Full Circle: The Contest
Confessions of a competitive eater

I have always been a collector. That’s the fancy word for hoarder. At one point in my life, I owned 327 pairs of athletics shoes. Including turf spikes once worn by Terry Bradshaw and a pair of silver lamé Nikes made for a musical in San Francisco.

Currently, I have nine Phillies jerseys, seven Eagles jerseys (including that horrible blue and gold one that no one in their right mind bought), five Allen Iverson jerseys, and three shirts from the Philadelphia Rage. Don’t ask.

But perhaps the most impressive number of all isn’t one I can wear on my back, it’s the one I have put in my stomach. I have just calculated that, in my life so far, I have eaten 44,133 Tastykake French apple pies. That last number is the reason that I am a proud and humble Philadelphian. It is also the reason I am a Type 2 diabetic.

For me, a life that started with licking milk chocolate frosting out of a big Pyrex bowl, continued, for 37 years, with a nightly snack of a moon-sized black and white cookie and a cold bottle of Yoo-Hoo. Little did I know that it would be a valuable training regimen for one of the toughest challenges of my life.

In the summer of 1977, some 35 years ago this month, I was invited to interview Famous Amos for a major magazine. Famous Amos, as many of you know, was a man with a salt and pepper beard and big Panama hat, a “B-List” Hollywood talent agent who took his grandmother’s toll house cookie recipe to fame and almost fortune.

The interview would take place in the Philly suburbs at Bloomingdale’s, where people with entirely too much money pay $180 for $40 sweaters. The occasion was a chocolate chip cookie eating contest, where the winner would receive a gold medal, a stomach pump and the good fortune to appear on Action News on a very slow news day.

The contestants were a large local politician who always had his mouth open, a young high school girl who claimed she could eat anything and a lineman for the Philadelphia Eagles. Except for the lineman. He was a no-show. So, in a panic, Famous Amos turned to me.

“You gotta do this, man,” he said, adjusting one of his gold teeth. “I don’t want to look stupid.”

I explained to him how I had just had a large breakfast of silver dollar pancakes and a raisin bagel. I told him that my only experience in competitive eating was when I fought my cousin Gerald for the last piece of my mother’s noodle kugel.

“I’ll sit in the chair,” I said, “but I’m not going to eat much.”

And so, right there in the men’s department, with a crowd of 42 shoppers cheering on, the contest began. Set in front of each of us was a large pitcher of milk and a big plate with two dozen cookies on it. The rules were simple: whoever ate the most cookies in ten minutes won.

As Famous Amos started the clock, the man next to me, the man built like a steel tool shed, stuffed three cookies in his mouth at one time. This was going to be serious. I just went through the motions. I picked up a cookie, had a little bite, drank a little milk, smiled a little smile.

But then a strange thing happened. Somewhere about 19 cookies in, the big man hit the wall. He turned green and ran to the men’s room. So, I just kept munching.

“Thirty seconds,” Famous Amos said.

I looked over at the girl’s plate. She had four cookies left. I only had three. The rest is cookie history. Famous Amos put the gold medal around my neck. It was full of chocolate chips. The crowd cheered, the cameras rolled.

Last week, I showed a picture of the contest to my granddaughter.

“Was it hard to eat 24 cookies in ten minutes?” she asked.

“No,” I said, as I munched on a sugar-free lemon wafer. “It was cake.”

August 2012
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