When you're face deep in a strawberry pie, the last thing you expect to taste is chocolate.
That momentary shock of rich, milk-chocolate mousse on my taste buds during the Long Grove Strawberry Fest's "Local Celebrity Strawberry Pie Eating Contest" Saturday startled me long enough to lose the contest by four-tenths of an ounce. Not just lose, but come in third in the four-person race.
Grocer Ron Bernardi of Sunset Foods in Long Grove won the contest with only 1.1 ounces of his pie remaining after the four-minute competition. Beanpole ABC 7 reporter John Garcia came in second with 1.4 ounces remaining in his pie tin.
Then there were the 1.5 ounces remaining of my pie -- a sizable chunk of crust and filling staring up at me, seemingly mocking my inability to finish it off. So, eventually I did after the weigh-in.
Long Grove Mayor Maria Rodriguez rounded out the foursome, leaving 10.8 ounces of her pie unscathed.
"I tried to practice last night," she said demurely before sitting down.
I didn't bother practicing. Maybe I should have. That's what my father, who coached me in almost every sport imaginable in my youth, probably would have told me. But he was off fishing in the wilds of Idaho this weekend and unreachable. His childhood athletic admonitions that I could recall -- "Two hands! Weight on your back foot! Center the pass! Play the body!" -- didn't seem to have any relevance in a pie-eating contest.
Even his way-too-familiar bark of "get your finger out of your nose" had to be disobeyed Saturday. When you can only eat pie with your face, a significant amount goes up your nose. But not enough to win, as it turns out. On the upside, the world smells like chocolate and strawberries for hours afterward.
I have made gastrointestinal sacrifices for this job before. I have judged countless summertime barbecued rib competitions -- all in the name of professional journalism. I've eaten things that have come in the mail to make sure the packaged goods won't kill the rest of the staff. I've eaten fried scorpions, and moth larvae as well. This pie-eating contest sounded like a reward when it was pitched as a story idea. I was certain I could win.
That confidence lapsed as the event was about to start. I have never done any competitive eating. I am not the shoo-in I think I am. I'm not hungry. I completely psyched myself out.
I began surveying fest-goers for advice.
"Take deep breaths between bites," suggested Christina Kovarik of Batavia.
"Slow and steady wins the race," offered Amanda Emrich of Bartlett.
"Just jam your face in it and try to breathe through your nose," said 11-year-old Steven Tottingham of Michigan. "Use your beard, too."
"Don't forget to breathe," Danielle Kirin, of D's Sweet Berries in Clarendon Hills, advised. "And chew."
"Have 9-1-1 dialed in already in case something happens," said Long Grove restaurateur Glenn Cardelli of Enzo and Lucia.
Armed with these instructions, I was ready.
Pigging out on pie is as delightful as it sounds. Make no mistake about it. There really are no losers in this kind of competition.
The hardest part was keeping the pie tin within reach of my mouth. The no-hands rule meant I occasionally would have to bite the edge of the tin and drag it back toward me to get my mouth into the pie again.
But I tore through my pie. I knew I was doing well. I sneaked a peek at Mayor Rodriguez's pie and saw that she had barely made a dent. The emcee kept screaming my name, seemingly in awe of the quick work I was making of this once lovely looking dessert.
I was going to win.
With 10 seconds left, my brain finally registered the message my stomach had probably sent three minutes earlier.
"No mas!" (My stomach likes to show off its limited Spanish vocabulary.)
I pulled up as the final seconds ticked by, certain that I didn't need to eat any more pie. I gave the tin one last, halfhearted lick and reached for my napkin.
I gazed down the table, shocked by Bernardi's nearly empty tin and Garcia's platter that was also almost equally devoid of pie. I knew I had been bested.
I had been humbled by pie.