Big eaters of all stripes converge on crawfish-eating contest

“I’ve got two goals,” said Rusty Robbin, standing outside the Old U.S. Mint in the French Quarter on Saturday. “Hold it all down and don’t finish last.”

Robbin, a 44-year-old father of two from Baton Rouge, was discussing his strategy for the annual Rouses World Championship Crawfish Eating Contest.

The no-holds-barred eating extravaganza, part of the French Quarter Festival, features both amateur and professional eaters inhaling the fire-engine-red crustaceans at breakneck speed.

“How long have you been eating crawfish?” I asked him.

“About 42 years,” he deadpanned.

That seemed like substantial experience, so I wasn’t particularly worried about Robbin when seconds later two EMTs wheeled an empty stretcher behind the stage as a “precaution.”

After one last hug from his daughter Abigail, Robbin took the stage with about 10 other amateur eaters. Six minutes later, with a tower of scarlet shells beside him, he was given a trophy for finishing third.

First place went to 57-year-old Matthew Dubaz, from Biloxi, Miss., who said he’s won a few crawfish-eating events in his hometown.

“I came here last year and was pissed that I was late and missed it,” he said. “I decided that next year I would take it down.”

I was still peppering Dubaz with questions about his training regimen when Donny Rouse, a managing partner of Rouses Supermarkets, swung by.

Rouses supplied the stockpile of crawfish for the day’s competition. Preparations were now being made for the media round, where the lions of New Orleans journalism would square off for the much-desired Crawfish Cup.

“It’s what everybody wants on their mantel,” emcee Richard Shea said about the award.

I had not intended to enter, but Rouse suggested I make a last-minute appearance.

“If you win, I’ll even buy an ad in the paper,” he joked.

It seemed a bit reckless to break into competitive eating on a whim, but as the sole representative of the only daily newspaper in the city, I felt a moral responsibility that outweighed my nerves.

I was in.

It was a tough field, with twin brothers and WDSU-TV reporters Fletcher and Travers Mackel heralded by Shea as two of the favorites. The reigning champ, James Karst, an editor for The Times-Picayune, is also known as a fierce eater.

“One of these men will die on this stage,” said Shea, about the rivalry among the three.

Eight minutes doesn’t seem like much time, but when you’re wolfing down crawfish at warp speed, it moves slowly. I stumbled out of the gate but soon refined my technique and plowed along, sucking out the spicy center of one crawfish after another.

The whole ritual was surreal. My field of vision soon narrowed to the sea of crimson in front of me, and there were moments when I felt I was having an out-of-body experience.

When it was done, Karst once again was the winner, with Fletcher and Travers Mackel coming in second and third, respectively. I failed to crack the top three.

There was little time to reflect on what went wrong, however, as the third contest — featuring the pros and with $2,000 in prize money up for grabs — was about to begin.

The lineup was a Murderer’s Row of big eaters. On the bill were Nasty Nate, the Texas tamale-eating champion; Crazy Legs Conti, a bearded, dreadlocked New Yorker; Natalie, The Cajun Nurse, from Mandeville; Adrian “Rabbit” Morgan, a Domenica pastry chef; and Sonya “Black Widow” Thomas.

It was the 46-year-old Thomas, a 100-pound Korean-American from Alexandria, Va., who had by far the most impressive eating résumé on the stage.

According to Shea, she once consumed 183 chicken wings in 10 minutes and another time downed 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes. She also won the last seven oyster-eating contests and the last four crawfish-eating contests, making her the reigning champion and obvious favorite.

Once the action began, you could see why.

“She’s a machine,” said Ed Wolford, 40, who was visiting from Pennsylvania and watched in awe as Thomas mechanically sucked down one crawfish after another at a blistering pace.

It seemed nobody would be able to match her speed, except perhaps Morgan, who gobbled down the plate in front of him with unwavering focus.

After 10 minutes, time was up. Some of the competitors looked exhausted. Crazy Legs had pieces of crawfish hanging from his beard.

The feeling in the crowd was that Thomas was the victor, but her 2.2 pounds was good only for second place. It was Morgan, who gormandized an outlandish 2.7 pounds, who took the title.

After flexing his biceps, the muscular 30-year-old poured a frosty Abita Amber in his Crawfish Cup trophy and took a hearty swig.

Morgan said he started his competitive eating career in 2010, inspired by the reality TV show “Man v. Food.”

His first contest was a peanut butter-and-banana sandwich competition in Biloxi, and recently he’s been eating a lot of pulled pork sliders and hard tacos.

The crawfish contest, Morgan said, is “more about speed and technique” than other eating contests, where a large stomach capacity is the key.

After a brief discussion with Crazy Legs, who finished third, about the optimal strategy for speed-eating corn — “typewriter” or “roll-up” — Morgan set off to Molly’s at the Market to celebrate his victory and the $1,000 he pocketed.

Before he could get far, he was surrounded by a gaggle of young women wearing bunny ears, all of whom wanted a picture with the champ.

“He’s like the heartthrob of professional eating,” one of them cooed.