Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Spirit of Independence

One of the finest institutions of art and inspiration is Disney World's Epcot in Florida. Inside of their World Showcase pavilion you can find a great example of the embodiment of the American spirit of independence in a statue aptly named Spirit of Independence.

There's something about how a stone man dressed in garb from The American Revolution that stirs one's spirit and just makes you feel liberated. Like you posses the freedom to do as you please and to pursue the endeavors that your heart pushes you towards. Especially if that endeavor is to win an eating contest.

A couple weeks ago, I witnessed some of my competitive eating friends pursue this goal in Hawthorne, Ca. The MLE held a qualifier for their 4th of July Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest there. This event awarded a trip to New York and a place in the contest to the top male and female competitive eater of that day. It would be a brutal contest, with a lot of unknown variables to take into consideration. And to be perfectly up front, it took a lot of restraint from myself to avoid participating in this one.

The competition would include Matt Stonie, Crazy Legs Conti, Ben Taylor, Damon Wells, Kevin Ross and Bryan Beard. It would have been such a thrill to prove myself against these eaters and to finally get that rematch against Matt who I came second to in a burger contest last Autumn. I also felt confident in my hot dog eating technique since I pulled some decent numbers in Las Vegas from my last contest. But I'll wait, I'm still undecided if and when I will participate in an MLE event so I'll focus on supporting my friends in the MLE in the mean time.

One of the most exciting aspects of this qualifier was to see which of the eaters would actually show up. Some declared their intention to compete ahead of time such as Stonie and Conti, while others were a last minute surprise such as Taylor. Though the most anticipated possible participant was definitely, the highly ranked, Ben Monson. I have yet to see this guy do anything since I joined the competitive eating world and apparently no one has heard from him.  

After the line up was sorted out, the eaters prepared their drinks on stage and the contest started smoothly. Going in, the favorites to win were definitely Matt Stonie and Crazy Legs Conti. It made the most sense given their past performance and that they were the two highest ranked MLE eaters participating. The food supply was reasonably organized though the counting for the amount of hot dogs consumed on stage left much to be desired. They only had counters for Taylor, Stonie and Conti and they did not continuously nor accurately reflect what was being consumed during the contest. The only thing that the crowd was certain of was that Matt Stonie was eating a lot of hot dogs.

He seemed to be dominating most of the contest but no one, including the eaters themselves would know the final total until a few minutes after the contest. Christine Kitchenmaster ended up winning the women's division by consuming 8 hot dogs in the 10 minute time limit. However the men's contest had a bit more ambiguity. The discussion about the final totals on stage between the eaters and the judges seemed to take forever. The audience eagerly waited in anticipation.

Surely, the top three would be Stonie, Conti and Taylor. Those were the only eaters they had counters for but when it was announced that Taylor came in 4th with 20 hot dogs, I was very surprised. Someone else had actually eaten more than these guys. And after Conti came in 3rd with 21 hot dogs and Stonie came in 2nd with 25, I honestly had no clue who else could have pulled such high numbers. As it turns out, Damon Wells was the one pulling the high numbers. He won the contest and a spot at Coney Island with 26.5 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

Here's video of the contest:

I believe that the victor is usually the person with the strongest spirit and determination to achieve something. Damon had talked to me about how hard he had been training for this and I had no clue that this would result in his victory at Hawthorne. I'm glad he did so well since it's a testament to effort and pursuit. Though I felt bad for Matt for coming in 2nd at this event. I don't think he mustered up all the effort he could have for this one due to the lack of accurate updates on the amounts people were eating during the contest.

It's okay though, he ended up eating 32 hot dogs at another qualifier after this, also securing his spot at the big event at Coney Island. It will be interesting to see how these two do against one another as well as the other top eaters on Independence Day. I'm pretty sure victory will come to whomever has the greatest spirit.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Food and Eating in Las Vegas

We can't stop here. This is bat country.

Las Vegas holds a special place in my heart. There are so few places in the world where you can readily indulge your vices on a whim. During my last couple trips to the city of sin, I indulged in some great eats, mostly for money but also for a bit of sport.

The first contest I did in Las Vegas involved my least favorite food, pickles. Veteran eater and promoter, Arnie Chapman invited me to compete in Carnegie Deli's pickle eating contest held at The Mirage. My initial reaction was to refuse, the notion of eating pounds of pickles just sounded awful to me. However, they offered $1,000 for 1st place, $600 for 2nd and would give me a free room at The Mirage just for participating. Prostitution is quite prevalent in Las Vegas and food prostitution is no exception. I'll eat anything for money, so I signed up.

Another boon was the opportunity to face off against Joe Larue. It would be fun to eat against someone of his caliber and I tend to perform well when eating against true competition. Joe also participated in the Bar Louie tater tot contest in his part of the country with very comparable results to mine, so this would be a good match up.

I bought a food scale and some jars of pickles for practice. My first practice run was terrible, I barely finished two pounds in 5 minutes at home. My jaw ached from chewing through the tough pickles and my mouth tasted like cat piss. As I packed my luggage, I decided to bring a few practice jars of pickles with me to hone my technique in between my blackjack sessions at The Mirage. I would deifnitely need the practice.

The contest itself was very well organized. Arnie did a great job announcing during the contest and The Mirage set up a stage in the sports lobby area of their casino. We even had some local celebrity judges including ventriloquist Terry Fator and my judge, tv chef Rick Moonen. He awkwardly rubbed my back during the contest and kept yelling "Eat those pickles boy!" behind me.

I'm glad I practiced, going through each of the one pound bowls of pickles felt routine by now and I did my best to put that salty, sour taste to the back of my mind. I kept a close watch at Joe Larue's totals during the competition and he really pushed me to eat more. I truly tried my best to out pace him through the 5 minute contest. He's somewhat intimidating to eat against, towering over me and able to fit two pickles in his mouth at the same time. 

It ended up being a very close contest. After the weighing was done, Joe secured 1st place and $1,000 by beating my 3.8 pounds of pickles with his even 4 pounds. I took home 2nd and $600 but more importantly learned that I didn't actually need to enjoy a food in order to eat it well during competition. I can't wait until I have chance to eat against him again and hopefully I don't need try and relish pickles then. I craved intense sweets after this experience.

Carnegie Deli @ The Mirage
3400 South Las Vegas Boulevard
Las Vegas, NV 89109
(702) 791-7111

Fortunately, my next eating challenge involved a lot of sweetness. I Love Yogurt in Las Vegas offers a 100 ounce frozen yogurt eating challenge called "The Devo Hat" challenge. It involves eating four types of yogurt with four toppings totaling 100 ounces out of a plastic hat within half an hour. You have to pay for the yogurt if you fail but victory not only yields you the meal for free, but also another normal sized yogurt, any way you like, to eat at your leisure.

On paper, this challenge sounded like a great idea to me. I regularly enjoy frozen yogurt and they let you choose half of the flavors. It was also a hot Nevada day, so enjoying a nice frozen yogurt sounded very pleasant. I went in and sat at one of their table arcade machines and enjoyed the overly 80s atmosphere.

It seemed like they put  a lot thought into the decor and ambiance. Apart from the selection of different yogurt flavors that dominate the right half of the floor space, there was a selection of candy from the 80s, a wall decorated in boom boxes, new wave music coming from their speakers and The Smurfs playing on their television. I couldn't help but feel nostalgic and realize how much character this decade had. I doubt you could do the same thing for the 90s, though I entertained the notion of eating at a Saved By The Bell themed restaurant.

They quickly sorted out my yogurt, with the house choosing the first two toppings and yogurt flavors. They started with a base of raisins covered in white chocolate, then added plain tart and carrot cake flavored yogurt on top of that with a layer of gummy worms after. I decided to go with peanut butter and chocolate yogurt for my selections though the total weight ended up topping 100 ounces after my yogurt was added so they did not add the two additional toppings like they normally do.

As it turned out, this would be a very good thing because during challenge I quickly came to realize that the toppings were the most difficult part. My only concern was the painful brain freeze from eating cold food at a rapid pace but it really wasn't that bad. You start eating yogurt and your head just gets used to the mild numbness. I ended up eating most of the yogurt in the first six minutes. The tricky part was the hardened candy layered in between. The pliable gummy texture of the worms turned rock hard and I had immense difficulty biting through them.

I ended up spending the majority of my time figuring out how to eat the candy in the bowl. I tried some water to help soften the worms but it really didn't do much. The only thing I could do was swallow them whole since I couldn't chew through the frozen candy. This took a long time but was the only way I could finish the challenge. I finished everything in 18 minutes, a few minutes shy of their record. I felt frustrated and messy afterwards. My hands and mouth were a sticky mess and the sugary fluid hardened my beard like hair gel. I'd like try return and do this one again, on another hot day, hopefully without gummy worms.

Here's video of the challenge:

I Love Yogurt
11700 W Charleston Blvd # 120
Las Vegas, NV 89135-1580
(702) 243-5683

My last eating event in Las Vegas was the chili dog finals at Ellis Island Casino. The casino would hold a 15 minute chili dog eating contest during a food truck event they were hosting. I felt confident for this event since I have experience with hot dogs. They are the golden standard in competitive eating, it's probably the food they would use if competitive eating ever became an Olympic event. I'm also partial to food covered in chili and cheese, so that was a bonus.

The contest had an unusual format where $1,000 would be awarded to the person who could eat a platter of 10 chili dogs the fastest and award $500 and $250 for the two people who could eat the most in the 15 minute time limit respectively. On top of that, they had restricted water to one glass per platter of 10 chili dogs and you had to clean all the debris from your platter before moving on to the next one. It was an extremely strange format but I welcomed the challenging conditions set forth. No dunking buns in water here.

We also had a reasonably stacked field for the contest. MLE legend Richard Lefevre, eating veteran Tom Gilbert and Travis Fowler, who most recently did 21 hot dogs at the Las Vegas Nathan's qualifier, would comprise part of the 10 people competing in this event. Taking home the money wouldn't be easy for this one, but I would definitely enjoy competing with these guys regardless.

Fortunately, they sat us all adjacent to one another so it would be easy to keep track of their numbers during the contest. The plastic wrapped platters of chili dogs came out nice and hot and were enjoyable to eat. The only thing that threw me off were the onions and mustard in addition to the chili and cheese on top of the wieners. Mustard really had no business mixing in with this combination of condiments.

As the contest started, I knew I had to be fast out of the gate. Capacity wasn't a concern since we were just trying to eat 10 chili dogs as fast as possible. I really wanted to get the 10 down quick, win the $1,000 and be done with it. The idea of sitting there and eating for the full 15 minutes was nauseating. Tom Gilbert ended up beating me to the 10. He secured his $1,000, cleaning his platter as I started on my 10th chili dog. Close, but close doesn't count in the vicious world of chili dog consumption.

I guess I was in it for the long haul. So I got into my eating rhythm and worked on the next platter of chili dogs placed in front of me. I ran out of water during my second platter and ate my 19th and 20th chili dog dry. Richard Lefevre was the closest to me at this point, he looked about half way done with his second platter and Travis Fowler was a few behind him.Tom was disappointed that he couldn't eat more chili dogs but at least he provided updates to me and Richard since they sat him in between us.

The fullness set in around 25 hot dogs and I wanted to stop eating at about 27. I had a decent lead over Richard at that point but he didn't slow. I haphazardly expected him to slow down like I did nearing the end of the 3rd platter of chili dogs but he just kept going. He really lived up to his reputation as a high capacity eater, so I just kept eating to maintain my lead.

I ended up going into my 4th tray of chili dogs, starting on my 31st one in the last minute of the competition. I just felt gross, my senses were numb, I was past the point of fullness and all I could smell was chili, mustard and onion. I saw that I had a 3 chili dog lead against Richard at this point so I didn't finish my last chili dog, I was done. As the clock ran out, Richard was on his 29th chili dog, I had half of my 31st on the platter and Tom had an empty space filled with disappointment in front of him.

He told me after that the hardest part was watching everyone else eat for another 13 minutes. I told him not to worry about it, I'm sure that $1,000 helped brighten his day. I took home $500 and placed 2nd with 30.5 chili dogs in 15 minutes. While Richard took home $250 and placed 3rd with 29 chili dogs. Travis said he was disappointed because he spilled his water during his second platter and couldn't eat efficiently after that happened. He placed 4th with 18 chili dogs.

Here's video of the contest:

Ellis Island Casino
4178 Koval Lane
Las Vegas, NV 89169
(702) 733-8901

My eating in Las Vegas was a savage journey to the heart of the American dream. I took home some decent money, made a big mess and felt sullied after. It's such a load of shit when people tell you what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. No, it follows you across the state border on that 4 hour drive back to Orange County and it smells like onion and mustard.

Until next time Las Vegas, even though you make me feel shame and regret every time I visit, I'll be back to eat you again. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

A Humongous Bowl of Hemingway

At 61 years of age, Ernest Hemingway went to the front entrance of his Idaho home, placed the barrel of a 12 gauge Boss shotgun into his mouth and ended himself.

I'm not sure why, but this was what I was thinking about during the last eating challenge I did in San Francisco, California. Maybe it was because it was a hot bowl of soup and consuming the searing liquid reminded me of placing dangerously painful objects into your mouth. Or maybe it was because I had just finished reading 'A Farewell To Arms' again. Probably both.

But before I get into the gory details of my recent challenge, I put together a special announcement video I made with my rabbit and a bottle of bubbly. Now available in high definition:

So in summary, I'm putting a bit more effort and polish into the content I publish. I'm somewhat of a tech nerd and it was only a matter of time before I went high definition. I sincerely hope that those of you who follow my eating exploits enjoy it.

Anyways, back to San Francisco. A small Vietnamese restaurant in the north side of town called Pho Garden advertises that they are the place where the pho eating challenge was born. They have a massive sign in the front proclaiming this and although I may be easily persuaded by advertising, I believe them. I mean it is a massive sign after all.

There are a few different pho eating challenges scattered through out California and out of all of them this is probably the best known. I'm guessing that's because it's the only one that gives you the humongous bowl to take home after you complete the challenge. Well at least that was the reason I was doing it.

You get an hour to finish two pounds of various beef cuts and two pounds of noodles. The ingredients swim in a savory beef broth that you don't have to consume to complete the challenge. As with most pho, the flavor of the broth is magical. There's something about boiling beef bones in a large pot for hours that's just unique. Campbell's should can this soup and call it 'Beef Noodle Soup' with a sticker on the can saying "Now with extra tripe!"

Having some experience with competitively eating pho from the challenge I completed at OB Noodle House, I knew I had to cool this bastard down from the beginning. They said it was okay for me to use ice, so I ordered a pitcher to dump in as I started. This helped immensely, as the addition of ice not only helped cool down the boiling hot broth but it also slowed down how much liquid the noodles would absorb. Even though it's only 2 pounds of noodles, they can easily absorb double their weight in hot liquid.

You're given a set of large chopsticks and a ladle to eat your pho with. The ladle came in handy with holding a lot of the noodles out of the broth and made them easy to pull into my mouth. Food is much easier to consume when you don't have to chew it.

After a few minutes of slurping up the hot soup, I realized that I didn't use enough ice. You'd think a pitcher would do the trick but not when you have a gallon of boiling hot broth. Not that the pho was scalding my mouth but it still definitely burned and I started feeling warm all over. Like when someone says they love you or when you have a stroke. The texture from the various meats weren't helping either, they mixed in with the noodles making it harder to swallow without chewing. Just random slices of meat, tendon and tripe tangled in a mess of noodles. The balls of beef floating around were a bit chewy as well.

This was about when I started thinking about Hemingway. I have developed a bad habit of going on mental tangents when doing eating challenges. I really like thinking about the author's intention and mind set when reading a novel and 'A Farewell To Arms' was no exception. It was pleasant to read an allegory about American tragedy set in a modern historical background. My mind went on like this for a while but at least I caught myself this time. The tiny digital clock on the table showed I was running out of time and I told myself, "You're either doing this the wrong way or the Hemingway!"

I went from the chew and swallow method and just concentrating on the swallowing part, it was going down quickly again. Near the end, I motioned to the waitress to strain out the remainder of the noodles and beef which caught her off guard because she didn't realize how close I was to finishing. She put the rest of my eating challenge in a smaller bowl and I pushed to beat the record of 15 minutes. With a guy on his lunch break cheering me on, I managed to swallow the last bit at 12 minutes and change. Though the clock doesn't record seconds so I ended up having an official time of 13 minutes.

Here's video of the challenge:

The best part, aside from the tasty meal, was getting to take home the massive bowl. They don't give you the one you ate from but a new one, nicely packed for transport.

I'm not sure what kind of food I want to eat from that bowl yet but I will definitely enjoy some massive meals from it. Doing another pho challenge was a pretty good idea and a surprisingly thought provoking one at at that. Is it something in the broth or is Hemingway just a damn good writer?

It's a shame he went out the way he did. But I suppose, in a way, I had my own mind blowing experience.

Check it out if you're in town:

Pho Garden
2109 Clement St
San Francisco, CA  94121
(415) 379-8677