When I decided to participate in the fried corn eating contest at this year’s Florida Strawberry Festival, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
I’ve been fascinated with competitive eating since I was a preteen. I remember the first time I saw the famous Nathan’s Coney Island hotdog eating contest, and in 2001, witnessed Japan’s Takeru Kobyashi begin his reign of dominance at the annual Fourth of July event.
He won six times in a row before his world-record and title streak was broken in 2007, when American Joey Chestnut devoured 68 hot dogs and buns.
I’ve always wondered what it would be like to compete in one of these competitions, but I’m not exactly what you would call a “natural.”
Even though I have a similar thin frame as Kobyashi and Chestnut, my stomach and appetite are nowhere close. Growing up, I was a very picky eater. I was the kid who would rather have a salad or a plate full of broccoli than a greasy cheeseburger.
Although my metabolism is off the charts — I can eat a meal and be hungry an hour later — my stomach may be the size of a peanut.
This obviously isn’t a good attribute to help catapult a competitive-eating career.
Regardless, I’ve always wanted to give it try. That opportunity came at the 2013 Florida Strawberry Festival. There were four eating contests available: fried corn, corn dog, strawberry shortcake and strawberry mashed potato pie. Corn dogs were out. I knew I wouldn’t be able to gut a bunch of breading. I ruled out strawberry mashed potato pie, because honestly, I still have no clue what that is. Finally, I selected my choice by ruling out shortcakes, simply because (get ready to gasp), I despise sweets. I do, however, enjoy the occasional fresh strawberry.
So fried corn it was. I have nothing against corn. I enjoy it sweet, creamed or on a cob, but I had never tried it fried.
I showed up to the Stingray Chevrolet Tent optimistic —and with a notch let out on my belt — just in case. I knew it was going to be a memorable experience.
What I didn’t know were the rules.
I came in expecting a reenactment of the Nathan’s competitions I’ve studied over the years. While waiting anxiously next to the stage, I saw a volunteer carry a tray of fried corn in on top of a 24-pack of bottled water.
OK, that must be for just one of us, I thought.
Realistically, I knew I couldn’t eat all that corn, but I sure was going to try.
But, when no more corn appeared on-stage, I soon realized this was a relay competition. I was the first contestant called up and seated at the table in front of a full audience, but soon, I had two teammates behind me.
The first was 11-year-old Noah Tippett, who was signed up secretly by his father, Fred.
Confused by the setup and still unclear about the rules, I never even met the second person behind me.
The rules were simple enough: Someone had to be seated at all times. The person behind the seated contestant must hold the wooden skewer and turn the cob for his or her partner. The seated contestants could not use their hands.
Basically, this became a speed competition, which was completely different than what I had prepare for in my mind. As a track and cross-country runner in high school, I excelled in endurance tests. I’ve always had good stamina, so I figured, when it came to an eating competition, I could endure a lot of food over an extended amount of time.
Instead, I had to inhale a large fried cob of corn down my gullet and then rotate to hold another cob for my partner.
Needless to say, we didn’t win. While the build-up seemed like an eternity, the actual competition went by in a blink. I’m not even sure where we placed, because the competition stopped once the winning team finished eating.
I was able to finish my entire cob, and Noah was well on his way of finishing his when the competition ended. He even left with another cob to fill an ever-growing 11-year-old appetite.
Ironically enough, Noah’s dad, Fred, and his team won the competition. I was focused on my task at hand, but that must have been one serious display of speed eating.
I took a lot away from this experience, and although I won’t be quitting my job any time soon to join the world competitive-eating circuit, it was great to get just a small taste of what Kobyashi and Chestnut experience for a living.