BOONVILLE — Within three minutes, Shari Childs knew she wasn’t prepared.
Holding a half-eaten, neon-orange boneless wing with just three fingers, she turned her head to the right. Just three seats away, Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti’s chin was dripping orange sauce like a faucet. His cheeks bulged with bits of chicken hanging from his mouth, and his right hand held four more pieces of chicken ready to be devoured.
“Oh, my God,” Childs mouthed to her husband.
Meanwhile Childs stood with her back straight and mouth clean. The tips of her thumb, index and middle fingers were slightly orange, and she took roughly 12 bites before swallowing a wing. Her manners were impeccable. She was on her fourth wing. Bertoletti was on his third plate.
“Two at a time,” Leroy Childs, her husband, yelled to her. Shari Childs finished the wing in her hand and hesitated before grabbing another.
Childs, an outreach liaison for the Missouri Division of Tourism, was competing in the Isle of Capri Casino Hotel Major League Eating Buffalo Wing competition as a "table-ender" — eater-speak for amateur — on Saturday. The competition involved ignoring manners and common sense to gorge oneself with as much food as possible in 10 minutes without throwing up (eater-speak: "reversal"). Last year, Eater X, aka Tim Janus, ate 7 pounds, 11.5 ounces of wings after an additional two-minute overtime.
“That’s the size of a baby,” Childs said. “That’s scary.”
She entered the competition two weeks ago to cross it off her bucket list, which includes bungee jumping, sky diving and driving across America, among other things. Childs had never competed before but loved watching the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on TV with her husband and wanted to try, so she signed up.
With advice from Janus, Childs drank a gallon of water a day and practiced swallowing her potatoes and macaroni and cheese in large pieces. The water helped to expand her stomach, and the large bites would help her get used to swallowing large pieces of food – a necessity in competitions. She even picked an eating nickname, the “Missouri Mouth,” another necessity.
“My goal is to eat one pound of wings (16 wings),” Childs said before the competition.
Janus said eating is a mental game that requires a lot of concentration and practice. The food and liquid overflows the stomach, stretching it like a garbage bag ready to tear, but one has to be willing to keep pushing.
“It’s like Tetris game in the stomach,” Bertoletti said. “It goes fast at first, and then it builds up to the throat and slows down to a snail’s pace.”
Childs was in for a surprise.
As soon as the competition began, Childs was left behind in a splatter of wing sauce. She grabbed her first wing, eating half at a time. By her third wing, the salty buffalo sauce and texture of the nugget was tough to swallow. She kept looking down the line to compare her progress. Bertoletti and Janus were on their third and second plates, respectively. Bertoletti’s head was bobbing to the punk band Dillinger Four in his headphones as he stuffed four more wings in his mouth. The Missouri Mouth’s mouth slacked.
With one minute left, Childs had finished nine wings. Bertoletti had eaten eight pounds (approximately 128 wings). She began rubbing her stomach and wiping the sweat off of her forehead. With her husband cheering her on, she tried to eat one more.
“Oh, we can almost see the bottom of the Missouri Mouth’s plate,” the announcer declares. Just moments before, he had announced that Bertoletti was on his fourth plate.
At the end of the competition, Childs had finished with 10 wings, well short of her one-pound goal. Bertoletti finished with 9 pounds, a new record.
“I had fun,” Childs said, clutching her stomach. “I have a whole new respect for these guys.”
When asked if she would come back next year, her answer escaped her mouth like a burp.
“No,” she said. “That’s checked off the bucket list.”