebrew prayers. Again, the crowd joins Shea in counting down to zero, then Shea shouts, “PUT DOWN YOUR GRILLED CHEESE! PUT DOWN YOUR GRILLED CHEESE!”

The crowd goes nutz, and Shea collapses, just slightly.

“I don’t remember what just happened,” he says. “There was a moment there when I looked up into the sky, and I saw the sun, and I saw truth.”

Then he gives us the bad news: “Ladies and gentlemen, a special appearance at the conclusion of the awards ceremony! A free event, and yet you’re getting more value: Andy Dick is here, ladies and gentlemen!”

O Lord, why must you abandon us now?

The officials tally up, and Shea gives us the results: in seventh place ($500), with 17 sandwiches, Ron “Hizzoner” Koch and his dog, Tinkerbell. Sixth place ($800) with 18, Hungry Charles Hardy; fifth place ($1,000), 18 1/2 sandwiches, Eric “Badlands” Booker; fourth place ($1,150), with 20 3/4 sandwiches, Carlene LeFevre; no third; tied for second ($1,525 each), with 23 sandwiches each, Carlene’s husband, Richard LeFevre, and Jed Donahue.

“And adding [$3,500] to her innumerable records that include 48 soft tacos in 11 minutes, 65 hard-boiled eggs in 6 minutes 40 seconds, 11 pounds of cheesecake in 9 minutes, 32 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, 46 hamburgers in 8 minutes! With 25 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes, SONYA “THE BLACK WIDOW” THOMAS! SONYA THOMAS! SETS A NEW WORLD RECORD HERE TODAY! IN HONOR OF THE GOLDENPALACE.COM CASINO, AND IN HONOR OF THE VIRGIN MARY!”

Shea thanks us all and brings up, as forewarned, Andy Dick. Time to go. I slip around to the back of the stage and head north, where the walkway is littered with discarded partial grilled cheese sandwiches. An elderly, sun-tortured homeless man picks some of them up off of the ground and takes a seat on a stack of nearby cinder blocks. Lunch.

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