Squaring Off 

Krystal, a Southern favorite, enters the world of competitive eating.

Oh, it's on.

The Krystal Square Off World Hamburger-Eating Championship is a competition to see who can knock back the most of those little hangover cures in eight minutes. In her qualifying round, Sonya Thomas, one of the few female competitive eaters on the IFOCE circuit (that's the International Federation of Competitive Eaters), got down 42 burgers. Thomas just happens to hold the record for pulled-pork sandwiches (23 in 10 minutes) and is one of the professional eaters who will be competing against thousands of amateurs throughout the Southeast to see who will take home the $5,000 purse.

To give local amateur eaters a taste of what they're up against, we caught up with Don "Moses" Lerman who holds the world record for baked beans (six pounds in one minute and 48 seconds), butter (seven quarter-pound sticks in five minutes), and hamburgers (11 quarter-pound burgers in 10 minutes).

Though tipping the scales at just over 200 pounds, Lerman isn't a girthful fellow, but his persona is as large as any professional wrestler. His nickname "Moses" springs from his ability to part a buffet line. He has oil paintings of himself done up to look like the biblical Moses and like a Russian czar, and when it comes to trash-talking the competition, Lerman excels.

Flyer: How does someone become a pro eater?

Don Lerman: I saw an ad in the newspaper for a matzo-ball-eating contest, and so I entered, and I broke the world record in the qualifiers. I ate 12 in two-and-a-half minutes. My nephew said I was always bragging about what a big eater I used to be. He kept saying, "What you got now?" I said, "I got plenty left."

How much have you got left?

I'll be doing this for the rest of my life. I'll be doing this when I'm 90. If the PoliGrip holds, it's a good day.

Some of the competitions sound great. Like the cannoli-eating contest. But butter?

Cannoli is harder than you might think. It kind of cuts up the roof of your mouth. Yeasty things, like donuts, are tough too, because at the end of the day, all that yeast kind of swells up inside of you. Pickles are hard because of all the vinegar. It gives you something like dysentery. And butter is hard. On the early sticks, you're really pushing yourself. You have to be motivated. You have to make yourself motivated to eat that butter, you know? It's all motivation.

You're known for coming out of the gate strong. Do you have any other secrets to winning?

It's all about speed, capacity, and technique. Everything has its own technique. You want to break the matzo balls into quarters. With the hot dog, you've got to dunk the roll [in water]. With the burgers, it's about shredding the burgers. And I'm a strong finisher. When it gets down to that last minute, I know I've really got to kick.

Regular athletes train. Do you train for eating contests?

I drink a gallon of water in under three minutes. You've got this muscle at the end of your esophagus, and that's where most of your indigestion comes from. But if you drink the gallon of water, it stretches out that muscle. Maybe I'll eat a six-pound watermelon at one sitting or five pounds of grapes something that will go right through you. All this helps you to keep from getting nauseated while you're eating, but sometimes I still get a little nauseated when I'm eating.

So it's all stretching exercises, so to speak?

A lot of people think you have to starve yourself if you want to win these competitions. That's not true. You have to eat a lot. It's like blowing up a balloon. The first time you blow it up it's hard, but then it gets easier every time after that.

Any extra advice to the amateurs who you'll be competing against?

I'm going to win. Actually, I've heard the locals at these contests can be pretty tough, and I don't want to discount their talent. I've got nothing but respect for the local eaters. •

The Krystal Square Off will be held at the Mid-South Fair September 24-27 at 10 p.m. and on September 28 at 6 p.m.

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