I felt butterflies in my stomach. Butterflies that would soon be smothered in chili-cheese fries.
I was aboard the Queen Mary as a contestant in the Wienerschnitzel Chili Cheese Fry Eating Contest. The event was run by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the New York group responsible for the gluttonmania that surrounds the annual Nathan’s Coney Island hot dog–eating contest.
There were 16 signed up to compete. I’d applied online and figured most of the others would be local. But with $10,000 in prize money at stake, professional gurgitators came from around the country. Among them:
Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, 22, from San Jose. IFOCE’s 2005 Rookie of the Year. Held the Waffle House record of 18.5 waffles in 10 minutes.
Eater X, a.k.a. Timothy Janus, 27, from New York. Held the world record in tiramisu.
Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas, 37, from Alexandria, Virginia. Wearing a pink turtleneck and weighing only 100 pounds, she hardly looked intimidating, but she was America’s top-ranked eater with more than 24 world records. How good was she? Sixty-five hardboiled eggs in less than seven minutes good!
It was as if I’d signed up to play a pickup basketball game, only to find myself facing a team of NBA all-stars. Still, I was the fastest eater I knew, and mediocre fast food was my specialty.
Most of the contestants had competed against each other many times. Offstage, some chatted and relaxed; others prepped by jogging in place, stretching or putting on their game faces. (Eater X does this literally, painting a mask around his eyes.)
My inexperience was evident to “Jalapeño” Jed Donahue, 32, a Huntington Beach resident whose record 152 jalapeños in 15 minutes gave me gas just thinking about it.
“Loosen your belt,” he warned. I didn’t know if he was giving advice or planning to “pants” me onstage.
I was the third contestant introduced. George Shea, the emcee and cofounder of the IFOCE, had never spoken to me before, so I was surprised when my intro began, “Fifty billion years ago,” and ended a minute later with evolutionary man, crawling from the muck, standing on two feet and seeing me towering above him. Bizarre, yes, but the crowd went wild and I felt invincible.
One-pound baskets of chili-cheese fries were brought out. We had 10 minutes to eat. We weren’t allowed to soften the fries in water, we couldn’t shovel the food from the baskets into our mouths and, for the sake of etiquette, we had to use a fork.
Go! I speared, chewed and swallowed with rhythmic precision. Within two minutes, I had finished my first basket, beating the guy next to me. But four minutes in I was still struggling on my second. Shea screamed, “Sonya Thomas is on her fifth one-pound plate!”
I glanced over. Her throat bulged with each swallow. Suddenly Joey Chestnut took the lead, having found some way to gulp water and suck down fries simultaneously.
I felt a pain my stomach, and it wasn’t the chili talking. It was the gut-retching realization that I was completely outmatched. For the first time in my life, I’d lost my desire to eat chili-cheese fries.
The contest ended. My total: 1 pound, 15 ounces. Dead last.
Meanwhile, Chestnut had eaten an amazing 8 pounds, 1 ounce, but that was only good enough for second place and $2,000. At 8 pounds, 2 ounces, the Black Widow beat him by a fork. Sonya Thomas won $4,000 and set another world record. She celebrated by posing for photos and eating — yes, eating — some frozen yogurt.
I tried to put on a happy face, but my competitive eating dream had been crushed. Then Jalapeño Jed, who finished fourth, walked over and said simply, “Never give up.” I was uplifted. Jalapeño Jed was right! If I could just learn the Black Widow’s swallowing technique, I could be ready for a Nathan’s qualifier by summer!