June 10, 2010 by markstani
Shane Birtles ate eighteen Burgerland nice ‘n’ spicy chicken chilli burgers ™ in ten minutes straight. No relish, no fries, no meal-deal bullshit – not even the sesame buns. After, he wiped his mouth with his sleeve and gurned at the local TV news crew: ‘I just can’t get enough of their nice ‘n’ spicy crispy coating ™’ Sergio leaned in, nudged, ‘..it’s the hottest deal in town.’ Shane said, ‘..it’s the hottest deal in town.’
Shane had reckoned on twenty bap-less burgers being a respectable enough mark to lay down. Anything less, in his opinion, frankly sucked. He had been distracted by his friends throwing the spare sesame buns around like frisbees. Still, the news crew got their wrap and the local paper got their pictures. Sergio had agreed to give the food for free, provided the Burgerland logo featured prominently in all ensuant publicity. Shane wrote to invite a man from the Guinness Book of Records. They sent a terse note back, saying they stopped publicising speed-eating records in the 1970s for health reasons. Shane responded quoting experts who said there was no danger of speed-eating causing significant long-term damage to health. He tossed it in the bin, sent a burger instead, with the word ‘wankers’ carved in the nice ‘n’ spicy crispy coating ™. He wrote to the British Olympic Association too, hoping they’d lobby for inclusion, told them he’d love the chance to eat for gold. They did not reply. He toyed with the idea sending another wanker-burger, but in the end he chicken chilli-ed out: reckoned it wise not to burn all his bridges, just in case.
Shane stood six-foot-one and weighed around 196lbs. According to official health freak height-weight charts, this tipped him into overweight by a just a couple of pounds. It is a common misconception that champion competitive eaters are necessarily obese. Patrick ‘Deep Dish’ Bertoletti, widely regarded as the world number one, who holds more than twenty competitive eating world records, including forty-seven glazed and cream-filled doughnuts in five minutes, 9.17lbs of blueberry pie – hands free – in eight minutes, and 1.75 gallons of vanilla ice cream in eight minutes) is reported as six-foot-nothing and 190lbs. Japan’s Takeru Kobayashi, known variously as ‘the Tsunami’, ‘the Black Widow’ and ‘Big Wave’, and who holds, among others, the respective records for cow brains (57 in 15 minutes) and lobster rolls (41 in 10 minutes), stands five-foot-eight and weighs 165lbs, making him positively trim. Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut (grilled cheese sandwiches, 47 in 10 minutes; Nathan’s hot dogs, 68 in ten minutes, with buns) is six-foot-two, and 210lbs. Shane had never been called fat. At school dinners, he often skipped dessert. He worked hard for his father’s removal firm. He went to the gym twice weekly, ran three miles most Saturday mornings. He press-upped and squat-thrusted. It just seemed to so happen he was blessed with an elastic stomach.
Shane and his friends met up in the pub most Friday nights. They played snooker and got drunk. Girls came and went; the group remained. Saturdays some played local football, others were on shift at the bacon factory. All counted down the hours till session time began again. Sundays, it had become tradition to head down to the Pizzarama and gorge themselves silly on the early bird all-you-can-eat.
For £5.99, they scoffed near on every last inch of pizza in the place. The whole experience was garnished by a waitress named Sinitta. Mouths full, they ogled legs soft and long as linguine, the sweet plunge of her sugar-white blouse each time she leaned in more slices. Shane reckoned the promise of the plunge was worth six extra slices alone. They ate for the moment she tickled her tongue-stud through the slight gap in her front teeth and teased, ‘Jeez, you’re one bunch of hungry boys, all right.’
Sundays became structured so as to take optimum advantage. Breakfasts were big – cereal, a four-egg omelette, maybe some toast. Stretched the stomach muscles for later. Small snacks followed through the day, enough to keep the stomach big but empty. By eight o’clock, the boys were ready. They egged each other on, beckoned more plates from Sinitta. Friendly competition soon gave way to the Shane show. The others could barely clear ten chicken chilli slices. He pushed twenty. They bet him a free meal from each of them he couldn’t break it. In secret, his friends told Sergio the pizza guy, who doughed up the crusts and cranked up the chilli heat for the purpose. Shane still ate twenty-six. Sergio was so impressed he held his hands up, said, ‘you ruin me.’ Sinitta winked, said, ‘in’t there nowt gonna fill you up?’
Burgerland and Pizzarama were one and the same. It began with the burgers then branched into a kind of deep-fried fusion. That’s when Sergio did his spot of re-branding. His real name was Dave. His Mama’s World Famous Chicken Chilli Pizza Topping ™ was bits of chicken chilli burger mushed up with canned tomatoes, and a pack of dried birds-eyes stirred in. His neon sign had part-fused so it blacked out some letters. At night it shone:
B U G E R L A N P Z R A M A
The locals came to calling it Buggerama. This is how things go: a place gets a pervy name and the next thing you know Sergio’s the local paedo for the way he serves up nuggets to the kiddies. Rumours get round he spunks in the home-made mayo. His glass shop-front gets put through, a fat spurting penis daubed on the wall close by. The stupidest thing was, Sergio knew for the price of a new R he could more or less fix the problem. Business was bad enough that it had to wait.
The first Friday after twenty-six-slice Sunday, Sinitta unfurled those al-dente legs of hers into the Fox and Rabbit, poked out from a spaghetti-hoop skirt. Heads turned, the jukebox stopped: the pause of noise added to the wow. She caught the boys noshing up on packs of dry roasted peanuts and plunge-fronted herself into a seat next to Shane.
‘All right?’ said Sinitta.
Shane tipped six packs straight down his neck, looked at his watch and crowed, ‘told you!’ His friends fished for fivers, tossed them across the table. Shane wiped his mouth, turned to Sinitta. He said, ‘all right?’
Two hours later, Shane was propped back on the bed in room twenty-six of the high street Travelodge. The twenty-six was no coincidence: Sinitta had bartered the key from her older sister Bonnie, who spread out behind front desk, in exchange for the free doggy-bags she brought her from the Burgerland kitchen at the end of her shift most nights.
Sinitta poised at the foot, peeled off her pale yellow crop-top and let her milky-tan tits scoop free. She said, ‘suppose you wanna know why they call me Sinitta?’ Without giving Shane a chance to answer, she swished off her spaghetti-skirt in a Bucks Fizz fashion and proceeded to prance and sing the whole of ‘So Macho’ into a standard-issue Travelodge hair-dryer, wearing just a pair of skimpy pink undies and her fur-foamed Ugg boots. She finished up coiled over Shane on all fours, purring hot garlic bread-breath into his ear: ‘Still hungry?’
After, while Sinitta turned away and dabbed herself, Shane watched the glisten on her spine and thought of ice-cold Sprite. He waited long enough to be polite, then reached for the laminate, scoured it and said, ‘room service sucks.’
The burger-eating competition was Sergio’s idea. The sight of Shane eating him out of pizzas every Sunday spun an idea in his head. He figured all publicity was good publicity: things could hardly get much worse than plunging profits and paedo grafitti. He did a little research, pressed an internet clipping in Shane’s palm. Shane read it through, said, ‘you’ve got to be joking me?’ Took it home, read it through again.
Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut tied the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in July 2007, each eating 59 Hot Dogs in ten minutes. Chestnut won a five-dog sudden-death eat-off to win the title. Chestnut said: ‘He wanted it, but I needed it.’ Kobayashi said, through an interpreter: ‘If I put one more mouthful in, I could have won.’ Despite his defeat, Kobayashi’s eat technique – the ‘solomon’ – is considered the classic. It has done for competitive hot dog eating what Dick Fosbury’s flop did for the high-jump. Kobayashi breaks each hot dog into two pieces and stuffs both pieces in his mouth together. After the dogs, he eats the baps separately. He dunks them in Kool-Aid to help them down. In 2003, as part of the Fox Network’s ‘Man Vs Beast’ series, Kobayashi took on a 1089lb grizzly bear in a bap-less hot dog eating contest. The bear won, eating fifty in just over two and a half minutes, to Kobayashi’s thirty-one.
So they staged their first chilli burger challenge: the local paper shot Shane tucking in with a grin, a squeeze of fat down his chin, a sweat-bead on his forehead. By fluke, Shane’s head was even blocking out the missing R. The headline said, ‘Chilli Burger Champ Chows For Charity’. Sergio was a little irritated that there was no sign of Shane’s quote about not being able to get enough of the nice ‘n’ spicy crispy coating™, nor about it being the hottest deal in town. He was also more than a little peturbed that he’d been pretty much prodded into handing over any profits in exchange for the publicity. Still, as far as Sergio was concerned, it was just the start.
Shane brought Sinitta down the pub most Friday nights. After, they often headed to the Travelodge and did their doggy bag deal. First time he took Sinitta home with him, his old man’s face popped penny-tray eyeballs. Sinitta sweet-plunged forward, extended a soft dough hand. ‘Hello, Mr Birtles,’ she said. ‘I’m Sinitta.’ Shane shook his head, thought, Christ’s sake, don’t go asking her why.
One day, Sergio sent word through Sinitta that he wanted to see Shane down early.
The place smelled of disinfectant and old fry-oil. Flies helter-skeltered for crumbs. Bright sun bleached the tables. A tinny radio crackled pop tart tat. Sergio said, ‘I’m telling you, I got a plan.’
Shane beamed back, ‘I think I’m in love.’
Sergio frowned, slapped the table. He said, ‘well, you know what they say about food being the, you know, the food of love..’ he tailed off, looked out at passing traffic, ‘.. or some shit like that.’ He clasped Shane’s hand, looked deep in his love-filled eyes. ‘Man, if this comes off, man, you’ll be able to fall in love with any fucking girl you want.’
In the year so far, as well as the hot dogs, there had already been world championships for garlicky greens, tamales, grits, burritos, cannoli, chili spaghetti, nugget ribs, calamari, funnel cake, sweetcorn, deep-fried asparagus, oysters and crawfish. At the b.good Garlicky Greens Eating Championship in Dedham, Massachussets, Pete ‘Pretty Boy’ Davekos had retained his title by eating 7.5lbs of spinach in ten minutes, beating opponents including King Hungry VIII and The Garlicky Green Giant. At the Kings Island Skyline Chili Spaghetti Eating Championship in Cincinnati, ‘Humble’ Bob Shoudt set a new world record of 13lbs 9.2oz, also in a ten-minute limit, to take the $2,500 first prize from a total prize fund of over $5,000.
Sinitta told Shane, ‘stuffing your gob for a living? It sounds kinda mental.’ Then she said, ‘I’m with you all the way – provided you don’t go getting no monster gut on you.’
Far as Shane was concerned, it was the heady combination of those skimpy pink undies and Ugg Boots, and the glass-smash crescendo of ‘I – I am in need of a man!’ chewed out all at once that made up his mind. He shrugged, picked up the laminate, said, ‘you know what, babes? You might just be right.’
Sergio begged the cash to fix the neon. He plastered up home-made adverts for the Burgerland/Pizzarama Chicken Chill Burger Championship. Shane got in some serious training. Urged on by Sinitta, he broke the twenty mark. It was a four-minute-mile moment: he smacked his lips, tossed down chicken chilli burger number twenty-one by way of underlining his achievement, then high-fived Sergio, was hugged by Sinitta. Truth was, Shane had no recognised chilli burger record to break. In the States, Don Lerman held the quarter-pounder-with-buns record at eleven in ten minutes. In the UK, Martin Henderson ate twenty-two standard Tesco quarter-pounders – no buns – in five minutes. As far as Sergio was concerned, the extra chilli kick of his burgers made them a much harder speed-eat, and took an equivalent total to match that of Henderson to round about twenty-five in ten.
Sergio tracked down the relatively obscure UK Speed-Eating Council and persuaded them to validate the new record in exchange for publicity and a couple of nights on expenses. Sergio reckoned it was a price worth paying. He scanned the newspaper pictures of Shane into media mail-shots. He paid Sinitta overtime, had her help strip-scrub the tables and clean the windows. He forked out more to have his grills professionally cleaned. He washed the penis off the wall close by. He changed his whole menu, sold five-tall Championship Stacks ™ for a competitive-eating £3.99. He promised printed-out certificates for punters who could polish off a £6.99 Championship Super-Stack ™ . He offered money back to anyone who could devour a whole Championship Pizza Sandwich ™ – two extra-large chicken chilli pizzas stuck together with enough extra birds-eyes to secure his margins.
Shane sunk down in his table by the window. He courted a couple of local newspaper types. He stretched his stomach to twenty-three. When he flagged, he had Sinitta warm-breathe more ‘So Macho’ lyrics, or, if it was gone closing, flash a furry Ugg. Shane washed the burgers down with gallons of water, intended to lubricate his stomach muscles. He got the tactics off web print-outs. While he filled his mouth with burgers he filled his head with dreams of those big money match-ups in the States. His mother said, ‘are you sure what you’re doing is safe?’ She’d discovered the results of a medical report which found competitive eaters were at serious risk of gastroparesis, obesity and heart disease. Shane said, ‘it’s under control.’ He fixed lunch. As part of his training, he stayed in Fridays and Sundays. His friends said he seemed tired and distant. He exhaust-piped out chicken chilli fumes. Even Sergio said, ‘shit, maybe we shoulda done it open-air.’
Sergio’s publicity worked. The competitive-eating guy rounded up a couple of contestants. One wrote on his entry form, under occupation, ‘professional gurgitator.’ He claimed to have downed twenty-five bap-less burgers in five minutes. Sergio knew it was bullshit, but he got the picture. Another had his weight at 325lbs. Sergio told Shane, ‘you’d better crank up the training.’ Sinitta asked Shane, ‘are you sure about this?’
The competitive-eating guy rolled up with his couple of big boys. He looked like a Dairylea Slice in a two-loaf sandwich. Thin enough to have it all on to hold down a solitary fish-finger. He slavered over Sinitta. He said, ‘I wouldn’t mind getting a mouthful..’ then tailed off under Shane’s hard glare. Sergio introduced Shane. Shane shook his hand, said, ‘this – it’s my dream.’ The thin guy’s eyes glazed over like doughnut icing. He wrinkled his nose at Shane’s slimline form. He said, ‘big names, big bellies – it’s what we’re about.’
On the morning of the day before the competition, Shane rolled out of bed and picked up the local paper. Sergio perched on page three between the two professional gurgitators. The headline said, ‘Eating Giants Eye Burger Record’. There was no mention of the local boy. Shane downed his four-egg omelette and shut off his phone from Sinitta’s calls. He headed straight down to Burgerama and found Sergio schmoozing the thin guy over a couple of poxy croissants. Sergio said, ‘hey, champ!’
Shane slapped down the paper. Sergio shrugged. With the thin man out of hearing, Shane said, ‘you’ll, um, you’ll crank up the birds’-eyes, huh?’
Sergio fixed-grinned: ‘hot, hot, hot!’ He stood, tried to make excuses. Shane swung his shoulder, surprised him with his force. He said, ‘um, you know, some might be hotter than others?’ He tried a wink. Sergio said, ‘I’m not getting you.’ Shane felt heat rise in his cheeks. He said, ‘remember whose idea this was.’ Then, ‘I need this.’ Sergio half-turned, started wiping non-existent crumbs from the gleaming formica. He said, ‘shit, you’ve changed..’ – he added a sarcastic ‘.. champ.’
‘Where’s this Mr Big-shot crap come from all of a sudden?’ Sergio glared: ‘One shop-worn blast of ‘So Macho’ and you think you’re all that?’
Shane burned shock-horror. He said, ‘how’d you know about that?’
‘She give you the whole skimpy undies and Ugg boots routine? Lemme guess..’ – he swung his hips, screech-mimicked – ‘.. I am in need of a man!’ Shit, Shane. Is this what it’s all about, huh? Ever cross your mind that that bird of yours might not have got her job here for her waitressing skills? The speed she doled out those pizzas to you guys most Sundays, it was driving me to the brink of bankruptcy. She’s using you, Shane. Using you like she’s used every one of us to get what she wants. Now, I don’t know what it is she wants’ – Sergio frowned down at Shane’s spreading belly – ‘but mark my words, it sure ain’t the fat guy.’
Shane scrunched up a fudge-fist and dolloped it on the end of Sergio’s nose, cracking out ketchup. Just then, the thin guy dinged back through the door and saw Sergio on his knees, blood pouring through his hands. He said, ‘problems?’ Then he turned to Shane, sneered, ‘looks like you’ve got some work to do before the big one, boyo.’
That night, Sinitta booked them back in the hotel – entirely legit, this time, so as to minimise the chances of officious owners or errant cleaners disrupting them on the eve of their big day. Room thirty – she thought he needed to aim higher. She laid out a selection of cold, low-cal snacks. She massaged Shane’s shoulders and assumed he’d adopted a pre-match trance. She started on the ‘So Macho’ routine, saw him watching half-hearted: before she’d finished the first verse, Shane had picked up the phone for room service. He ordered: soup of the day, prawn cocktail, fish pie, herbed goats’ cheese, pasta arrabiata with garlic bread, cheese platter, cheeseburger, Greek salad, salmon fillet with herb crust, orange crème brulee, and a selection of triple-decker sandwiches. He ended, ‘just bring it,’ and slapped down the phone. Sinitta swung to a halt, said, ‘charming.’ Her eyes spilled with questions. She said, ‘you can’t eat all that shit.’ Shane said, ‘who said owt about eating?’
As the plates piled up, Shane made Sinitta sing the whole song again from the start. He tossed handfuls of food at her till the order ran out. Finished, pasta arrabiata slid down her bare front. Her hair stuck up with orange crème brulee. Soup of the day – tomato and basil, it smelled like – shone her thighs, stained the fur of her Ugg boots. Shane flapped the last stick of salmon fillet, spilled tears of his own. He said, ‘Jesus, I’m sorry.’ She cried too, came to hug him. He said, ‘I just needed to know.’
Next day, a small crowd gathered, watched the professional gurgitator beat the fat guy. He cleared thirty-two bap-less Burgerland nice ‘n’ spicy chicken chilli burgers ™ in the ten minute competition period, a figure of which Shane could only ever have dreamed. They hunched over the trays, slurped paper cups of water to help the burgers down. Drool pooled their shirt fronts. Shane sat between them, fixed his eyes on Sergio, half-heartedly eased down five. A couple of local snappers flashed pictures. The news crew hovered to have a word with the winner. Shane shook hands and headed over to Sinitta. She shimmered in mustard-yellow hot-pants and a sorbet-frilled tight white vest-top. He wiped his mouth and kiss-smeared her lips. He slung his arm round her waist and they swung unseen for the door. They kept walking, till the Burgerland neon turned to dark and the smell of nice ‘n’ spicy crispy coating ™ was finally gone from their nostrils.