There is a time in a man’s life when he is humbled and reminded that he is nothing more than dust and into dust he shall return. For me, that time arrive last Saturday, at the second annual Rise & Nye’s Ice Cream Eating Championship. I signed up full of hubris. I love ice cream and always eat more of it than I should. Surely I could eat more than most.
The competition was held in front of Rise & Nye’s shop on State Street at 11 a.m. Saturday morning, during the peak hours of the Sarasota Farmers Market. The rules and regulations were surprisingly elaborate, with 19 bullet points of detailed the do's and don’ts. That's when it began to dawn on me that this was more serious than I had initially thought.
We had four minutes to eat as much ice cream as possible. Each contestant would be given a six-ounce cup of vanilla ice cream. Once we finished that cup, we would be given another. I learned that the winner of last year's contest finished nine cups, but I wasn't concerned. A friend told me it actually feels good to throw up ice cream.
I asked Beaver Shriver, one of the founders of Rise & Nyes, if anyone had ever puked. He said not yet, but he pointed to a trash can at the end of the table just in case. Then he whispered a tip in my ear: “Squeeze the cup of ice cream to make it less solid and easier to eat.”
Shriver started the competition for fun, but also to bring awareness to the mission of Rise & Nye’s. “It’s a coffee and ice cream shop,” Shiver told me, “but sometimes I say it’s a human rights movement in disguise.” The store employs individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities. “When I was a kid, these people were were excluded, forgotten, institutionalized and sterilized,” Shriver said.
He pointed to Kelly, one of the shop’s baristas, who has Down syndrome. “Kelly never had a job before," Shriver said. "But when people come in to Rise & Nye’s, she remembers their name and what they like to order. She’s also a competitive ballroom dancer and a two-time cancer survivor. She’s a rock star.”
Shriver wants the public to get to know people like Kelly, so that when they see someone with a disability on the street, they don’t look away. “We want to end the fear of difference and replace it with the power of inclusion,” he said.
There were 30 ice cream “athletes” participating in the competition. I sized up my rivals. No one else had significant facial hair, but I had a tactical mustache—I figured I could hide some of the ice cream in it. I still felt confident I could place in the top three, at least. I tried to get in the heads of the competitors around me. “Is anyone else lactose-intolerant?” I asked.
Then two cups of vanilla ice cream were stacked in front of me and the countdown began: “Five, four, three…” I gripped my wooden spoon. My plan was to whip up the ice cream as much as possible to make it easier to eat. “…Two, one, go!”
I ripped off the lid of the ice cream container and did my best to mix up the ice cream. I got a golf ball-sized chunk in my mouth. It was too big to swallow, so I had to chew. The people around me were ravenous, shoveling dairy into their mouths like Hungry Hungry Hippos. I ate faster, abandoning my initial plan.
While chewing the ice cream, I entered a fugue state of sweet pain. My teeth and brain hurt from the cold and I felt tears well up in my eyes. I could barely notice the people around me. After I finished a second cup, I saw that people around had already finished more than five.
When the four minutes were up, I had barely finished two cups. The winner was the man to my right, Aaron McWhorter, who finished more than seven. That’s more than 42 ounces. I asked him what his secret was. He said he had sensitive teeth so he just swallowed pieces whole. Rise & Nye’s bestowed him with a T-shirt, a $20 gift card and a championship belt that he was allowed to wear around for a few minutes before it had to be returned to the shop.