The crowd of early arrivals is peppered with bewildered and hungry undergraduates wondering if there will be free pizza.
The world of competitive eating is, honestly, a little horrifying. I enjoy eating (obviously), but the contortions and digestive negotiations that go into the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, for example, are just too much to consider.
But competitive eating is changing. It used to be the realm -- if only in the minds of standard-sized folks -- of huge guys like Eric "Badlands" Booker and Patrick Philbin, guys who had the outsized frame to accommodate a whole roasted turkey. In fact, the current landscape of competitive eating is dotted with young, thin dudes and petite Asian women who can put away 68 hot dogs or nine pounds of crawfish jambalaya. It is a brave new world that has such stomachs in it.
On Thursday, September 10, that new world came once again to Madison, in the form of the Ian's Pizza 3rd Annual Eating Contest. Normal-looking people, all in the 20-29 range, gathered to eat pizza to get more pizza. This contest isn't a feat of endurance, however; it's a sprint.
Seven heats. A total of 40 competitors. One slice of Ian's cheese pizza per person. A stopwatch. These are the simple ingredients of the first round of the challenge. The winner of each heat advances to the championship round, joined by the best time of the second place finishers. In that final round, the best of the best must finish off a slice of Ian's signature mac 'n' cheese pizza faster than the other seven eaters. The winner gets free Ian's pizza for a semester.
As the Ian's crew set up shop, a handful of hungry souls drifted by asking plaintively, "Is there free stuff happening?" As competitors arrived with straightforward braggadocio like "I'm here to eat pizza the fastest," I noticed the gender imbalance of the field of play. Indeed, the 40 eaters were split 37 to 3 in favor of the dudes. Among the ladies, however, was the first ever winner of this competition, and she could put it away from what I was told. The 2008 champ was in attendance, too, and he was even more fearsome -- unfortunately, he didn't show up.
The Frances Street Ian's location served as the signatory sponsor of the event, and I watched as the guy carrying the hot-bag walked up the mall toward the platform to cheers and applause. Within minutes, the tables were set up and the first plates were filled and then emptied by the first six hungry souls. Techniques varied, from typewriter to pizza roll-up. Some folded like a New York slice, others literally mashed the entire piece into their faces, prompting vocalizations of concern from the emcees of the event. To my knowledge, no pizza made a return engagement.
This was a spectator event, and the crowd probably approached 100 strong at its peak. Frisbees were tossed haphazardly into the throng, leading to at least one incidental roundhouse to the face. At the center, slices were being consumed at a heat-winning pace of about 1:17. Less than an hour in, the eight finalists were lined up. I'd been picking my horses from the beginning, and I'm sorry to say I'm a poor gambler. Nick and his aviators, Dylan the longboarder, and Matt with his fright wig and bathrobe were all flame-outs. On the girl power front, the three representatives of the fairer sex didn't fare much better than my picks.
No, in the end, of the eight young men yearning to eat free pizza for the next few months, the winner was Alex Cummings. He finished off a slice of mac 'n' cheese in a minute flat. I'd overlooked him in the pre-game, capturing him -- like Pizza Bigfoot -- in the background of photographs of the flashier competitors.
Now? Now he'll never have to bum three bucks from a friend for a slice of steak fries pizza again. Well, at least not until after Christmas.