No Forks Given

Within the pages of Stock & Barrel, our exploration of the world of food and drink most often takes the form of reviews, recipes, essays, and sometimes even prose, but what we don’t always get a chance to explore while celebrating our culinary world, is the relationship between food and health, or exercise. In typical Stock & Barrel fashion, we aren’t particularly interested in exercise tips, nor recipes for healthy no-bake protein bars. We are guilty of leaning more to the side of food porn—excessive uses, and excuses for pork and other feats of culinary strength. Many of our stories explore extremes in the world of food, but to what end?

If in its purest form, food is meant to fuel our bodies shouldn’t we be exploring extremes in the world of exercise, and where the two might intersect?

Well, there’s no one really more qualified to talk about that than Liz McClurg. McClurg is a bit of an anomaly to say the least. After losing around 80 pounds, she has a half Iron Man under her belt and is training for her first full marathon. There’s no question she’s got the extreme exercise box checked, but what about extreme eating? Don’t worry, “Sweet Cheeks,” as she’s known in competitive eating circles, has got that down, too, arriving to our interview with a trophy in her bag for being the “hot dog queen of Cleveland” and the top-ranked female competitive eater in Ohio, and promptly placing it on the bar at G Michaels before ordering a beer.

This girl is sort of a badass.

We’re all ears.

It seems like you’ve been on quite the journey the past few years. This year has especially been a growth year. Last December I made a list of 15 things I wanted to do or accomplish, and I’m set to do 14 of them; the one thing that I didn’t have the opportunity to do was ride in Pelotonia this year, but you know, that’s what the sweet and salty 16 is for. You know, just move on—progress.

What kinds of other things were on that list? I brought the list. I brought a bag of goodies…

You’re very well prepared. Probably, that’s one of my strongest qualities. That I am always prepared. That and I am an excellent grocery shopper. This is my trophy for the most unhealthy thing I have ever done. (motions to the hard-to-miss trophy on the bar) I put it on my mantle and my gentlemen callers are always very impressed. That’s for being the Hot Dog Gueen of Cleveland, and I’m also the top ranked female competitive eater in Ohio. Which is a title I never aspired to, but now that it’s here… (still scrambling through her purse to find the list of goals for the year)… You know it’s the typical American dream or Cinderella story if you will. I also brought my eater badge. To distinguish me at the contest, so I could go backstage and hang out with Joey Chestnut and the gang. (scrambles in her purse to find the list, can’t find it.) I also do yoga.

You completed a marathon in Brazil recently, which is pretty damn cool. It also means getting to travel to another country—was that on the list? Yes, that’s on the list too. Two-in-one go. Okay: dance every day, ride in Pelotonia, stay up and watch an astrological event—which I did. I stayed up and watched the meteor shower. Complete another triathlon, finish a marathon, stay actively connected to Columbus and this community. Keep the flash mob dream alive, finish three unfinished projects, waste less food, continue learning to cook a variety of foods, invest in a Roth IRA. Visit a new state, a new country, become a part time philanthropist, be fearless.

That’s a really ambitious list, and you’re getting all but Pelotonia done? Yes, 14 out of 15. But you know a lot of things have happened because of the list, that were not on the list. This year, I flew an airplane. Yes, I flew a 1948 Cessna plane, and the pilot let us open the window and touch clouds.

How did that happen? I have this neighbor who’s really fun and cool. He always had people over at his house, so I kind of wanted to get in with that gang. So I climbed his backyard fence and left him my number and was like, “Call me the next time you do something fun.” So he called me and was like, “Hey, we are gonna go fly an airplane,” and I had 30 minutes to get to his house. I just kind of grabbed some bananas, walked out the door and, yeah…

Climbing the fence, that’s bold… You know what, it was a fence that had little points at the top. It was a dangerous endeavor. I was on my way to Cincinnati to eat bratwurst and I almost didn’t make it. Like, one slip…

Were you going to competitively eat bratwurst? That’s the only way I eat bratwurst.

How did you get involved in competitive eating? So, the competitive eating is just this, like, really funny story inspired by beer. I was out with two friends and we’re sitting around the fire pit at Olde Town Tavern, and I’ve had two beers, and we’re talking about hot dogs and marshmallows and roasting marshmallows over the fire and somehow I said I bet I can eat eight hot dogs. They were like “Oh, no you cant, Liz,” and I was like, “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do,” ’cause you know, I’m an asshole when I’ve had a couple beers. Nothing happened that night. But I think on Monday, my friend who was there, Mike, he emailed me, and he secretly follows competitive eating, and he said, “You know if you could really eat eight, Liz, you could get a ticket to the big show.” So I signed up for the qualifier in Cleveland. I was put on the waitlist for like two months, then on a Wednesday or Tuesday they emailed me and said a spot opened up, so we drove to Cleveland. I did my best—I won. I ate eight and a half in 10 minutes. So that was a Sunday, on Saturday I was in Coney Island. Coney island has between 20,000 and 30,000 extra people that day on July Fourth. And you know, I’m just suddenly there with Joey Chesnut and Sonya Thomas, Mickey Sudo, and you know they didn’t really treat me differently—I was an eater.

So after struggling with weight loss, changing your diet, and then going into competitive eating, can you tell me about how your attitude towards food has changed? When I was overweight, I didn’t really think about what I was eating or consuming. To use a metaphor, I just kind of viewed my ability to eat food as like the trash can in a subway. It just goes in the hole, and you don’t see it anymore. That’s how I kind of viewed food and how it was processed by my body. And if you really follow competitive eating, it’s also about making food disappear. You are really consuming a lot of food like that. I think that I have a much healthier relationship with food now because it’s not something I eat when I’m bored anymore or when I’m anxious. It’s always when I’m hungry, and it’s always, you know, it’s kind of a funny thing to competitively eat because I think the choice word is competitive, and I do feel very competitive, and it’s funny because it feels like such a challenge. I think if it was about quantity and not about speed and time, and performance so much, I wouldn’t be interested in it. But you know, it’s one meal out of a hundred meals that’s kind of like that, so it’s very easy to go live a healthy life for the other meals and not worry about it. I think you could do more damage at a bar over a night or Thanksgiving dinner than you could competitively eating for 10 minutes.

It seems like the thread that connects everything together is this idea of challenging yourself. I had this experience in graduate school. It was Saturday night, I had been watching a Law & Order: SVU marathon all day, and I looked at myself, and I just looked really old, and I wasn’t living the life that I wanted, and I was like, you know what, I am going to start having adventures, and that’s kind of what drew me out a little bit more from a quieter, shyer lifestyle.

There are some people who would be perfectly happy sitting on their couch for the rest of their life, as long as they had something new to watch on Netflix. There’s this quote that’s something like “some people die in their ’20s but keep living to their ’80s.” Sometimes I feel like there aren’t enough hours in the day—there aren’t enough days in the year, there aren’t enough weekends in a lifetime to do all the things you want to do… I guess I do really enjoy challenging myself, and I do really enjoy seeing what’s possible. Because there are so many great adventures…

You know what’s funny? I don’t think I’ve had another SVU marathon since then. Maybe I’ve just recognized the trap that is Olivia Benson—that seductress will just pull me in.