Lester Tucker wasn't supposed to be up there last weekend, speed-swallowing whole pickled quail eggs before a for a crowd of hollering fans.
The 57-year-old Tucker had a foot of intestine removed just months ago, spent more than two weeks in the hospital, and his family pleaded with him that this, surely, was the year to stay home. He already held the record with 42 eggs in 60 seconds, and in 15 years, no other eater could touch him. What more could he have to prove?
But champions like Tucker will not be cowed by doctors, family or common sense. Last Saturday, Tucker returned to Traders Village to eat for the 16th straight year.
But before the contest began, longtime emcee Allan Hughes made an announcement that sent shock waves through the crowd: "Lester told me backstage that this would be his swan song."
Hughes also took the opportunity to warn kids in the front row that they were standing in a dangerous spot, direct in the spray zone. "You heard that ol' saying about having egg on your face?" Hughes asked. "Get ready, boy!"
That, clearly, was what the crowd wanted most -- to watch one of the trash-talking eaters crash hard against their reflexes in a spectacularly public NASCAR moment. All eating contests play at the puke joke, but at Traders Village, the reversal is a guarantee.
The first few eaters kept their eggs down, but the crowd got what they came for with Chris, the seventh eater, who put away four or five eggs and promptly yarfed into the trash can at his right. An encore looked almost certain from Ciprian Hangan, eating in a black mixed-martial-arts tournament T-shirt, who choked out a mighty, guttural kiyap before managing to keep his eggs down.
Other stars at the table last Saturday included John Allen, who put down 26 eggs in between swigs of Mickey's; his wife, Stephanie, who arrived to mixed chants of girl power! and swallow! and ate 18 eggs; and experienced Brent Ricord, whose 24 eggs were good enough for third place, though his white socks were hiked up higher than anyone else's.
Tucker ate 10th, arriving to great cheers from the crowd, looking very Jimmy Buffett in a Crown Royal Black baseball cap, a yellow fishing shirt and sandals. Hughes shared Tucker's secret -- that he eats the quail eggs whole -- and a guy beside me in an American Flag durag and a wife-beater speculated as to whether Tucker could shit the eggs out in one piece too.
As Tucker waited with one egg in each hand, Hughes blew his whistle and Tucker began to eat, methodically, one egg every few seconds. The crowd counted his eggs aloud, the shouted totals diverging somewhere in the mid-20s. When 60 seconds were up, the judges were ready with a verdict: another runaway victory, 41 eggs, just one shy of his old mark.
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"I was tryin' like hell to set a new record," Tucker said after the contest. For his 16th and, he says, final win, he got $300 and a commemorative painted toilet seat to hang in his garage beside the rest.
Two kids came up after the contest and asked how he does it, how he eats so well, how, just maybe, they could be like him one year.
"I just do it," he told them. "Just do it."
We've got more photos here in our slideshow.