In every eating contest, there comes a moment when I suddenly realize just what I'm doing. It usually follows a particularly difficult bite, after I try to force down just a bit more than I can swallow and it rests against the back of my throat and I come this close to choking and coughing it across the room or, worse yet, vomiting. So disgusted with myself do I become that I consider dropping whatever grease-laden gamepiece is in my hand and walking away. I look out into the crowd and see these grinning spectators watching my pathetic rivals and me as if we were dancing bears putting ourselves through a grueling ordeal.
Then I shut my eyes, put my water or beer to my lips and gulp it down. For the only thing more shameful than finishing an eating contest would be to not finish it. And then I remind myself it's supposed to be fun.
What made this past Saturday's enchilada-eating contest at Uptown Village in Cedar Hill especially fun was that Observer editorial assistant and contributor Catherine Downes was eating alongside me in her first-ever contest of the sort. Signed up as an alternate, she arrived unprepared and had earlier enjoyed a large brunch. But when a couple contestants failed to show up, she gamely stepped in, fashionable black dress and all.
On the line in this eight-minute, winner-take-all bout was a $200 gift card good for any shop in the open-air mall, plus a $60 certificate for the sponsoring restaurant, Matt's Ranchito Martinez. We took our places behind warm trays of enchiladas. At the word "go," I barehanded the cheese enchiladas and bit into them two at a time, chili con carne quickly coating my face. I was the only one eschewing the forks and knives, but eventually realized the down-and-dirty technique wasn't saving any time. Nor did looking like an insane person intimidate any competitors. Downes, eating neatly but quickly with silverware like someone who wasn't raised by wolves, was beating me -- and everyone else at the table. Nowhere near the lead, I wiped off my face and hands and picked up the silverware, as utensils weren't slowing anyone else. At least I could finish with some semblance of dignity, if such a thing is possible in an eating contest.
But as the others slackened, I kept up my pace until the final countdown and with five seconds remaining scooped up an entire enchilada and forced it in my mouth. The last-second cram is my only real bit of technique. Otherwise, it's just grim determination.
With 16 down the hatch, I took first prize. Downes had an impressive first-time finish with 10.5. More important, she caught the competitive-eating bug -- we're already looking for our next bout. The $60 Matt's gift certificate is long gone after sharing a few celebratory drinks at the bar, but I still have the Uptown Village gift card. Hopefully the mall's Barnes & Noble has an instructional book on the sport. There's a new eater in town. I may need a new strategy.