In his day, Mort Hurst could gorge enough collards, shrimp and MoonPies to choke Goliath, grabbing up world records like bowling trophies, earning a slew of gustatory nicknames, including “The Michael Jordan of Eating.”
He once tore through 38 soft-boiled eggs in 29 seconds, a feat to humble Cool Hand Luke. He once swallowed 1,248 pistachios in five minutes, chipping his tooth on a stray shell. He once ate a hot dog while suspended upside-down from a crane, and another time submerged in 9 feet of water, weighted down by concrete blocks.
So now, retired from the competitive gluttony circuit at age 66, Hurst carries the scars of a professional eater, the sport he pioneered.
He knows what it’s like to chew so fast you stick a fork through the side of your face. He can explain how watermelon seeds tear the lining of your throat when you eat 21 of the king-sized fruits in 10 minutes. He can describe how it feels when your pulse shoots to 150 and your blood pressure hits 252.
“It’s like the top of your head is going to blow off,” he said, calling from his family ice business in Martin County. “It’s like you’re filling up with water from your feet to your head.”
I called Eatin’ Mort Hurst Thursday after reading the following article in USA Today: “Inside the Disturbing Dangers of Competitive Eating.” The story laid out how the training regimen of contemporary gobbling kings Matt Stonie and Joey Chestnut can involve eating upwards of 60 hot dogs or drinking a gallon of water in a sitting, and that such activity can lead to gastric ruptures and seizures.
In this age of Man v. Food, when eaters get ranked nationally, when hot dog-chomping contests air on ESPN, when a top chicken wing-scarfer can earn $100,000 a year, did Eatin’ Mort Hurst want to add his voice to this warning? Should we tell America not to eat 750 shrimp in one sitting?
The old champ told me, and I’m paraphrasing here: “Duh.”
“What a lot of people don’t know is this: Competitive eaters are athletes,” he said. “You have to train to do these things. You don’t just go out and sit at a table and eat. That’s a sure way to die. If you drink a gallon of water straight down, it can kill you.”
It’s not for the faint of stomach. Consider that Hurst had a stroke in 1991 after his egg feat, which left him fighting slurred speech and slowed movement on the right side. He kept competing another four years.
“I knew what I was doing,” he continued. “You know when you get behind the wheel of a race car you might die. But you can’t perform in fear. I wanted to be the greatest eater in the world. I accomplished that goal. I modeled myself on Evel Knievel, Muhammad Ali and Elvis Presley. The best.”
He added with a flourish, “I can beat Chestnut, by the way.”
If you’ve ever run a marathon, or even a 10-miler that an old dad like me can manage, you know that training inflicts far greater agony than the actual event. By the time you watch a competitive eater shoving moistened hot dogs down his gullet, he’s consumed thousands more behind closed doors – a routine that involves considerable vomit, or “reversal of fortune” as it’s known among professionals.
Eatin’ Mort Hurst consumed six meals a day, interrupted by jumping jacks, push-ups and squats. He filed down the tines on his fork to avoid stabbing himself, a precaution that often proved futile.
He recalls walking into the Da-Nite Lunch in Bethel, N.C., and ordering 10 practice quarter-pounders. When he finished, the waitress asked if he’d like anything else, to which he replied, “Give me 10 more.” Owner Robert Young fed him for free.
Before any contest, Hurst would flex his fingers and windmill his arms, then tied his shoes 15 to 20 times until he had the knot perfect. “I can’t concentrate if the shoes are not right,” he told confused onlookers.
The painful rituals worked.
In 1984, Hurst won the annual collard-eating contest in Ayden, N.C., stuffing down 7.5 pounds of leafy vegetables topped with ketchup, then finished off three pounds of shrimp at a campaign fund-raiser for Rufus Edmisten.
“Mort is unique from head to toe,” Edmisten told the News & Observer in 1990. “Between the head and toe, he must be hollow.”
Now at 66, Hurst’s blood-pressure hovers around a respectable 140. He gets dizzy and confused sometimes, but he shrugs off these lingering ailments, figuring he might have one last eat-off under his belt.
What doesn’t fill him makes him stronger.
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