I’ve witnessed a few competitive eating contests in my time. To me, they’re like that accident along the side of the road — disturbing, but you still can’t resist gawking at it.
Such was the case last Saturday at Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar on The Country Club Plaza for the restaurant’s third annual oyster eating competition.
I’ve been out of town the last two years of the contest, so when my calendar reminder popped up early Saturday afternoon, I was determined that I would not miss the 2017 oyster gorge. I’m glad I didn’t.
First, let me set the stage. Eight teams of four had signed up for this year’s competition, a fundraiser for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
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Each team paid $400 to enter, and each team member would be given 30 seconds to down as many oysters as he or she could before passing the mollusk baton to the next teammate. A long table sat in the middle of Jax’s main dining room, and eight pans of oysters were laid out before the contestants.
I visited with a few of the oyster eaters prior to the competition, including Kyle Fabalor, who ate the second most oysters at last year’s event: 29.
Fabalor vowed he had learned some lessons. “Keep my head closer to the oysters and actually chew and swallow before my time has ended,” Fabalor said. “Get ‘em down, so I can make room for more as I keep grabbin’ ‘em.”
I can only assume that dropping letters off his words was also an attempt to leave more room for the oysters.
I also chatted with Jax’s Adam Reed who was in charge of organizing the event, which seemed to me to be akin to herding cats. Still, Reed could not have been more upbeat, and why not? The competition continues to grow in both participants, and more importantly, for Reed and Jax, in the amount of money the restaurant is raising for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
“One hundred perfect of the entrance fee goes directly to the LLS, and a dime of every Emerson oyster shucked during the entire month of March will be donated as well. Plus, today only, 100 percent of the sale of all glasses of Jordan Chardonnay, Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, and Boulevard Tank 7 will be donated,” Reed said.
Jax raised a little over $,3000 last year. Reed says they should top $4,000 this year.
Four teams returned from last year’s event, including the winner — a group headed up by Grandview native and former Kansas State and Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman.
Calling themselves Hot Cakes and Sausage, Freeman and his football buddies were by far the most intimidating team, each standing at least 6-foot-3-inches and weighing in north of 225 pounds. But as the expression goes, “it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.”
I’m not sure if socialite/foodie/gal about town Dolly Wood would appreciate that analogy, but Wood’s team, Shuck This, has been the runner-up the last two years and she was determined to change her luck this year. I have to say watching Wood use both hands simultaneously during the competition was both impressive and a bit frightening.
In the end, Wood’s determination and strategy paid off. Shuck This downed 108 oysters, a competition record, easily defeating a team from Seattle Fish, which finished second by scarfing down 95. Freeman and friends slid into a third-place tie with a foursome from Pierpont’s restaurant with 94 oysters consumed.
I didn’t get to see how Fabalor and his group from Major Brands-Premium Beverage Distributors fared as they were at the opposite end of the room and I was pretty much blocked in by four very large football players and their entourage.
But I did see Wood after her impressive competitive eating display and she couldn’t have been happier. She even got a big congratulatory hug from Freeman.
Congratulations, Dolly Wood and the other members of Shuck This. This was a victory well earned! I plan on being there to see you defend your title next year!
Dave Eckert is a partner with Flavor Trade, a Kansas City-based gourmet food incubator and co-packer. Before that, Eckert was the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS and AWE for 12 seasons.