The waft of pancakes drifts through the air. Normally, the scent of freshly-made pancakes would make almost anyone’s mouth salivate. But early this morning, the saturated smell is suffocating, almost nauseating.
It is Thursday, Feb. 27, and Pete’s Grille is hosting their annual pancake eating contest. Twenty-three competitors, their stomachs swollen and bloated, groan and shovel in another mouthful of flapjacks, doused with a healthy dose of syrup and coated in butter.
Pete’s Grille has been open for over 50 years and has been designated by many outlets such as Baltimore magazine as “Baltimore’s Best Breakfast.”
This local institution sits on the corner of Greenmount and 32nd, a 15-minute walk from Homewood campus, and it has 28 counter seats. Michael Phelps, a Baltimore native, has professed his fondness for Pete’s breakfasts. A tradition since 1991, this yearly breakfast feast brings together hopefuls of all ages and sizes, including locals and college students.
The rules for this contest are simple: No professional eaters allowed, and vomiting results in an automatic disqualification. The binge lasts for one hour. Pete’s crowns both a male and female winner. The reward is $500 dollars each. Additionally, if the records are broken (18 pancakes for men, 13 for women), Pete’s offers free breakfast for an entire year.
I went to Pete’s with junior Alex Hecksher-Gomes, who partook in the contest.
“I’m genuinely not afraid of getting full, but my pacing might be a concern,” he said. When asked how many pancakes he was going to eat he replied, “Well the record’s 18 so... ”
After a quick prayer from the local pastor, the competition started. Each plate had three hot, steaming pancakes. Within the first five minutes, multiple eaters finished their first plate.
Some took quick mouthfuls in succession, hoping to consume as much as they possibly could before the first waves of nausea hit. Others enjoyed a more leisurely pace. Competitors displayed a variety of eating styles, from neatly using utensils to soaking the pancakes in water or coffee.
However, within 15 minutes, the once excited hopefuls had a dramatic change in attitude.
“I’m losing my goddamn mind,” Hecksher-Gomes groaned, with the slightest hint of sweat glistening on his forehead. After only around two plates, everyone had slowed considerably. A few reached for the plastic bags handed out at the beginning, bracing for the worst.
This is what professional eaters call the wall, and only the toughest can overcome it. The strong separate from the weak and pull ahead with sheer mental resilience — if their stomachs can handle it. A couple of participants had already dropped out, not to mention those that were considerably lagging behind. Only a half hour had passed. I reminded Hecksher-Gomes of his earlier claim: that he was not afraid of getting full.
“A lot of hubris there,” he lamented before tearing off another half pancake and stuffing it into his mouth. “I feel like I’m staring death in the face.”
Yet despite the many regrets he may have had, he was in a tight two-man race for the lead. Forty-five minutes had elapsed, and Hecksher-Gomes had eaten nine pancakes.
The leader, a grizzled, middle-aged man wearing a Baltimore Ravens jersey, had eaten 10. These two unlikely leaders had out-eaten the rest of the competition, a group that includes athletes from Loyola, pancake-eating veterans and a 10-year-old boy. The FOX Baltimore TV crew panned between the last men standing. Not wanting to disappoint the cameras, Hecksher-Gomes finished another pancake.
“You’re in the lead!” a waitress told him, with two minutes remaining. $500 dollars were at stake. He furrowed his eyebrows. The clock ticks toward 8 a.m. This year’s competition was going down to the wire. Five... Four... Three... Two... One...
The final tally is read out. Alex: 11. Joseph: 12.
The restaurant swarmed the man in the Ravens jersey, celebrating his victory. As the TV crew did an interview with the newly crowned pancake champion, Hecksher-Gomes solemnly walked, or rather, waddled slowly to the exit. He had to attend his 9 a.m. class. He was disappointed but more urgently, uncomfortably full.
He stepped outside into the brisk morning air. The sunlight was just breaking through the clouds. He took a deep breath and sighed, either out of emotion or physical necessity. A gust of wind blew, and he put on the shirt handed out to every participant. In bold letters, it reads: “Survivor Pete’s Grille Pancake Eating Contest.”