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Competitors try to put money where their mouths are


IT IS WITH more than a little regret that I admit to never having seen the great Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi in action.

Kobayashi, of course, is the skinny (113 pounds) Japanese guy who wolfed down 50 1/2 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes to win the Nathan's Famous international hot dog-eating contest in New York two months ago.

This was the second year in a row that The Tsunami destroyed the competition. To give you an idea how one-sided the contest was, the second-place finisher, a man named Eric Booker who was built along the lines of a corn silo, managed to eat only 26 hot dogs.

Clearly, this Kobayashi fellow has the potential to become the Michael Jordan of speed-eating. And to think I have yet to catch him in the prime of his career. It leaves me with a heavy heart.

Ah, but I have seen John Meitl eat.

John Meitl is 56, a retired government worker from Ellicott City, and the other day I watched him peel and scarf down 87 steamed shrimp in 10 minutes to beat out nine other contestants and win $10,000 in a contest put on by Old Bay Seasoning at the Inner Harbor.

Eighty-seven shrimp in 10 minutes was impressive enough, of course, especially when you consider that the runner-up, a genial bear of a man named Henry Wojtusik from Anchorage, Alaska, could eat only 70.

But what was even more impressive about Meitl was this: When it was all over, when he'd stuffed himself silly with all this seafood and was politely giving post-feast interviews, he actually looked at the TV cameras and said: "You know, I could go for dessert."

Oh, it brought tears to your eyes.

Look, I don't know a lot about a lot of things. But I know greatness when I see it. And this Meitl is destined for big things in the speed-eating game.

By the way, can you believe they gave him 10 Gs just for eating shrimp? Is this a great country or what?

You think this stuff goes on in North Korea? You think anyone's coming up to the good people of Pyongyang with a bucket of steamed shrimp and saying: "Here, eat this, and we'll give you 10 grand?"

Uh, I don't think so. In fact, when I heard the grand prize was 10 thou, it was all I could do not to whack one of the contestants over the head, steal his yellow Old Bay shirt and enter the contest myself.

All told, eight men and two women from all over the country were in the finals, culled from some 1,600 people who sent in essays of 100 words or less detailing their passion for seafood and Old Bay.

This was my first time as a spectator at a shrimp-eating contest, and two things became apparent right away.

First, there is not a whole lot of action in a shrimp-eating contest.

Basically, all you're doing is watching people peel and chew, which gets old real fast.

At one point, a few of the Ravens cheerleaders -- yes, they were there, don't ask me why -- tried to start a chant of "Shrimp! Shrimp!" among the 700 or so spectators.

But that is not a cheer that falls easily off the tongue, and so it petered out rather quickly, which we all agreed was a good thing.

The other thing about watching a shrimp-eating contest is this: When it's over, you will never, ever want to eat shrimp again.

Or anything else, for that matter.

By the midway point, most of the contestants had shrimp hanging from their mouths. And if it was not actually hanging from their mouths, so much of it was stuffed in their cheeks that they puffed out like a bullfrog's.

Believe me, if anyone was eating like this across from you in a restaurant, your first response would be: "Check, please."

Just as the great Kobayashi has a favorite technique for speed-eating hot dogs -- he dips the buns in water to mush them, then downs the hot dog -- the shrimp-eaters broke out various strategies to help them.

For instance, a contestant named Michael Solender from Charlotte, N.C., chose to peel and eat much of his shrimp while standing.

I did not get a chance to ask him why he chose this technique. (Look, when it comes to post-gluttony interviews, I only go with the winners, baby.)

But by the midway point of the contest, Solender was so red-faced we thought he was having a stroke. And with three minutes to go, he crashed heavily back into his chair, like a man who'd had his legs cut out from under him by a hockey stick.

Meitl, who said this was his first competitive-eating contest, chose a technique that incorporated a steady, unhurried rhythm between his fingers and his mouth.

While practicing his technique the day before, he said, "I started obsessing on peeling. But a friend of mine said I should be able to peel and eat a shrimp every five seconds. So that's what I tried to do."

It did not hurt Meitl that his wife, Claire, a schoolteacher, stood at the front of the crowd cheering him on in a voice that could be heard in New Hampshire.

"FORGET ABOUT CHEWING! JUST SWALLOW!" she cried at one point.

Then, as an aside, she told those around her: "I've been telling him to take small bites and swallow all my life. Now I'm [yelling] this."

With a minute or two left, though, Claire Meitl abandoned all pretense of restraint. Feeling that her husband needed to pick up the pace, she proceeded to shout: "CRAM, JOHN! CRAM!"

Anyway, when it was all over, it was steady John Meitl who lifted a gold championship belt in the air and posed with a huge, cardboard check as the crowd cheered. With the 10 grand, he said, he and his wife would probably take a trip to New Orleans, where they have some fine restaurants.

For his part, Henry Wojtusik was gracious in defeat.

"I'm going to go out and eat crabs tonight," he told me.

For the great ones, it's all about getting back on the horse when you fall off.

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