Ten years ago the image of the Virgin Mary appeared on a grilled-cheese sandwich in the frying pan of Diana Duyser, a Florida jewelry designer. Now She is here, in Venice Beach, to preside over the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship.
She has picked a fine day to grace southern California with Her presence. The sun is shining, the sky is blue. Gulls loop above the boardwalk in jazzy little arcs. The February air is warm, but She is packed inside a plastic box and surrounded by cotton balls, for protection.
In fifteen minutes the championship will be decided. It’s an eating contest. Whoever eats the most grilled-cheese sandwiches in ten minutes wins $3,500. The prize pot has attracted some of the world’s top competitors—people who eat under the banner of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, or IFOCE. They consider themselves professional athletes. Guys like Eric “Badlands” Booker, a 420-pound subway conductor, rapper, and world champion in the doughnut, corned-beef-hash, and cheesecake disciplines. “Hungry” Charles Hardy, who just half an hour ago had his right biceps tattooed with the initials IFOCE. Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, a Long Island real-estate agent who embroiders his numerous eating titles onto a gargantuan flowing robe with his portrait airbrushed on the front, flanked by a lighting bolt. Rich and Carlene LeFevre, the First Couple of competitive eating—a pair of sweetly manic retirees from the outskirts of Las Vegas. Carlene is a consistent top-five finisher, and Rich, nicknamed the Locust, holds records in Spam (six pounds in twelve minutes), chili (one and a half gallons in ten minutes), and corny dogs (eighteen and a half in ten minutes).