Friday, Nov. 19, 2010 | 3 a.m.
It started off as a casual hallway conversation, two co-workers reminiscing about the food we had grown up eating in separate Italian-American households. Being men, though, we found a way to get competitive about it.
Things escalated when Guy Bertuzzi, who is on our sales team, issued a challenge in front of our colleagues. I got summoned to a duel to see which of us could eat the most meatballs. Pride got in the way, and I accepted.
In Las Vegas, there is a time and place for almost anything, and as luck would have it, the Rio was about to play host to a meatball eating contest. Mr. Bertuzzi and I had gotten the two of us entered into it.
The imposing-sounding Martorano’s Masters Meatball Eating Championship was produced by the energetic restaurateur Steve Martorano, a promotional event back for its second year. When I signed the release before the chowdown, it occurred to me that this might actually be dangerous, especially for us as the only two amateurs entered.
The competition would determine who could eat the most of the rather large 2-ounce meatballs in a 10-minute span. First prize was $1,500 and a monogrammed necklace.
Our rivals slowly gathered, but as if often the case among tense competitive types before a big game, they didn’t socialize much.
One woman did speak to me, although I wasn’t sure she was a competitor. She was a bit on the slim side, her exposed tummy appearing too small to accommodate very many meatballs. Or so I thought.
She said she was from Maryland, and I noted that she’d traveled a long way to eat meatballs. She agreed, and said it was becoming increasingly difficult to leave her teenage children at home in pursuit of her sport.
I found out later she was Julie Lee, deceptively known in competitive circles as “The Lovely,” and at just 105 pounds, one of the top female eaters in the world.
Another veteran competitor was 66-year-old Rich LeFevre, a wiry Henderson resident. The reigning world champion eater, Joey Chestnut — and who had once downed 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes to get the title — also looked rather svelte. None of them looked like gluttons.
As the opening bell approached, each of us was assigned a charming young escort, who would walk us to the stage. My companion was a young lady who said she grew up in Nebraska.
“I’m guessing women think guys in competitive eating contests are pretty cool,” I said. Her half-smile indicated otherwise.
We sat down and the emcee explained the rules. In a deviation from the rules of other eating competition, we were asked to use utensils, which I felt added an air of dignity to the event.
I stared at the bowl before me. On a hungry night, I thought, you might eat two of these massive orbs, but you’d have been satisfied after just one. And then, with Holly Madison giving the signal, we were under way.
With the crowd cheering somebody else on, I chewed as fast as I could, hoping to make a dent in the pile. The emcee complimented my etiquette.
“Bruce Spotleson is using a napkin!” he said into the microphone, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Not only were they not wiping their mouths, they weren’t sitting down to eat, which is another sign of manners. The competitors were standing and all barely chewing, lubricating their throats and pushing meatballs into bulging jaws at an alarming pace. It reminded me of the posture a sword-swallower might use.
Even after a career in the media business, during which I have seen a lot of odd things, it was a frenzy unlike anything I had ever witnessed before. They were artists focused on their craft.
Soon, the clock stopped and the results were tallied.
Champion Chestnut had extended his legacy by eating 43 meatballs. Second was LeFevre, with 37. As for “The Lovely,” well, she finished third with 35.
Among amateurs, Bertuzzi had eaten 11; I somehow got down 10. I was stuffed beyond belief, but I had finished last nonetheless.
After the ceremonies, we departed with pleasant memories of the odd camaraderie we’d found with people we’re not likely to see again, the brave men and women who eat competitively.
A young fellow approached me as we were walking out. He said it was his dream to become a competitive eater, but that he’d been unsuccessful in getting accepted for competition. I pointed him toward Chestnut and wished him well.