“Chew, Chew, Swallow!” The crowd chanted louder and louder as they rose to their feet in anticipation, camera phones recording. Two of the contestants were nearly finished with their plates, which only a couple of minutes earlier held a sampling of the day’s bites. It was the same food that was in all of our stomachs.
We’d spent that unseasonably warm November day among thousands of fellow food lovers, gathered in the sun on the grassy fields that surround Albuquerque’s Balloon Museum. It was the first inaugural Southwest Bacon Fest, and the grounds were engulfed with salty, sweet, and smoky aromas, constant reminders of the day’s star ingredient. Like all of the other attendees, we’d set out to try as many of the day’s dishes as possible.
Enter friendly competitiveness, the undeniable undertone of food festivals. Just like sports, there are elements of strategy, resolve, and stamina. The goal is to taste as much as possible before a) time runs out, or b) you can’t fit anything else in your stomach.
Our plan of attack: walk among the crowds, surveying the lines, peeking at the range of offerings. Bacon doughnuts, bacon waffles, bacon coffee, bacon brownies, bacon sliders, bacon hot dogs, and bacon ice cream, to name a few. Realization set in that we’d miscalculated even before arriving: why had we eaten breakfast at home? Rookie mistake. Pushing that memory aside, we hopped in line, agreed to share everything, and readied ourselves for breakfast #2 (and #3, and #4...).
By the third queue, our strategy had evolved. Divide and conquer, as they say. Loren headed off in search of thirst-quenching beers, while I ended up at the end of a particularly long string of people, in hopes of trying the most basic dish being served: bacon on a stick. Half an hour into the wait, I was sandwiched in line between Mr. Neck Tattoos and Mr. Plaid Shirt Grandpa. On any other given day, we would’ve been scattered across the city in our respective bubbles. But that day, with beloved bacon as our mutual focus, our differences faded into the background. We descended into discussion, suggesting must-taste dishes and sharing the surprising flavors we’d encountered so far. Food has an amazing ability to bring people together. Plus, waiting in long lines creates a sense of camaraderie.
After I’d successfully retrieved my bacon skewer slathered in sweet chili sauce, my picnic table neighbor’s eyes fixated on the stick, eyebrows lifting. “Now that looks good. Where’d you get it?” he asked, evidently on the hunt for his next dish. I pointed, still chewing, then added, “I waited in line for over an hour, but it’s worth the wait.” He thanked me, already heading off toward the line.
After a few more plates, we heard the announcer assembling the bacon-eating contest. As we joined the growing crowd, our competitive spirits piqued and we were pumped to do some sideline cheering. The contestants were seated at a long table, some with napkins tucked into their shirts, some with hair tied back, and one with his daughter on his lap. They smiled at the crowd and wearily eyed their plates of bacon goodies. A moment later they were shoving it all into their mouths, gulping it down with water. It was quite the spectacle.
Minutes later, everyone gasped with excitement as one contestant (the guy with his daughter) cleared his plate... but hadn’t yet finished swallowing. No dice. Suddenly, the guy I'd pegged as a prime competitor grabbed the lead! The crowd roared as he slowly stood and raised his hands, swallowing his last bites while nodding triumphantly, face a bit reddened, eyes a tad bloodshot. Trembling, he accepted his hard-earned trophy: a small bronze pig.
By the end of the day, our strategy had all but evaporated, probably owing to our sugar and beer buzzes. We made one last sweep to make sure we'd hit all of the major bases before strolling out into the sun-drenched parking lot. Mission accomplished.