AYDEN, N.C. (AP) - Mort Hurst, named winner of the Ayden Collard Festival eating contest after downing six pounds of collards on Sept. 9, fell short of his goal: besting his 33-year-old record of seven and a half pounds.
It wasn’t because he ran out of gas, he said, but because he ran out of ketchup.
Several minutes before 2 p.m., Emily Dunn welcomed contestants to the stage on West Avenue in downtown Ayden.
“Nine minutes to start,” she said. “If you would like to compete, this is going to be a great year to be up here. Mr. Hurst has his ketchup.”
Dunn is the granddaughter of Bum Dennis, owner of Bum’s Restaurant, which supplies the collards for the contest each year.
“Even if you don’t win, you get a nice lunch,” she told the crowd and contestants.
With just a few minutes to go, friends Lauren Frye and Connie Taylor hopped up on stage to take two of the remaining seats. Each woman unfolded a napkin, made a bib then waved at their supporters in the crowd.
“I love the amount of audience we have,” Dunn said, as the crowd swelled on West Avenue. “Also, I noticed you guys have taken a safe distance. I was just telling somebody last night that last year we had a record number of pukers, so fair warning for you sitting up front or standing close.”
One minute to 2 p.m. And go.
Taylor gave a thumbs-up after her first bite.
“All right, we see some different strategies,” Dunn said. “Mr. Hurst is digging into his (container). No. 14 across from him is going slow and steady.
“We’ve got some dainty eaters in the female category up here,” she said, gesturing to Frye and Taylor. “They went to etiquette class.”
The clock ticked to 2:02 p.m., and Hurst already was onto his second pound. He shook his ketchup bottle, the red sauce flowing onto the collards.
“Concentrate on your collards,” Dunn joked with some of the chatty contestants. “Quit socializing up here.”
Hurst, 68, didn’t need that reminder; he was concentrating hard.
He dug into his third container at 2:04 p.m. By 2:07, he was on his fourth.
“Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, first puker,” Dunn called out two minutes later, as one of the 16 contestants became green and dropped out of the competition. “Sir, you’re going to have to carry your puke away and dispose of it yourself. Round of applause for No. 5. He gave a really good effort.”
Organizers had to call for more collards by 2:10.
“That’s 45 pounds that we brought over here that y’all have eat up,” Dunn said.
“I see some people taking a breath, a pause, stretching a little bit, making some more room,” she said as Frye stretched her arms out with a smile. “You’ve got 20 minutes left, people.”
Hurst dropped his empty container at 2:11, raised his right arm and circled his finger in the air, signaling he was ready for next pound.
“Mr. Hurst is in the lead,” Dunn said. “He just started his fourth, I believe.”
Hurst, who was shoveling in forkfuls of collards, paused long enough to correct her: “Fifth.”
A few minutes later, he was slowing down. He held his napkin over his mouth.
“Oh, Mr. Hurst looks a bit green,” Dunn said. “Oh my goodness, No. 11, this is the moment you’ve been waiting for. Maybe.”
But Hurst pushed on, wiping sweat from his forehead.
At 2:15 p.m., three-time female winner Taria Crenshaw began on her third pound. Five minutes later, Hurst started his sixth.
“Eight and a half minutes left,” Dunn called out just after 2:21.
Hurst, still working through his sixth container, shook his head. He took a pause before tearing open ketchup packets scattered around him, his nearly empty ketchup bottle to the side.
“Remember contestants, let us know if at any point you need any more tea, water, cornbread, a bag, a shoulder to cry on,” Dunn said. “Five minutes to go. . No. 6 is working on his fourth. No. 7 is just here for a good lunch. No. 11 is yawning. He’s eaten a whole lot and he’s ready to take a nap.”
One minute left.
Hurst finished six pounds, then sat back as the clock winded down and the countdown began.
After another long five minutes, during which the competitors had to keep down their greens, Hurst was declared the winner. Crenshaw took the ladies’ crown for her three and a quarter-pound feat. Both won a plaque and $100.
Crenshaw, 48, is a lab manager in the biology department at East Carolina University. She said competing with Hurst was “wild.”
“I’m very full,” she said as she began to walk off stage with a win for the fourth year in a row.
Frye, 32, who ate about a pound and a half of collards, walked off stage with Hurst’s ketchup bottle.
“Mort gave me his ketchup bottle,” she said excitedly to friends.
“Oh my gosh, we did not know that Mort was going to be at our table,” she said. “We were cheering him on the whole time.”
Taylor, 62, ate one pound and said it was a good time.
“Mort’s a legend,” Frye said. “That’s why we came. We came to see Mort. We didn’t even know we could participate.
“I’ve been training on the side,” she said with a laugh. “Not really.”
But Hurst had.
His sponsor, Larry Winbourne, operations manager at the McDonald’s in Robersonville, said Hurst, who visits the restaurant daily, has been eating 100 nuggets at a time, or a dozen hotcakes along with eggs and biscuits, to prepare.
“He is a staple and a big part of Robersonville, Martin County,” Winbourne said. “Now we’ve got a little bit more to talk about out in Robersonville. People can come by the McDonald’s, and I’m sure they’ll see him eating breakfast or lunch or dinner with his grandkids.”
Family is important to Hurst, and he promised his wife and children that this was his last time competing in Ayden.
“If I come back, I’m going to be a spectator,” he said. Hurst, who suffered a stroke in 1991 after setting the world record for eating eggs, hung up his hat in 1993 after another episode.
That Saturday was his first eating-contest appearance in nearly a quarter century.
“I feel good,” he said. “There was a lot of people concerned I was going to go down with a stroke. Last thing I did right before I started eating, I prayed - not to win, to make it. I’ve been in the hospital a lot of times. I’ve almost died several times. I was really concerned if I was going to live through this damn thing.”
Hurst said he was happy with his win, albeit disappointed he didn’t best himself.
“I could have broke my own record if I had a little more ketchup. A little more ketchup,” he said. “I don’t think this Mort Hurst is as good as the other Mort Hurst was. I beat everybody up here today, but I didn’t beat Mort Hurst. I didn’t beat him. Man, I wanted to beat him so bad.
“I wanted to break my record and fell short, but guess what? I’m going to walk off this stage (alive),” Hurst said. “How about that?”
Information from: The Daily Reflector, https://www.reflector.com
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