Every eating contest is brutal in the end, but some sound harmless enough right up until you're in the thick of the competition. How bad, for instance, could a few sandwiches hurt? Turns out, plenty.
But sometimes there's a contest -- and I'm talking about Grand Prairie's annual World Championship of Pickled Quail Eating here -- that is, from the start, clearly a gustatory challenge of the highest order.
Consider that these quail eggs are not just pickled, but jalapeño-soaked; that the record to beat is 42 eggs in just one minute; and that the same man, 57-year-old Lester Tucker, has won this contest each of the last 15 years.
In the history of Dallas eating, there may be no greater champion at the table than Lester Tucker, but if you're feeling lucky, you just may get to try out the year's contest, coming up April 9 at the 36th Annual Prairie Dog Chili Cookoff at Traders Village.
If you're game, Traders Village general manager Allan Hughes says there ought to be room at the 12-person table on the day of the contest, or you can call 972-647-2331 to sign up in advance. It's $10 to enter.
If you can match Tucker's swallow-'em-whole technique, you might even have a decent shot. The reigning champ says there isn't much secret at all to getting in winning shape. "All I do is go around and drink beer and eat chili in the morning," he says.
That's how Tucker first got into the contest 15 years ago: His chili cook-off team was looking to score some spirit points with the judges, and he got picked to enter the quail eggs contest as a sideshow.
On paper at least, his dominance with eggs looks effortless -- last year he put away 38 eggs for the win, 13 better than the next-hungriest eater. But with the next contest just over a week away, all he can say is that he's "pretty sure" he'll go for 16 wins this year.
Six months removed from surgery in which he had a foot of intestine removed, Tucker says he feels ready to compete, but not everyone on the home front is convinced. "My wife's scared to death," he says.
If he doesn't end up competing, though, Tucker says his son Heath could be the one to take up the family cause. "My son's come close," he says, but "he chokes a little bit too much."
The contest's been a part of the chili cook-off from the very start, when Hughes recalls everyone at Traders Village was putting their heads together trying to dream up contests and events to round out a two-day cook-off.
"One guy said, 'I dunno if you can use 'em, but I can get you all the quail eggs you want,'" Hughes remembers. "I said, 'OK, give me a thousand eggs. I dunno what I'm gonna do with 'em.'"
That's still the size of their egg order these days, and for the last two decades, Hughes says, the quail eggs have all been supplied by a woman in Gueydan, Louisiana. Leftover eggs go to any takers in the audience.
This year the chili cook-off promises $5,000 in prizes, but the quail egg contest has become the real blue ribbon event -- the Travel Channel named it one of the 10 greatest contests in the country, and the attention won Tucker a spot on television in 2001's Glutton Bowl, alongside eating legend Eric "Badlands" Booker.
"Quite honestly," Hughes says, "the only reason we do the chili cook-off is the quail eating contest, because that's what gets all the attention." There are hundreds of chili cook-offs in Texas these days, he says, "but there's only one world championship quail egg eating contest."