A quick glance across the line of competitors in the first heat of the annual Bagel Street Deli Pickle Fest revealed varying glimpses into the eyes of defeat.
There was “College Don”, sporting a bandana and surrounded by the largest group of supporters of anyone in the contest, grasping a sixth pickle for dear life while his head hovered over a bucket that he hoped would remain empty. There was “Private Ry”, in a blue tank top and army helmet, letting pickle juices stream down his face in resignation of what he had come so far to accomplish, only to come up short.
Amongst the sickness and despair, sat Josh Ball, or as his scorecard named him, “Puma”, with his fists raised high over his head, listening to a “bageler’s” horn sound the end of the heat. The day’s winning pickle had been consumed before 29 other competitors had even begun their fight.
“I put down seven and saw that other people were still working on six, so I had to brag and put my fists up,” Ball said. “The best way I thought of to do it was to take big bites and finish it out that way. I saw a bunch of people taking little bites and that wasn’t working out for them.”
The sun shined high in the sky on the warmest day Athens had seen in weeks, but the largest crowd of the afternoon formed inside of a deli on Court Street.
Bagel Street Deli hosted its 18th annual Pickle Fest pickle eating contest on Friday. The contest consists of four heats of participants, with the winner of each heat earning a T-Shirt. The largest winning total at the end of the four heats claims first place of the entire contest, picks a charity to donate money proceeds from the contest to and gets the right to invent a new sandwich for the diner.
The second heat got a slow start that provided no strong challengers for Ball’s total. A group of eight women and three men struggled out of the gates and never recovered, even as one competitor called “Marine Matt” ducked into his pockets two-thirds of the way through the round, grabbed a bottle of Tums, and began pouring the contents into his mouth. Second-year competitor Garrett Mater won the round with a total of five pickles.
The winner of the third heat also finished at the five pickle mark, but this time there were three of them.
“I love pickles, so I thought I could handle it,” Chris Castaldo, who went by “Bigger Dill” in the contest, said. “I didn’t have a plan, I just didn’t eat beforehand and tried to put ‘em away as fast as I could. I just wanted to beat my roommate’s girlfriend, she was talking a lot of smack.”
The fourth heat began as Ball watched on from the end of the row, two challengers using differing strategies to chase his number. On the far left, there was “The Great Gerken,” who tried to use an aggressive approach to tear through pickle after pickle in order to make the most of his time. On the far right, there was “Ice-T,” making his way through each pickle meticulously with slow, big bites, trying to time out the finish.
Both strategies brought the two one pickle shy of Ball’s mark.
“Seven usually doesn’t win it, but I will tell you the pickles are big,” Lenny Meyer, an owner of Bagel Street Deli, said. “I couldn’t do it. ... The workers love it, some of these guys will tell you it’s their favorite day of the year.”
For his win, Ball hasn’t decided what sandwich he’s inventing for the deli, but he’s donating the proceed money to Wigs For Kids, a charity that he’s cut his hair for previously.