Competitive eating, an event as impressive as it is nauseating, on tap for the Hampton Beach Seafood Festival

Last modified: 10/1/2015 11:54:23 AM
These guys can eat.

You might think that’s true about everyone traveling to Hampton Beach this weekend for its nationally renowned seafood festival. But out of the 150,000 festivalgoers, there’s a dozen that are sure to stand out. They’ll be the ones lined up on stage at 2 p.m. Saturday behind a pile of lobster rolls, and the best among them are really in a league of their own.

I used to think I had a special talent, too, back before I got up on that Sea Shell Stage two years ago. As a kid, I went to the 50s Prime Time Cafe in Disney World and walked out, proud, wearing a sticker that adorned me as an official member of the Clean Plate Club.

I got older, solidified my membership in the club, and learned to check myself when I’m out on a date – you know, to appear civilized, and so she isn’t sitting there with three-quarters of a plate left, watching me pat myself on the stomach in satisfaction.

You’ve probably watched the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on the Fourth of July, seeing a normal-looking man eat 62 franks in 10 minutes, and wondered how many you could put down. Maybe someone has commented that you might have what it takes.

But, please, I’m begging you, take it from me: Don’t try. By all means, pay the $8 entry fee to enjoy some of the delicious food from one of dozens of vendors and shop the end-of-the-season deals. And grab a spot in the crowd that will stretch all the way across Ocean Boulevard, making the contest one of the most well-attended events of the festival, according to longtime organizer Jude David. But again, please, don’t try to eat 16 lobster rolls in 10 minutes to best last year’s winner, Artie Pliakos of Manchester, who got an automatic invitation to defend his title and win $600.

Competitive eating is a strange event to watch because the contestants are doing something we all do every day. Maybe that’s all the more reason, though, why the best in the world are so phenomenally talented. They’re even more impressive than they are disgusting. They’re head and shoulders and stomach above the rest of us.

I’ve already established that I’ll never be a competitive eater, but here’s what happened to me. First, my editor signed me up for a qualifier with hot dogs at McGuirk’s Ocean View Restaurant, which sponsors the big show. I ate nine franks in 10 minutes and then prayed amid enormous discomfort that I didn’t make the cut while they tallied up the qualifiers.

I learned I had made it, took a sip of a beer my editor bought me and promptly burst through the front door of the restaurant out onto Hampton Beach to find a place to throw up. (Thankfully, I didn’t, maybe because I was so terrified of what that gnarled up mess of pig-snout meat and wet buns would look like on its way out.)

The lobster roll contest, about two months later, went much the same. I starved myself and ran in an obstacle-course race that morning, to make sure I was hungry, and started strong in front of a sea of people. I love lobster rolls, but these things were vile, made of the cheapest meat available, and I knew enough to back off before the 10 minutes was up. I didn’t have to look farther than the guys on my immediate left and right to know I was out of the running.

In the end, I downed 7½ lobster rolls in 10 minutes, which was good enough to put me in a three-way tie for last place. The winner, a big fella who brought a bottle of Pepto-Bismol with him, ate 14.

Even still, that guy would likely be embarrassed on the Nathan’s stage on the Fourth of July.

The thing that makes Babe Ruth the automatic answer as the best-ever baseball player is the way his game stood head and shoulders above his peers. In 1927, when Ruth hit a record 60 home runs that would stand for 34 years, he single-handedly outdid every other team in the American League.

I’m not saying you’re going to see the Babe Ruth of competitive eating Saturday in Hampton, but, for all the discouragement to your competitive eating dreams that I’ve offered so far, I’ll leave you with this.

The winner of the Nathan’s contest this summer was Matt Stonie, a San Jose, Calif., 23-year-old. He ate 62 hot dogs in 10 minutes, beating the eight-time champion Joey Chestnut, 31, by two dogs. The third-place finisher, Tim Janus, was miles behind with 35.

In 2010, an 18-year-old, 120-pound Stonie participated in the inaugural lobster roll eating contest on Hampton Beach, where he’d been vacationing with his family all his life. He’d been eating competitively for a few months before that, but it was his biggest competition to date.

David, who organized the festival that year as well, said the crowd roared and cheered his name while he put down 23½ lobster rolls, launching him on a path to worldwide fame.

“It’s disgusting, but the crowd just goes mad,” she said. “It’s nuts. It’s phenomenal.”

Will the next Stonie be on that stage Saturday? Who knows? All I can say for sure is that even half his total seems all but superhuman to me.

Along with dozens of culinary options, the festival features the “best fireworks shoot of the whole season,” 70 crafters in tents, a 20-person skydiving event that lands on the beach, and live music, including an Aerosmith tribute band that “Steven Tyler said is by far the best tribute band to Aerosmith,” David said. Tickets on Friday and Sunday are $5 apiece and Saturday is $8. A full schedule is available online at hamptonbeachseafoodfestival.com.



(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, nreid@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickBReid.)




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