Let Them Eat FruitcakeDecember 14, 2013
Story by Joe Jasinski
Photos by Dave Weatherwax
There sat the fruitcake. A dense mass of withering hope. Intimidation. Fear. Bliss. A cherry-topped brick moments from entering my stomach.
I had never eaten a fruitcake in my life. After last Saturday, I never will again.
There sat the fruitcake. How did I get here?
Blame it on the past day’s inclement weather that left southern Indiana’s roads with sheets of packed snow and the drive to American Legion Post 242 in Santa Claus an iffy ride at best.
Six inches of powder has immobilized Jamie “The Bear” McDonald, who inhaled a regulation 1-pound fruitcake in one minute, 51 seconds during qualifications for this 2013 International Fruitcake Eating Championship — 16 seconds faster than last year’s winning time. The presumable frontrunner is stuck in Connecticut and can’t compete. Neither can “Jammin’” John LaRue, a 6-foot-8 behemoth who won last year’s Santa Claus event but now sits fixed in Florida.
The race is now wide open.
Late-morning sun invades the Legion’s second-story ballroom, further illuminated by hordes of white Christmas lights draped over the balcony’s railings. Two tables stand side-by-side in front of a fireplace at the front of the room. A portrait of Santa rests on the fireplace’s mantel. In front of it, a digital timer.
Kevin Klosowski darts around the room. The rough roads are making the 41-year-old event organizer a bit restless, yet his enthusiasm suggests nothing of the sort. He greets me with an enormous smile, shakes with both hands and explains the competitor shortage. Even the main attraction, Mick Foley, had to get a lift from another challenger when the professional wrestling legend’s car got plowed in at Santa’s Cottages.
Klosowski is a quick thinker. The gears in his brain turn.
“How would you like to compete?” he asks me.
Foley arrives 15 minutes before the contest’s 11 a.m. scheduled start. His face is insulated by a thick, black beard that’s overshadowed only by the crown of his 6-2 frame: shaggy locks of hair as unruly as the three-time WWF world champion’s style in the ring. The husky 48-year old sports a colorful, custom-made, Hawaiian-style button-down shirt that blends an assortment of Christmas scenes together. Foley sports a red long-sleeve T-shirt beneath the festive threads.
Klosowski ushers the five present competitors into the building’s kitchen for a quick run-through of how the event will work. The light inside the room is dim. Foley takes swigs from a 16-ounce Styrofoam cup of coffee as Klosowski jovially spells out the process.
As he explains, in walks a late arrival rocking a forest green sport coat, vintage wrap-around sunglasses and a red T-shirt with a hammer printed on it.
“Kyle ”˜The Hammer’ Hanner!” Klosowski yells. “I thought you were going to be a late scratch!”
The St. Louis native entered his first eating contest in July. In mid-October, he devoured 32 meatballs in five minutes.
“Are you Tim Janus?!” Hanner, 24, asks me.
He has me confused with one of the world’s most prolific competitive eaters. A man who wears face paint during competitions, is known in the competitive eating community as “Eater X” and once said he’d eat an alien if we ever encounter extraterrestrial life.
“No. No, no,” I reply. “I’m not Tim Janus.”
“You look like Tim Janus!” Hanner says again.
Was he messing with me? Psychological warfare, I figure.
Muffled Christmas music sneaks through the cracks in the door from the main hall. Even with the wintry conditions, more than 100 slushy-shoed spectators eagerly await the spectacle.
With the five other competitors, I stand at the feasting table.
“You know him as wrestling act Cactus Jack, Dude Love and Mankind,” Klosowski bellows in the microphone. “Ladies and gentlemen, without further ado, here he is. The hard-core legend himself, Mrs. Foley’s baby boy, Mick … Foley!”
The burly man strolls in from the back kitchen and lifts a basketball-size pumpkin over his head as the crowd cheers. Once to the front, he thanks Klosowski for inviting him to the pumpkin-pie-eating contest. The crowd laughs.
Before we sit down to face our inevitable fate, Klosowski announces the entry of Jon Wright to the competition as well. The Rockport native is the only person to complete the Fire and Ice Challenge at Santa’s Candy Castle in Santa Claus — a 11â„2-foot bag of spicy popcorn washed down with a 64-ounce frozen hot chocolate. The competition gets stiffer.
As we take our seats, Klosowski instructs us to remove our individual blocks of fruitcake from the plastic packaging. The sticky, impenetrable bars of cake sit leadenly on paper plates. When we complete consumption, we’re to yell, “Ho, ho, ho!” to indicate we’re done. The crowd counts down from 10. Let the madness ensue.
As I bite off more than I can chew (literally), I pan to my left to see Hanner savagely attacking the fruitcake with small, vicious bites, washing it down with frequent gulps from a 11â„2-liter Dasani water bottle he brought.
“My mental focus was there,” Hanner says later. “I was zoned in.”
To his left sit Ryan Ficklin of Petersburg and Brian Chandler, Santa Claus’ hometown boy.
Ficklin had requested advice from Rick Russo, a Royersford, Penn., native who finished third at last year’s contest. Russo’s advice to Ficklin: Don’t chew, just swallow.
After chewing the first two bites, Ficklin resorted to what he’d been told.
“I swallowed that sucker the rest of the way,” he explains afterward.
With two minutes transpired, a tear rolls down my cheek as I’ve hardly put a dent in my block. My stomach begins weeping as well.
Meanwhile, the frontrunners enter the backstretch. Hanner is shoving more fruitcake in his mouth than seems humanly possible. Ficklin follows close behind. But as Hanner crams the remaining crumbs…
“Hohoho,” Foley blurts out, a coy smile planted on his face.
Out of nowhere, the heavyweight champ has pulled off the unthinkable in two minutes, 30 seconds.
Hanner continues eating, and hollers his own “Ho, ho, ho” with just less than three minutes showing on the clock. Thirty seconds later, Ficklin pulls in the bronze. Or so it appears.
Foley is positioned at the center of the table. To his right and my left is Amy Knight of Cannelton. She competed in last year’s competition but hadn’t planned to return this year before her daughter and two sons, all younger than 11, urged her to do so.
“Mick Foley is going to be there!” they had declared.
Between her delicate bites, Knight looks over to Foley’s plate, which now sits empty.
To the right, however, lies a napkin.
Knight removes the shroud to reveal the truth: half of the culprit’s fruitcake, guiltily hiding as Foley celebrates the victory. As Klosowski marches over, more crumbs tumble from Foley’s pants pocket.
Say it ain’t so, Mick.
Some then accuse Foley of putting fruitcake on Knight’s plate. The investigation commences as photographers document the crime scene. Wright and I keep chewing in a daze, finally ending the torture well past the 10-minute mark.
Foley admits to hiding the cake under the napkin, but adamantly denies donating cake to Knight.
“There are levels of cheating that I won’t stoop to!” Foley insists.
After the judges deliberate, Hanner is awarded the first-place trophy. Ficklin claims second and Chandler, third. Foley collects a controversial fourth-place keepsake.
Everyone expands their belts a loop or two.
With the contest quarrel settled, Foley returns to the table as attendees line up to have a word, receive an autograph or perhaps be placed in an honorary headlock, an invitation one elderly woman willingly accepts.
Each conversation Foley has is genuine. Two days before he’d host the WWE’s annual awards show in front of tens of thousands of people, he sits in Santa Claus, enthralled by people’s stories of their morning trek or their favorite Foley match. Many purchase the former superstar’s latest work, “A Most Mizerable Christmas,” a children’s book that deals with the issue of bullying.
Ficklin sits some 15 feet away, waiting for the line to die down a bit.
He had picked Foley up at Santa’s Cottages that morning and driven him to the Legion. As they slogged through the snow in a Chevy S10 with four-wheel drive, a favor Ficklin called “an honor,” the two talked about Foley being born in Bloomington, the need to save the Christmas spirit and undoubtedly, wrestling.
Ficklin wrestled for six years in a collection of independent leagues in Kentucky and Tennessee. His first character was Cousin Willie, “just a downright hick” who wore overalls. That turned into Willie Reno, a bad guy from the little big town in Nevada.
Ficklin has always loved Foley as a wrestler, but more so as a human being. For someone of his status to spend time — genuine time — with fans, that’s truly something special.
“He’s just a great man,” Ficklin says. “Best day of my life.”
Contact Joe Jasinski.
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