A Lot to Swallow

To chew nor not to chew? Contestants consider various strategies for how to win this weekend's crabe cake-eating contest


Brickhouse" looks to dunk and swallow. "Mongo" looks to chew his way toward victory.

"The Black Widow" looks to eat them both alive.

Welcome to the competitive eating tour, which stops at the Inner Harbor on Saturday with a crab cake-eating contest held by Phillips Seafood on the main stage as part of the Baltimore Waterfront Festival. Fifteen eaters - including Ocean City bouncer Ken "Mongo" Federighi and Bethesda resident David "Brickhouse" Braunstein - have signed up to gorge on 3-ounce crab cakes for $2,500 in prize money.

This event is sanctioned by George and Richard Shea's International Federation of Competitive Eating, or IFOCE, which runs 100 eating contests a year - which include everything from hot dogs to hamburgers to pumpkin pie to, now, crab cakes.

"The dunking factor" could be critical Saturday given a crab cake's vulnerability to water. As with all federation events, a five-second dunking rule will apply. "We will be looking closely for any detritus or fragment of crab cake in a competitor's water," says federation president Richard Shea.

"It is a game of crumbs."

Billed as entertainment and a sport (and criticized as gluttonous and unhealthful by others), competitive eating is the subject of two new books and a darling of ESPN and men ages 18 to 34. The Baltimore event will also feature Virginia's gastronomical wonder Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas and Johns Hopkins University grad Jason "Crazy Legs" Conti. They aren't professional wrestlers; they are professional eaters or "gurgitators." Maybe it helps to have a nickname when speed-eating hard-boiled eggs or cow brains without vomiting, what they also call on the tour "a reversal of fortune."

The IFOCE ranks its 400 "qualified" eaters - (Edward "Cookie" Jarvis, Brian "Yellowcake" Subich, Andrew "Skinnyboy" Lane to name a few gurgitators), maintains records (53 1/2 Nathan's Famous hot dogs in 12 minutes; 69 Krystal square burgers in eight minutes; 2.7 pounds of kosher dills in six minutes) and provides safety standards: "Do not try speed eating at home." Hucksterism could well be at the heart of the competitive eating subculture.

"It's the fastest growing sport in America," says Shea, "and I make that claim based on no data or scientific studies."

The two Marylanders, Braunstein and Federighi, face the reigning crab cake record holder, Thomas, a Burger King manager at Andrews Air Force Base who this year won the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship by ingesting 26 sandwiches in 10 minutes. The Black Widow weighs 100 pounds and rarely trains. "Sonya Thomas is described as `a cross between Anna Kournikova, Billie Jean King and a jackal wild on the Serengeti," wrote Jason Fagone in Horsemen of the Esophagus, one of the new books chronicling the competitive eating tour. "Sonya eats with no recognizable style. She knows that style bleeds speed."

Thomas has downed 40 crab cakes in 12 minutes (the Baltimore event's time limit is 10 minutes) and earned the praise of Braunstein, who managed 19 crab cakes at the same Delaware event last year.

"She's in another league," says Braunstein. "But I didn't have any strategy then," says the 39-year-old outdoor advertising salesman in Bethesda. Braunstein chose the nickname "Brickhouse" because of his body-builder's frame, and he hopes the Commodores' "Brickhouse" will one day be his theme song at events.

To train for Saturday's event, Braunstein has tackled a gallon of water at one sitting to stretch the stomach; apparently water-drinking is a common gut-expanding strategy among competitive eaters. Over the weekend, he bought 36 Phillips crab cakes for two trial runs. In his first session, Braunstein says he downed 18 crab cakes with no trouble. "My capacity is really good," he says. He predicts that he'll eat 25 crab cakes Saturday - good enough for a Top Five finish, he hopes.

"I definitely feel dunking will make them go down quicker."

Dunk a crab cake in water and the breading softens; swallowing theoretically becomes easier. In competitive eating, "one of the things you don't want to do is chew," Braunstein says. In a sense, one is nearly drinking the crab cake.

Braunstein, a former tennis and basketball player at York College, accepted his first eating challenge at the Pennsylvania school; he came within a quarter-slice of winning the $50 prize in a pizza-eating contest. His sporting days behind him, Braunstein found a new fix. "It's not like tomorrow I'm going to go out on the court and play competitively," he says.

Braunstein has entered eight eating events and is ranked 34th in the IFOCE. He was married last July to a woman who quickly came to appreciate her guy's appetite.

"It works well for me, because I'm not a big eater," says Felicia Braunstein. "So when we go out, I agree on two dishes. I take a little bit of both, and he'll eat most of it."

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