Sunday, June 23, 2013

Day 42 - Entering an Eating Contest

I have never been in an eating contest. As someone that weighs roughly 150 pounds at little more than five and a half feet tall, an eating contest has never been on my short list of competitions to try. With knowledge I don’t have much capacity in my smaller than average frame, I figured participating in such an event would either result in me losing terribly or heaving up whatever I was trying to force down at high speed. In turn, I avoided the very limited number of opportunities I have had to enter eating contests over the years, opting instead to watch others become messy fools in the name of rapid consumption. As far as I was concerned, it wasn’t likely I would enter an eating contest during my life, and I was OK with that idea. That stated, over the past month and a half my ongoing “I have never…” challenge has caused me to consider a lot of experiences I wouldn’t otherwise try. As one of those things, I knew entering an eating contest was a very real possibility during my journey. I just didn’t realize it would come this soon in my year of “I have never...”

The day began with a trip to Cedarburg, Wisconsin to attend the city’s annual Strawberry Festival, which held a strawberry shortcake eating contest. As someone that has never attended the event before, I didn’t know what to expect of the festival or the contest. I knew the event was a celebration of the strawberry harvest in the historic community of Cedarburg, but I was otherwise unaware of what it entailed. Upon arriving near the community, Rachael and I weaved our way through city streets that seemed busier than normal for a small community. As we drove closer to the city’s center, the abnormally busy streets became a compact one lane route lined with tightly parked cars and a flurry of foot traffic. As we sat stationary on a city street for minutes on end, it quickly became clear to me the Strawberry Festival was a big event for the city of Cedarburg.

The sight of the festival
Eventually working our way to the end of one of the city’s side streets, we round a corner heading into the heart of the community. Slowly easing my way into the creeping traffic, I was astounded by the site that greeted us as we came upon Cedarburg’s downtown area. The street leading through the downtown corridor, blocked off from vehicle traffic, was lined with thousands of people for as far as the eye could see. The massive crowd speckled with skin tones and brightly colored fabrics churned endlessly as people milled about from one booth to the next over the length of more than a mile. As we crept closer to the closed street and took a left turn to find parking I looked at Rachael and said, “Wow, this thing is a big deal, huh?” Rachael nodded at the obvious nature of my statement and continued directing me to a place for parking. Finally,  we were able to locate a parking space a little before noon, so we geared up for a day in the summer sun among the crowd at the Cedarburg Strawberry festival.

With knowledge the eating contest sign-up began at noon, Rachael and I found our way to a festival information booth to learn more about the event. Two women at the information booth informed us the sign-up station for the contest was located at the opposite end of the festival in the historic Cedar Creek Settlement of town. With less than 10 minutes until the sign-up process began, Rachael and I thanked the women and started a hurried walk to the other end of the festival. In rising temperatures and humidity, the two of us became more aware of the day’s heat with each step we took. Through a haze left by the previous day’s storms, the sun bore down on us as we maneuvered through the massive crowd of people. We passed one block after another of booths with food, drinks, art, and other products hoping we would find our way to the settlement quickly. I could feel the fabric of my clothing start to grip my skin as we continued through the intense summer heat in a stuffy crowd of people. It was hot, and I was ready to find some shade.

Let's do this
After 15 minutes of walking Rachael and I finally saw the Cedar Creek settlement sign appear on a corner near the end of the festival. We worked our across a street and into the alley between the old brick and stone buildings that occupied the settlement. Searching for the eating contest sign-up area we peered into booths and asked workers for directions to the sign-up location. To no avail, we continued looking around the settlement for some indication of where the eating contest sign-up and event were being held. Eventually, I round a corner and saw a modified hay wagon with a “Eating Contests” banner cast across its back rail. With no people on or around the wagon, I approached it hesitantly wondering if I had missed some obvious sign-up location along the way. Uncertain, I glanced back at Rachael as I took a few slow steps toward the wagon. Turning back my eyes toward the wagon I noticed a few items lying on the hay wagons wooden base. There, attached to a small blue clipboard, was a piece of white paper with “Strawberry Shortcake Eating” scribbled across its top. Taking a closer look, I noticed a series of heats listed with four blank spaces below each. Taking note five people had already signed up for the contest, I quickly grabbed a nearby pen and wrote my name into the first line under the “Heat 2” heading. With the stroke of a pen I was locked in for my first ever eating contest. All I had left to do was wait for the contest to begin.

The strawberry brat line
With more than one hour before the contest was scheduled to begin, Rachael and I worked our way back into the festival crowd so Rachael could grab something to eat and drink. We walked passed multiple booths with a variety of offerings searching for something new to try. Ultimately, we stumbled upon a small white tent offering a variety of Silver Creek beers brewed in the city of Cedarburg. Rachael decided to give their lighter Hefe-Weiss a try given the broiling summer heat. After taking a few sips, we wondered on searching for a Strawberry Festival staple, the strawberry brat. Considering neither of us had tried the food oddity previously, Rachael figured it would be a good choice for an afternoon meal. In turn, we made our way to the booth selling the brats, only to find a sprawling line extending back through the bustling crowd of people.

Given the contest was not scheduled to begin for another 45 minutes, Rachael and I decided to wait in queue so she could give the strawberry brat a try. Over the next 20 minutes we shuffled our way toward the booth selling the brats in the midst of the midday sun. With our beer and our bottle of water nearly tapped out, we finally made it to the front of the line. After placing her order, Rachael was presented a sauerkraut-laden, bright red sausage that was jutting out of both sides of the bun. After a dousing of strawberry sauce, Rachael started munching on the brat as we worked our way back toward the eating contest stage. Curious about the brat, I was hopeful I would have room to try one myself later in the afternoon, but first I had to get through the eating contest unscathed.

Shortly after arriving back at the eating contest area, a group of teenagers announced the competition was ready to begin. We watched on as the competition began with the first heat. For people climbed up to a folding table placed in the middle of the modified hay wagon and took their seats. The event organizers placed a bowl overflowing with strawberry shortcake in front of each participant before explaining the rules. Although the hands-free aspect of the challenge left something to be desired, I was relieved to hear the contest was a speed competition and not a contest of quantity. For the first time that day I wasn’t worried about the consequences my stomach would face as a result of my participation in the crazy little event.

Seconds after the rules sunk in, the first heat began with the four contestants smashing their faces into the bowls before them. Eating as fast as they could, I quickly realized I was out of my league. The winner of the first heat ate a fist-sized piece of cake covered in strawberries in less than 11 seconds. I knew there was simply no way I would be able to accomplish that feat. Coming to terms with my likely defeat, I heard my name called to start the second heat. I climbed the small wooden stairs on the hay wagon and took my position at the table as my competitors took their positions at my flank. With my hands held tight under the table before me, I waited for the contest to begin.

Going for it!
With everyone seated at the ready, one of the organizers turned to us and made one last check of everyone’s position. With all the contestants in satisfactory positions, the man raised one arm and yelled, “Ok, ready? 3, 2, 1, Go!” Without hesitation, I plunged my face into the strawberry soaked cake before me and started eating as fast as I could. The seconds flew by as I struggled to inhale the cake and fruit as fast as possible. With roughly half of my piece of cake gone, I felt like I could see the finish when a voice called out. “That’s it! Everyone stop!” I looked up, confused by the sudden ending of the contest. With strawberry and cake debris dripping from my face, I looked to my right and noticed cake and fruit in both competitors’ bowls. Realizing they had not finished, I looked to the sole competitor to my left and noticed a bowl so empty it looked as though it had been licked clean. Baffled, I listened on. “Here’s our winner! He took it out in a little less than eight seconds!”

Destroyed by the guy on my left
Trying to grasp how quickly the competition was over, I stayed in my seat for a moment before rising to find something to wipe off my face. As I grabbed a paper towel, I tried to wrap my head around what I had occurred. I knew I was going to lose the competition, but I couldn’t wrap my head around someone putting away what was likely a pound of food in less than eight seconds. Just as quickly as my first experience with an eating contest had started, it had drawn to a sudden end.

After a quick cleanup I worked my way back down to ground level. Stained with dribbles of strawberry juice, I slinked away from the eating contest area to greet Rachael in the crowd. We talked about the competition briefly before deciding to find our way back to the car to get out of the oppressive heat. With room still to spare in my stomach, I told her I wanted to stop by the strawberry brat stand before we left. In turn, we made our way back through the crowd of fellow festival-goers to stand in line for a second time. After a brief wait, I had my strawberry brat in hand. With anticipation, I loaded it up with strawberry sauce and took my first bite. The taste was something different. I found it good but altogether hard to describe. While I won’t try to explain exactly how is tasted, I will say I think a strawberry brat is something everyone should try. After all, it is probably one of the only “dessert meats” out there.

The strawberry brat

With my brat gone, Rachael and I walked back to the car and starting making the trek home. Exhausted from the summer heat, I had Rachael drive the second leg of the trip home. Stomach full of strawberries, cake, and brat, I quickly dozed off in the passenger’s seat as I soaked in the cool, conditioned air. Upon waking, I had time to reflect on the day’s events. In all, Today’s experience helped me learn a few things. First, summer is definitely here. Second, I’m just not cut out for eating contests. That stated, the Strawberry Festival and my first eating contest were memorable events. Although I doubt I will enter another eating contest in the future, I’m glad I gave it a try. This is something I wouldn’t have tried in any other circumstance, which means that my “I have never…” objective of exploring new things is keeping me motivated and driven to put myself out there. As a result, my first attempt at an eating contest assisted me in gaining another new experience and in crossing off another event on my “I have never…” list.

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