Grilled Cheese Salvation

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.

—Dave Shulman

The Real Al Gore

“Isn’t it BEAUTIFUL?”

Former vice president Al Gore, in the middle of an emotional talk on climate change last Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton, was referring to a projection of “The Blue Marble” photo, captured by the three-man crew of the 17th Apollo mission as they sped toward the moon on December 7, 1972.

“It is the most widely circulated photograph in history,” he reminded the audience.

After 30 years, it’s easy to forget how startling it was: The first fully sunlit photograph of Planet Earth, its landmasses familiar from a millennium of maps, its cloud swirls an early indication of what would one day seem commonplace in the age of regional radar. We had seen images of Earth before — the Christmas Eve shot from Apollo 8 in 1968 — but nothing before or since compared to this perfectly composed glimpse of our own planet emerging into sunlight, with its magisterial sweep of Antarctica’s ice at its center, and the Saudi Arabian peninsula orbiting toward night.

Gore told the audience that the image has long hung in his office, but like many of us, he’d grown numb to it over time. So he asked NASA for a new one.

“They told me there isn’t really another one,” he said. “It’s really the last picture we have of the earth like that, with the sun behind the spacecraft.”

The last picture, he added plaintively, of “the only home we have.”

Gore’s multimedia presentation, hosted by the Natural Resources Defense Council for an audience of media and entertainment people, happened on the same day that 141 nations, including Vladimir Putin’s Russia and the entire European Union, ratified the Kyoto Protocol to reduce collective emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases known to be trapping the sun’s heat on the earth’s surface. It was a day, as journalist Amanda Griscom Little pointed out in both Grist and Salon, when environmentalists should have been marching on Washington. Taiwanese environmentalists stripped naked and stormed their Cabinet to protest their country’s rejection of the treaty. But in the United States the event barely registered; in the crudités line before the speech, the chatter was not about Kyoto, glaciers or the next weird winter storm that would pound Los Angeles, but of parking problems, post-speech meetups at Trader Vic’s and the varieties of the Extreme Makeover experience.

Still, it would have been impossible for even Michael Crichton to watch Gore speak for an hour and not walk away transformed. With graphs, time-lapse photography and red-faced passion unmitigated by political strategy, Gore built a case against greenhouse gases that made your pulse race and your hands tremble. He demonstrated how, in 400,000 years of geological time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has always correlated with the temperature of the planet; he unveiled historic shots of retreating glaciers; he told of flycatcher nestlings hatching out of sync with the caterpillars they’re born to eat. He unveiled a graph illustrating global temperatures since the Middle Ages — an undulating pattern of heat and cooling until it reaches the end of this century, at which point the graph lurches out steeply, representing the 10 hottest years in history, all of which have happened in the last 15 years.

“Those people, the naysayers, they say, this is a cyclical trend,” Gore said, mocking the pedants. There was a warming period in the Middle Ages, “they say.”

“Yeah, right. There was. It’s right here,” he said, and gestured toward a small bump right around the year 1400.

Then came the cascading litany of unfolding catastrophes: unprecedented deadly heat waves, record years of tornados and typhoons, hurricanes landing where they never have before. Polar bears on the brink of extinction, bark beetles devastating pine forests with no hard freeze to slow them down, mosquito-borne diseases marching north.

“In 15 years, there’ll be no more snows of Kilimanjaro,” Gore warned. (The 11,000-year-old ice cap shrank by 80 percent in the last century; most researchers expect it to be gone by 2015.)

“There’ll be a park formerly known as Glacier National Park.”

And eventually there will be no more New Orleans, no more Florida Keys — no World Trade Center memorial — all will disappear under rising seas. “Is it only terrorists we’re worried about?” Gore wondered. “We are witnessing the collision of civilization and the earth.”

For all the bad news, though, Gore was funny — he was, in other words, what we’ve now come to know as himself. He gave a geeky, humane, jovially apoplectic speech, one that managed to raise alarm without turning shrill or scolding. It featured a Matt Groening cartoon on which Kristin Gore herself collaborated, and it was full of the kind of jokes — “denial is not a river in Egypt” — that wouldn’t be worth laughing at were it not for the fact that the former vice president of the United States was delivering them. It was endearing.

This Gore has been with us so long that it’s sometimes hard to remember the other one, the would-be president who intoned what came off like pre-set sound files on taxes, foreign policy and the death penalty, specially designed to separate him from the man who, as the indefatigable Laurie David said in her introduction to his speech, “wrote the book on protecting that planet.” (“That was a joke,” she added after a beat. “Because he really did write the book.”).

But as Gore segued into the question-and-answer period, picking up speed and fury, it became impossible to forget that, five years ago, when he had access to the most visible public forum in the world — a U.S. presidential election — he scarcely breathed a word about the death of the planet. And now, under the glaring chandeliers of the supercooled Beverly Hilton’s Grand Ballroom, we were being told to conserve now or face certain destruction by a man who belongs to a party that consistently refuses to raise the environment as a political issue.

David read a question from the audience on just that point. Gore blamed the media. “There is the A list of issues, the B list of issues and the C list of issues, and if a candidate goes out and gives a speech and the media doesn’t pick it up,” then you’ve “wasted the day.” But who compiles those lists? As far as anyone can tell, the Democratic Party has yet to submit the melting polar ice caps for consideration on any of them.

Will that finally change in 2008? Will we finally be so overwhelmed with evidence that we recognize that in our cars and homes we have become our own worst terrorists? Will the Blue Marble make a comeback? Al Gore thinks so. Al Gore — this Al Gore, the one who now insists “we have to expand the boundaries of what is politically feasible” — is said to be considering another bid for president. With luck, this time he’ll pull the Blue Marble off his office wall, take it with him on the road and tack it up on the podium behind him everywhere he goes.

“I really believe this: We will find a way,” he reassured his audience at the end of his speech.

And what if we don’t?

—Judith Lewis

Rapping in the Chinese New Year

Broadway sounded like a war zone with fireworks popping like gunshots in random volleys. Spent firecrackers littered the streets. The Chinese New Year Parade was in full effect as the colorful dragons wound through the streets of downtown.

Tucked behind a bank in an alley of old Chinatown there were explosions of a different kind. A gathering of teens and young adults, mostly Asian, huddled around a stage where two MCs were rhyming. In the front row, a middle-aged woman furiously swiveled her hips with the beat, her hands outstretched to the performers. Smiling faces at the Real Youth Center table handed me free condoms, pens and lollipops with stickers that said “Don’t be a dum-dum, wear a condom!”

An MC named NoCanDo stepped on stage. “I’m gonna start with some a capella,” he announced. Great. Another American Idol wanna be. These free hip-hop shows are often havens for mediocre, mic-hungry performers looking for a place to run their mouths and hone their skills. But NoCanDo began spewing lyrics, spoken word and poetry with sharp cadence and pristine pronunciation. Dude was good and I had goose bumps by the time he finished his first piece. The crowd grew larger and fell silent as NoCanDo began to flow. The dancing woman in front kept trying to grab him, as if he were some sort of rock star.

What was going on here? DumbFoundDead, the host of the show and a fellow Marshall High alum, said I had stumbled upon the third annual Double Standard, a celebration of the Lunar New Year, put on by promoter Kublai Kwon.

The free event (to everybody but Kwon who paid for lights, stage and amps) was a showcase for up-and-coming, and primarily Asian, hip-hop and spoken-word artists. Hip-hop, though revered for its acceptance of all races, hasn’t seen too many Asian artists take hold of the mic. The promoters hoped this show would help bring them more into the mainstream. Skim, a fierce-looking young Asian woman from New York, tantalized the crowd with her rhymes about Korea.

Though it was getting cold and late, more people streamed in to see the show. The dancing lady wouldn’t stop flinging herself toward the stage, waving her arms in the performers’ faces. And just when it looked like NoCanDo was about to swat her out of the way, he instead bent over and gave her a loving bear hug.

—Lena Valencia


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