Crabcakes, beat boxing, and my chat with Crazy Legs
What a day in Baltimore's Inner Harbor! The Phillips Crabcake Eating Contest was a sight to behold (my first IFOCE event) and exciting from start to finish. Several ranked eaters were in attendance, including "Buffalo" Jim Reeves (#15 ranked), Chip "The Phenom" Simpson (#11), Dave "The Brickhouse" Braunstein (#34), Justin Mih (#39), and several superstars like "Humble" Bob Shoudt (#7), Crazy Legs Conti (#12), Tim "Eater X" Janus (#6), and, of course, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas (#2). The usual assortment of local "new meat" filled out the last five or six spots at the table. (In the picture above, Eater X has a little dessert with Ryan Nerz's "Eat This Book.")
(A video of the last minute of the contest can be seen here. Thanks Liz!)
Nerz himself emceed the event alongside a fellow IFOCE emcee whose name I failed to write down (what a lousy journalist I'd make!). Anyhow, for reasons we'll learn later, I'll call him "The Beatbox." IFOCE commissioner Hungry Charles Hardy was there and laid down the law with a controversial "no dunking" rule. Not that you'd really need to dunk a crabcake, those things are pretty moist, as the stream of white crab juice dripping from Crazy Legs' goatee would attest by the end of the contest.
Luckily we got there about 30 minutes early and scored a spot right up front which allowed me to get some great pictures and strike up some conversations with some fellow eating fans including the mother of competitor Peter Miernicki from Philadelphia. She stood next to me, camcorder in hand, and explained before the event that her son was "eating his way through college" by entering small contests and using his winnings to fund his education (or at least the spending money part of it). Guess it's better than drinking your way through college.
So the introductions were complete and Nerz and "The Beatbox" explained the rules of the event, including the 10 minute time limit. Meanwhile the eaters, each having their own pre-gurgitating rituals, began to set up their stations. Some, like Sonya Thomas, were content with the water that had been provided on the table while others, like Eater X and Crazy Legs brought their own beverages (X preferring Arizona Iced Team and Legs, the consummate showman, coming out with three cans of National Bohemian beer. He would open one and take a few sips, but during the contest he shared some of X's tea.) (At right, Hungry Charles Hardy dishes up another plate for Humble Bob while Sonya soldiers on.)
The event was very close but while the results were being counted and recounted, the crowd was treated to an onstage appearance by "Badlands" Booker (9th ranked IFOCE eater) who performed a single from his new eating-themed album "Hungry & Focused." But without a backing track, Badlands needed a beat. Something quick and hard hitting. That's when Nerz's emcee sidekick stepped in and broke it down in rather impressive fashion (not bad for a somewhat awkward white guy!). Of course, when he was done with his rap, Badlands showed the audience how beat boxing is supposed to sound.
With Sonya gunning for her own world crabcake record (40 in 12 minutes) and a lock to finish first, the only real question was who would finish second. Sonya not only broke her record, but she passed 40 (which she set in 12 minutes back in August 2005) with over a minute left in the contest! She would go on to down six more cakes for a phenomenal total of 46. But as awesome as her performance was, the rest of the pack wasn't that far behind. Here's how the leaderboard looked when the crab dust had settled and Hungry Charles had certified the results:
1. Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas - 46 (New World Record) ($2500 in winnings)
2. Chip Simpson - 39 ($750 in winnings)
3. "Humble" Bob Shoudt - 38 ($250 in winnings)
4. Tim "Eater X" Janus - 37
5. Jim Reeves - 29.5
The solid second place outing by Simpson was the biggest upset of the day and, noted Nerz, sure to move him up a few places in the IFOCE rankings. Crazy Legs would finish with a somewhat disappointing 20 cakes, but judging by the beer and his reaction in the photo at right, he's genuinely happy to see Sonya take home the gold and not at all bitter about his sub-par showing. (Funny sidenote, right after the contest ended and before she received her check, Sonya's belly button had visibly converted itself to an "outtie." I guess close to four dozen crab cakes will do that.)
What impressed me the most about the whole affair was how accessible the eaters and emcees were after the contest. Before the event, X, Crazy Legs, Sonya, Badlands, and the rest were mingling in the crowd, chatting it up and taking a few pics with fans, but afterwords -- even with 30 or 40 servings of crustacean in their guts -- they were still more than happy to sign autographs and pose for photos. If it were me who just ate half of what Sonya did, I probably would have curled up in the fetal position under the stage and moaned myself into a deep, disturbed sleep.
As the crowd began to dissipate, I took the opportunity to chat with a few of the eaters. X was more than happy to take a bite out of Nerz's book, though he appeared visibly bummed out about finishing just one cake out of the money (and two out of second). After that, Nerz signed his book and gave me some advice for getting a good front row seat at Coney Island in July (show up around 9 a.m.). Sonya, in true Black Widow style, was all smiles on the stage as she held a plate full of crabcakes, posed for pictures and answered some questions for inquiring TV cameras. I wrangled my way up onto the stage for my own side-by-side with the queen of competitive eating before following Crazy Legs off-stage for a photo op and a conversation about the release of his upcoming movie (it might be making an appearance at an Italian film fesitival, but if that falls through they're going to distribute via his website). We also talked about Jason Fagone's book about competitive eating (Fagone's lack of access to eaters and the inner-workings of the circuit is evident) and Crazy Legs' trip to Japan where he spent four days chillin' in Nagano with his pal Kobayashi.
And then it was over. I didn't want it to be, but it was. 75 minutes after it had started, the crowd had vanished, the eaters were reuniting with friends and family and Heather and I were on our way to Inner Harbor eateries for lunch (crabcakes at Phillip's, of course). While we were waiting in line, a few people in front of us were marveling about the contest and Chip "Second Place in the Crabcake Eating Contest" Simpson strolled by -- still wearing his red Phillips t-shirt with a giant $750 check tucked under his arm. For a split second I thought he might jump in line for a few more cakes, but instead he took a hard left into the men's room. I guess that makes more sense, but I'm just glad I wasn't the guy in the stall next to him.
(NOTE: All of these photos and more can be seen here.)