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Thursday, March 4,2010

Local eating contests: Rivalry for the ravenous

By Lauren Duncan

Imagine slurping down 111 oysters in one sitting.

Now imagine consuming all of that slimy saltiness in a mere 90 seconds.

For many people, it’s a repulsive thought. Yet such was the record at last year’s Oyster Eating Contest put on by Jax Fish House in Boulder, proving that the stomach is capable of amazing feats when under pressure.

This is the idea behind most eating contests, which are prevalent throughout the United States. A website even exists — eatfeats.com — to inform interested eaters about upcoming contests in their area. In Boulder, a number of eating contests allow hungry tummies to become satisfied in record time.

For 12 years, Jax has hosted its Oyster Eating Contest as a finale to its annual Oyster Week. This year’s contest, which will take place on Sunday, March 7, at 3 p.m., will feature four-person teams rather than single contestants. Each team member will have 30 seconds to eat as many oysters as possible, bringing the total time for each team to two minutes.

“You think of enjoying an oyster, and it’s a delicacy, and savoring it,” says general manager Aaron Derr. “But it’s interesting to eat [them] in that amount of time.” He says most participants in the contest are oyster fans, first and foremost. But restaurant staff are sometimes able to convince unsuspecting diners to participate.

“It inspires people’s competitive side,” Derr says. Since Jax will donate 12 cents to the Emergency Family Assistance Association for every oyster eaten during Oyster Week (including during the contest), the charitable aspect draws people in as well.

“A sense of community kind of comes out,” Derr says.

The event is no doubt a communityoriented gathering, as spectators are invited to enjoy drink specials and food as they watch the competition. Once the contest begins, Derr says, socializing gives way to intense focus directed at fellow Boulderites devouring oyster after oyster.

The surge of food on television has contributed to the increased interest in eating contests, says Dana Maglischo, general manager at Beau Jo’s pizzeria, “It’s become more prevalent nowadays because of the eating contests you see on television, and all the food shows out there,” he says. At Beau Jo’s, the brave and the hungry are invited to participate in The Challenge, an eating contest that presents contestants with a 12- to 14-pound pizza. Two competing individuals have one hour to finish the pizza, which is covered in pepperoni, sausage, hamburger meat, mushrooms, green peppers, red onions and mozzarella cheese. Contestants may not leave the table during their hour of feasting, and may only stand up to stretch.

“It’s a challenge that’s only been [completed] 16 times in 39 years,” Maglischo says. Winners of the contest receive their pizza for free (a $75 value), as well as a $100 cash prize, two t-shirts and a hat. People of all ages have participated in The Challenge, including football players from CU-Boulder, high school students and both women and men.

At West End Tavern, however, the Wing King Challenge has not yet attracted a single female. According to general manager Alyssa Lundgren, all of the contestants in the six months the restaurant has been offering the contest have been men. The Wing King Challenge presents participants with 50 wings that must be consumed in 30 minutes or less to win. Lundgren says that out of approximately 30 attempts, there have been 12 victories. The record time so far has been 27 minutes.

“The secret is, it’s a marathon,” she says. “People go in and they eat so fast at the beginning, and they don’t think long-term.”

Perhaps this is the mindset all eating contest participants need to keep in mind. It’s certainly a necessary reminder in order to avoid getting sick. While Lundgren and Derr say no one has become sick during eating contests at West End or Jax, Maglischo recalls instances of illness during the pizza challenge. Those unfortunates were disqualified.

“The stomach has a limited capacity,” says Dr. Robert Levine, a gastroenterologist at Boulder Medical Center.

“When you try to go beyond it, something’s got to give, and that’s usually that people end up vomiting.” While longterm health effects are not a concern, eating contests are not something Levine recommends. “It’s ridiculous on a gluttony level, and it doesn’t seem to promote a healthy lifestyle.”

Likewise, Maglischo says he doesn’t necessarily recommend eating contests because of their incredibly taxing nature.

“They’re quite a bit of food,” he says. “I don’t know if I’d want to eat pizza again.”

But for those with a large enough stomach and an appetite for victory, the contests can be great fun, especially when prizes are involved. At Jax in Boulder, winners receive a free dinner at the Denver location of Jax, as well as tickets to a Denver Nuggets game. The overall winner at both the Boulder and Denver locations will win a trip to Napa. At West End, winnings include the price of the 50 wings, a t-shirt, plus the opportunity to return and enjoy a dozen free wings at a leisurelypace.

According to eatfeats.com, there are dozens of eating contests available throughout Colorado. They include towering burgers, thick steaks and hearty pizzas. Interestingly, most all of the eating contests involve meat, which may be linked to the tendency for men to populate the events.

“It’s sort of one of those manly things,” Lundgren says. “[Men] are so stoked to get as much food into their mouth as possible, and women just don’t think like that.” Of the Wing King Challenge, she adds, “We challenge a woman to come out and try it.”

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