/ 13 April 2008

New oyster-eating champion crowned

Patrick ”Deep Dish” Bertoletti looked down at the litter of empty oyster shells on the red plastic tray and savoured the sweet taste of victory. For Crazy Legs Conti, the bitter flavour of defeat could only be drowned with several swigs of beer.

The Acme World Oyster-Eating Championship belt — a massive leather affair featuring a silver dish with a single oyster on the half-shell in the centre — hung on the skinny hips of Bertoletti. The 22-year-old Chicago resident took the title on Saturday by slurping 35 dozen of the big bivalves.

”I could probably do a couple dozen more, especially if they were char-broiled,” said Bertoletti, who also holds the endurance oyster-eating record, having downed 53-and-a-half dozen in 2007. ”Although they’re great raw.”

Conti, the defending champion, tied for third, sucking up 24 dozen in eight minutes.

Juliet Lee (43), of Germantown, Maryland, formerly a Ninjing University chemistry professor, methodically polished off three-and-a-half dozen for second place.

A dozen professional eaters, who compete in Major League Eating (MLE) events year-round, took the stage at the French Quarter Festival on Saturday for the contest.

MLE describes itself as a sports franchise that oversees all professional competitive eating events and competitive eating television specials. It puts on the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest, as well as others such as the World Deep-Fried Asparagus Eating Championship, and the National Sweet Corn Eating Championship.

Rules for the oyster tournament forced contestants to use forks, not lift the shells to their mouth, and all oysters had to be cleared from a tray before starting a new one. Officials in striped shirts stood beside each contestant and flipped a counter as each dozen was consumed.

Many of the competitors wore gloves to handle the shells; all carried several bottles of water, cold drinks or beer to help them keep their mouths and throats lubricated. Lee carried a thermos of hot water, but said she didn’t feel the need for it.

”Oysters are pretty liquid,” said Lee. ”I didn’t need it.”

Tim ”Gravy” Brown — currently ranked 13th in the world — was disqualified when he had what professional eaters call a ”reversal of fortune”. He vomited after 14 dozen.

Scott ”Scozzy Bone” Zukowski (20), a Tulane student from Long Island, New York, was in his first professional event. He ate 20 dozen.

”I feel good about that, my goal was 15 dozen,” Zukowski said. ”I had only eaten one raw oyster in my life before this and I thought I’d vomit after it. I hate them.”

Oyster shuckers had begun opening them at 6am, delivering 5 000 to the contest.

”They’re supposed to be an aphrodisiac,” Conti said. ”But I think that’s only true for about the first three dozen. When you get up higher than that, you don’t want much activity for a while.” — Sapa-AP