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Pie, pain, and patriotism

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There's something unforgettable about smashing your face, at high velocity, into a 3 1/2 pound olallieberry-apple pie. There's the sound of it: a kind of emphatic squelch. There's the sight of it: a crust and filling mishmash, right up close and personal. There's also, of course, the taste of it: which is, well, pretty delicious.

If you're ever feeling simultaneously patriotic, masochistic, and really hungry, the annual Linn's Fruit Bin 4th of July Pie Eating Contest in Cambria is an excellent way to get your fix. The premise: Plow through a giant pie with no hands and no utensils. Ten-minute time limit. Glory goes to the fastest eater.

Filled with equal parts hubris and curiosity, I enrolled in the fourth annual contest this year. While women and children (who have separate divisions) get to chow down on puny 13-ounce pies, the men attempt to plow through 56-ounce behemoths.

I was already intimidated by the sheer bulk of the pie, but some trash-talk from the reigning 2011 and 2012 champion, Tony Jones, on the Linn's Facebook page terrified me even further.

"This is Tony Jones," he wrote, tersely. "I have been training and I'm ready to break my old record."

Feeling pessimistic about my chances but determined to scarf pie as best I could, I showed up to Cambria a few hours early. My stomach was empty, and my mind was racing.

Nervously, I thought through strategy and contingency plans. I sussed out the competition. After awhile, I realized it was more than a little silly to intellectualize a pie-eating contest.

As I claimed my spot at the pie-eating table with my 14 peers, my worst nightmare was realized. Tony Jones, a mustachioed hulk of a man with tattoos and a stars-and-stripes bandana, was directly to my right.

Right when I needed it most, I received some choice advice from my pie judge and mentor, Mike, standing across the red-and-white checkered table.

"You can't use your hands, but you can totally fart on him, man. That would do me in at a pie eating contest."

Before I could fully process that gem, the clock had started. After about five seconds, I knew I had no chance. Sneaking a peek through some pie filling, I saw Tony demolishing his pie with great gusto. I was going as fast as I could, but it wasn't fast enough.

There were hefty pieces of pie falling off of Tony's face, his mustache was olallieberry-red, and his once circular pie was reduced to a pile of mush.

My face was similarly berry-stained, but, after a few minutes of fast eating, I had hit a wall. The pie I had once eagerly attacked was now taunting me with its endless gobs of filling and chunks of crust.

Frenzied chants of "Tony! Tony!" and "Eat pie!" rang out from the assembled crowd. I kept nibbling at my pie to save face, but the race was on among men more hardy--and hungry--than I.

In the end, surprise challenger Bill Lacy upset Tony, downing his pie in a truly startling 5 minutes and 11 seconds. Tony clocked in at 7 minutes and 54 seconds, a shade off his 2012 record.

As the crowd cheered, and large, staggering men with pie-covered faces raised their hands in triumph under the July 4 sun, I saw a little slice of America. Actually, scratch that. I saw the whole damn thing.

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