ATLANTIC CITY - Patrick Bertoletti isn't giving up cake for Lent - even after he ate more than 10 pounds of it in eight minutes on Fat Tuesday.
Bertoletti, 24, flew in from Chicago and shoved down all that food to win a king-cake eating contest at Showboat Casino-Hotel as part of a Mardi Gras promotion.
He earned $2,500 by eating 14 king cakes - a New Orleans specialty that's sort of a cross between a cheese and fruit danish, but then topped with a thick layer of white icing on top - plus colored sugar on top of that. Or as another competitor, Dave Goldstein, of Voorhees, Camden County, put it, think of "pretty much cream cheese inside a big kaiser roll" - only with some fruit filling and that load of sweet goop on top.
The cakes, baked by Showboat pastry chefs, officially weighed in at about 12 ounces apiece and averaged "just south of 1,000 calories each," said Katie Dougherty, a Showboat spokeswoman.
And 14 of them would add up to about 10.5 pounds in Bertoletti's stomach. But after he stopped pushing them down his throat - with help from a repeated toss of the head he used to keep the food on its way, plus his competitive beverage of choice, a lemonade/fruit punch mix, served warm - he said he felt just "a little weird."
He blamed that on a sugar rush, but he wasn't swearing off king cakes for life - or even until Easter.
"They tasted pretty good, like a cinnamon roll," said Bertoletti, who has a bachelor's degree in culinary arts and cooks for a Chicago caterer. "I think I could eat one tomorrow."
Major League Eating sponsored the competition, one of about 100 or so the New York-based organization expects to put on across the country and beyond this year. MLE has eating contests in everything from oysters to hot dogs to pizza to jalapeno peppers, but this was apparently the first king-cake eating contest in its history.
Sonya Thomas, of Alexandria, Va., Major League Eating's famed "Black Widow," won $1,000 for second place Tuesday by eating 10.5 cakes. Bob Shoudt of Royersford, Pa., was third, finishing nine cakes to win $500.
Before the eating started, many of the eight competitors seemed to be reasonable, rational people with normal American concerns. As they waited to be introduced, they talked about diets, exercise and what they do when they're not trying to earn money by eating as much food as they can as fast as they can.
And most of them appear to be fairly standard-sized people, hardly the poster-boy types for a national obesity epidemic. That may be with some help from a "Biggest Loser" contest that one eater, Sean "Flash" Gordon, of Downingtown, Pa., says he won among fellow competitive-eating professionals in the last few months - he lost 40 pounds in 12 weeks, mostly with "a lot of exercise," Gordon said
Bertoletti is 6 feet 2 inches and says his current, "pizza/winter weight" is about 215 pounds - up from his 190-pound ideal. He started Tuesday as the MLE's third-ranked eater in the world and figures he's taken home about $150,000 in prize money in five years as a pro.
The eaters all talk about going into competition with game plans, and Bertoletti's said his was to do "less thinking. Because if you think about it, first, you'd never enter a contest, because this is crazy. ... So I try not to think or taste anything, like gooey textures."
The contest, complete with play-by-play announcing, commentary and clock countdown by MLE's Mike Antolini, drew a crowd of several hundred people to the Showboat lobby outside the House of Blues. The fans cheered and rooted the eaters on, but several of them made it clear they didn't see any hint of those reasonable, normal people from backstage up on the stage.
"This is unbelievable," said Sally Claud, 53, a regular Atlantic City visitor from Philadelphia. "I was going to the buffet, but I'm just not hungry anymore. I'm just going to have a cup of coffee and pray for their stomachs."
Gina Puzzaghera, 27, just happened to be visiting from New York when she heard about a cake-eating contest. She got a spot near the front of the crowd - in what the announcer warned could be the contest's "splash zone."
Afterward, this food professional, who avoids white flour in her own diet, pronounced herself appalled - but also amused.
"As a nutritionist, I do not approve," she said sternly, before she started to smile. "But as a vacationer, I liked it."
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