This article originally appeared in Florida Weekly.
Matt Flynn and Rob Bohrer of Palm Beach Gardens Fire Rescue stood stage right in the shadow of a pillar, their nearby gurney holding a full complement of emergency equipment. Both men were familiar with the Heimlich maneuver, a prerequisite for both being a paramedic and taking on today’s assignment: standing by at the 2nd Annual TooJay’s World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship.
Held on St. Patrick’s Day at Downtown at the Gardens, this year’s event was a major stop on the competitive eating circuit and offered the richest purse: $20,000 for the pro class and an additional $5000 for the amateur class. To get a share of the cash, all it took was a willingness to sit down with a dozen other competitors in front of a cheering crowd and push as many corned beef sandwiches into your belly as possible in 10 minutes. While avoiding, of course, what competitive eaters call a reversal.
“Ah yes,” said Sam Barclay, working the event for the International Federation of Competitive Eating, “a reversal of fortune. It’s nothing to be ashamed of, just a minor setback on the way to eating glory. But when a competitor suffers a reversal, we do ask that he kneel at the altar of disappointment.”
Which explains why one competitor could be seen on his knees about seven minutes into the amateur round, a look of regret on his face, bits of corned beef sandwich pooled nearby. For Cody Hasselbrook of Sarasota, risking a reversal (he did not suffer one) was worth it, and he’d traveled across the state for the competition, his first in competitive eating.
“I hope I can eat seven, but I’m not even sure how big they are,” he said before the competition began.
The answer is to that question was 8 ounces per sandwich, consisting of 6 ounces of corned beef and 2 ounces of rye bread per. Training? For Mr. Hasselbrook, who finished in the money but did not win, it consisted of skipping breakfast. This year’s amateur class winner didn’t even bother with that.
“I had a granola bar this morning,” said Chris Merchant, a Port Saint Lucie native currently living in New York who traveled back south just to compete at TooJay’s. Mr. Merchant took second place in last year’s inaugural event, but was able to win the amateur class’ $2500 first prize this year after downing 5 ¾ sandwiches in the allotted time.
But that paled in comparison to the kinds of numbers put up in the pro class, members of which came on stage to wild cheers from the audience after the tables were reset (and the floor mopped). These thoroughbreds of competitive eating approached their place settings differently, confidence in their strides, their drinks of choice in their hands, ready to start some serious gurgitating.
Among the competitors were IFOCE top-ranked gurgitators Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, Bob “Notorious B.O.B.” Shoudt and the one female competitor at today’s event, Juliet Lee. But the cheers were loudest for the last to be introduced: current world champion eater Joey Chestnut, who won last year’s event by downing a staggering 15 ½ sandwiches.
This year Mr. Chestnut, shoveling sandwiches into his mouth using his signature cover-the-mouth-and-rock-back-and-forth style, was unable to top last year’s mark despite being urged on by the crowd with cries of “one more Joey!” He was, however, able to take the win and a $12,500 prize after finishing off 14 ½ sandwiches (a hearty 7 ¼ pounds of food, not counting the water he was drinking).
Second place went to Mr. Bertoletti with 12 ½ sandwiches, with Mr. Shoudt and Ms. Lee, who had what appeared to be at least an entire sandwich in her mouth at the buzzer (you are allowed to finish what you fit in your mouth when the time is up) taking third and fourth places with 11 ½ and 9 ½ sandwiches respectively.