Last year’s Thanksgiving issue of The New Yorker contained what may be the definitive work of journalism on the subject of poutine. In the article (which can’t be linked directly because of paywall restrictions, but is accessible through Toronto Public Library’s website to anyone with a library card), Calvin Trillin describes his entire experience with Canada’s gravy-soaked spuds, from his first taste at the halal chip wagon in front of Nathan Phillips Square, to foie gras poutine at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal. He concludes that the dish, at its best, “was better than simply inoffensive,” which, while a total non-endorsement, is the closest anyone has come to arguing publicly for poutine to be taken seriously as Canadian cuisine. The first-ever World Poutine-Eating Championship, held last Saturday beside BMO Field, was another legitimizing moment for the widow-making meal. Eating poutine―like eating hot dogs, pie, and buffalo wings―is now an international sport.
The event, though organized locally by Smoke’s Poutinerie, was sanctioned by Major League Eating, which calls itself “the World governing body of all stomach-centric sports.” MLE hosts the annual Nathan’s hot dog eating contest on Coney Island that made Takeru Kobayashi, the Japanese guy who can eat fifty-three hot dogs in twelve minutes, a pop cultural semi-icon.
MLE oversees a stable of registered competitive eaters, who jockey for rank on an international leader board. Since poutine is new to the sport, the Championship attracted a number of registrations from serious competitors. Pre-event speculation had it that the winner would likely need to eat eight pounds of poutine.
It was rainy on the day of the Championship, so most of the MLE eaters that had come to Toronto to compete spent their downtime, before the competition, underneath the awning of a building near BMO Field with a big sign on top that said: FOOD.
Mike Landrich, from Fredonia, New York, and William Myers, from Allentown, Pennsylvania―the forty-eighth and forty-first ranked competitive eaters in the world, respectively―were chatting, sitting on some steps when we arrived. Neither of them had tried poutine before.
“Personally, I think this will be a little easier than some of the sandwich foods we do,” said Myers, who is a big, pleasant guy with a goatee, and who works as a programmer and analyst when not eating competitively. “The hot dogs, for example, require a lot more chewing. This, as long as you break it up a little bit, chew it a couple times—it’ll be pretty much a capacity contest.”
“And this should be easier than just regular, straight fries,” added Landrich. The gravy, he said, would make it all easier to swallow.
Landrich and Myers had no illusions about their odds of winning. They both knew who the favourite was.
“It’s gotta be Bertoletti,” said Myers.
“Yeah, Bertoletti,” said Landrich.
Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, a chef from Chicago (most major-league eaters have day jobs, because the prize money isn’t enough to live on), was also hovering underneath the awning. He is twenty-four, relatively slim by MLE standards (meaning, he weighs less than two hundred pounds), and he sports a mohawk, which made him appear taller than everyone else. Bertoletti has eaten forty-seven slices of pizza in ten minutes, and, with no hands, 9.17 pounds of blueberry pie in eight, to name just two of his eating accomplishments. He’s currently the fourth-ranked competitive eater on the MLE’s ladder. “He’s a machine,” said Landrich.
The Championships weren’t open only to MLE competitors. Smoke’s had held a contest, in advance of the event, with the purpose of selecting a few locals to participate. Ben Do, a University of Toronto Mississauga student whose campaign for an invitation to the Championship involved making videos of himself eating things like pizza and Trinidadian doubles very quickly, and starting a Facebook group for his supporters, was one of three amateurs to receive a spot at the table.
Do is tall, with an athlete’s build and cropped, black hair. When he arrived, a man in khakis and a white collared shirt stuck a clipboard in his hands. There was a sheet of paper attached, covered in sternly worded paragraphs in very small font. It was the standard MLE waiver, with warnings about the adverse effects of eating several days’ worth of calories in a few minutes.
“Usually I’m on a pretty strict diet,” said Do, who had never eaten competitively before, “because I train for martial arts.”
When the time came for the main event to begin, the competitors took their seats at a long table in front of the assembled press and a small crowd of onlookers, who were killing time before the Toronto FC versus New England game that was going to be getting underway at BMO stadium shortly (some of them were eating poutine, which at this point in the day still seemed remotely appetizing). Each competitor had a row of one-pound boxes of fries and curds before them, onto each of which a handler had just ladled eight ounces of brown gravy from a steel bucket.
Ben Do put in some earbuds and a look of concentration came over his face. Pat Bertoletti also had headphones on, and appeared to be psyching himself up. A straw-hatted barker led the crowd in a countdown, and then it was on.
Bertoletti lunged for his fork and used it to bring a single bite of poutine to his mouth, before tossing the dainty utensil aside. Within seconds, it was clear that bare hands would be the path to poutine-eating victory. One competitor had brought a pair of latex gloves, which he’d wisely put on beforehand.
Watching Bertoletti eat poutine was like watching a lion dismantle a gazelle on Animal Planet―except on endless repeat, and in quadruple fast-forward (and with hands, which lions would use if they could). His technique was to grab a great handful of sopping fries and curds, then mash them into a kind of brown, potatoey ball, which he would then stuff into his mouth, chomp on aggressively, and swallow, while his hand went back to the box for the next bite.
Within minutes, one of the amateur participants had already spit up some of the contents of his stomach into a nearby trash bin, after which he left the table. But Ben Do turned out to be a true warrior. His technique wasn’t as efficient as Bertoletti’s, but he used his hands and paced himself.
The competition was ten minutes long. By minute five, faces and beards were dripping with gravy. The smell of curds and animal fat was so strong that it could almost have been chewed. Ben Do’s eyes were red. He was beginning to lose steam.
Bertoletti, meanwhile, barely slowed down. By the end, he’d eaten thirteen pounds of poutine, beating his nearest competitor―Tim “Gravy” Brown, another strong favourite―by two-and-a-half boxes. His prize was $750, which he told the Globe and Mail he was going to spend at a bar.
Ben Do had eaten seven pounds, which put him ahead of several of the MLE eaters, though it wasn’t enough to earn him a prize. He put his hands behind his head and started breathing deeply, like a runner after a marathon.
As nauseating as it was to watch, the Poutine-Eating Championship is something about which Canada’s gastronomes can justly be proud. Why not? Poutine has seldom been taken more seriously.
Photos by Miles Storey/Torontoist.