Monday, February 21, 2011

Something Old Something New

Food constantly changes.

Like other facets of human culture such as language, politics and music, food evolves. It represents the amalgamation of culinary ideas handed down through generations and the influences from other cultures that it interacts with. Few things reflect the richness of human diversity and development as much as food does.

My recent food journeys have led me to experience both something traditional and something modern. Food that has been handed down through generations and food that is reinventing classic cuisine. The latter of which involed a cookie eating contest in San Diego.

The Cravory is a Southern Californian cookie company specializing in new and unique interpretations of the classic cookie. They have about a thousand recipes available from their website. These include anything from a traditional peanut butter cookie to savory cookies such as prosciutto & goat cheese. These cookies are not the typical prepackaged cookie dough tubs from Costco you nurse your hang overs with.

They hosted a cookie eating contest on a bright Sunday morning at the busy Hillcrest Farmer's Market in San Diego. They had four different flavors of cookies for the competition; peanut butter overload, pancake & bacon, birthday cake and red velvet.

The Cravory had five contestants participate in their contest. I would compete against veteran competitive eaters Naader Reda and Matt Cohen, as well as newcomers Cindy and Mario. Everyone seemed excited and ready to compete for the 1st place prize of two dozen cookies and a Cravory t-shirt.

Though I must admit, I was disappointed in myself for not being fully prepared for this one. I broke a couple of my own competitive eating rules. I was hung over and sleep deprived from a long night of bar hopping through downtown Laguna Beach and also catching a cold. This made me feel like bailing out on the morning of the contest but I didn't want to disappoint anyone looking forward to having me compete. So I got my coffee and sluggishly made it to San Diego.

We were given the choice of milk or water to drink during the contest and we all opted for water. The 10 minute contest was fast and delicious. And about 4 pounds of cookies later, I managed to pull through to another victory. I ate 28 cookies in 10 minutes, with Naader coming in 2nd at 24 and Matt coming in 3rd with a respectable 18. Suprisingly, no one ended up in a diabetic coma afterwards.

I really need to commend Naader on his performance. He's had a nice string of competitive eating victories recently and gave me an awesome run for those cookies. He reminded me of why I need to take competition days seriously and I hope he continues to get stronger for future contests.

It was also fun to hang out with Cindy and Mario who put away about 10 or 11 each. I should also note that Mario is a serious athlete running sub 2.5 hour times in Boston and wore full on compression socks and armwarmers during the contest, so fucking awesome.

You can check out and order your own cookies at the Cravory's website:

A few days later, my next eating destination was in Santa Paula, California to eat something more traditional. And by tradition I mean a hundred year old recipe for tamales at the Familia Diaz Cafe. Why mess with something your great grandmother got right a hundred years ago?

To commemorate the restaurant's 75th anniversary, they created a 75 ounce tamale eating challenge. They give you an hour to finish three consecutively larger pork tamales covered in red sauce for a combined weight of 75 ounces, about 4.68 pounds. If you succeed you get the meal for free and $75 cash but failure yields you a bill for $19.36, a number representing their year of establishment.

I enjoyed their playful numbering system, but wished it was their 100th anniversary so I could eat a larger tamale and get paid more money. Oh well, maybe in 25 years.

Due to the inclement weather coupled with the typically awful Los Angeles traffic, I arrived very late. However, they gathered a decent sized crowd to watch my attempt and take pictures. That got me fired up and ready to dive into these tamales.

I have only eaten a few tamales in my experience and have never tried a pork one before. The owner explained that it would be nice and soft so I had no reservations about taking large bites and eating quickly. And that I did. I voraciously tore through the delicious compressed corn and pork mass finishing the smallest of the three tamales in half a minute.

My pace remained consistent as did my technique which led me to complete the challenge in one of my fastest paces. I finished in 5:28 which broke the record of 14:20 from the only other guy to complete the challenge out of 6 attempts.

The magic of pork really never ceases to amaze me, I'm glad to have finally tried a pork tamale because it was really delicious. Afterwards, I ordered a platter of food, fried ice cream and a margarita to complete my meal. That was also very enjoyable, I had a great night at the Familia Diaz Cafe.

Here's footage of the challenge:

As the saying goes, something old, something new...

The most valuable lesson I learned in the past week of competitive eating is that food is timeless. It's great to encourage innovation and try new things for our palates to enjoy but it's also important to preserve what we already have. To continue our parent's culinary traditions so we may hand it over to our progeny for future generations to enjoy.

That's definitely the most valuable lesson from this experience. No wait, nevermind, it's don't get shit-faced when you have to competitively eat the next day. Trust me, you'll eat much faster. But the whole honoring both tradition and innovation thing is definitely a close second.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Pastrami War

"War does not determine who is right - only who is left."  
     -Bertrand Russell

If you're going to have a war, it might as well be about food. This weekend I was involved in a war, a pastrami war.

About a month ago, Tommy Pastrami announced they would host an eating contest to commemorate National Pastrami Day. They would have a series of qualifiers with the fastest eaters from all of their locations would congregate at the end of the month in Huntington Beach, CA for the "Pastrami Wars" finals.

I participated at the Irvine store qualifiers. I've had very little exposure to pastrami. Sure, I've eaten it occasionally, usually as an accompaniment to a sandwich or even chili fries but never by itself. And definitely not in these quantities. I was pleasantly surprised with how delicious their pastrami was, eating a pound and a half of this brined and smoked beef was awesome.

I could have easily gone for seconds and thirds.

The qualifier involved eating two Skyscrapers, their 12oz pastrami sandwich, in as little time as possible. I finished my two skyscrapers in 4:31 setting the fastest time for all the locations and securing my place for the finals. The guys at the Irvine location were very encouraging and did an awesome job cheering me on during the finals. I think there was a bit of a war between the various locations as well. They really wanted their store winners to take home the prize.

These guys provided some colorful competition for the $500. Though I was a little disappointed that a couple of other notable eaters didn't show up for the finals. I was looking forward to competing against them and really wanted to earn that 1st place spot. At least my long time eating buddy Aaron Ybarra also qualified and was ready to give me a proper run for the money. We were both extremely excited for this day.

On a drizzly Sunday afternoon, we gathered and got ourselves ready to take on a giant pastrami sandwich. The winner of the finals had to be first to finish a 3.5 pound, triple decker pastrami sandwich. We were allowed to drink the beverage of our choice, including au jus, and could consume the sandwich however we wanted to.

I ended up opting for my usual water and tearing food apart with my bare hands combination. One of the guys brought a container of special fluid and his own bowl to dip the bread in. Everyone seemed determined to win, I think having a nice cash prize really helps motivate people to perform. Money is the best prize.

The sandwich proved to be formidable. I started by separating the bread from the pastrami and going at the pastrami first. I'm no stranger to eating pounds of food but much softer and less meaty foods. 3.5 pounds of pastrami was brutal. You really needed to tear into the meat and take strong swallows if you wanted to eat this thing quickly. My technique fell apart after having some difficulty swallowing wads of delicious pastrami, I nearly choked a few times.

It didn't help that Aaron was doing an incredible job during the middle of the contest. Eating in a very efficient animal style. I was worried, we were really close during the entire contest. In the last portion of the competition, I felt that I really needed to step it up in order to win. My friends, the crowd and the guys from the Irvine store did an awesome job of yelling me to victory.

10 minutes and a few pounds of pastrami later, I was victorious. Though to be honest, it really wasn't a filling meal, just 3.5 pounds of food and a bit of water. But my jaw was exhausted from the chewing. I felt elated after, especially when they presented the prize to me, a giant check for $500. I never received a giant check for anything before, consider another bucket list item checked off.

I ended up having a slice of cheesecake for dessert and seriously considered ordering more pastrami. I did just win $500, that would buy a lot of meat. I think it was Benjamin Franklin that said, "The best wars are those without casualties, that require eating a large quantities of food and award giant checks of money," but I could be wrong.

Here's footage of the contest:

The experience really intensified my desire to compete in up coming contests. I won my first eating contest of 2011 and more importantly had an awesome time doing so. Not a bad way to start the year.