Stuart Brenkus heard his name called over the speaker Friday at Bagel Street Deli, 27 S. Court St., and smiled.
Brenkus, 22, had returned to the deli for a second chance. It was 364 days earlier that Brenkus, nicknamed “Pickle Rick,” had fallen three pickles short of winning Pickle Fest, the annual pickle-eating contest that attracts dozens of people willing to devour as many pickles as possible in 10 minutes for a few moments of fame and a few hours of nausea.
This year was supposed to be different for Brenkus, a Pickle Fest veteran who fell short of winning the contest in 2018. He raised his arms after the announcer called him to seat 3 for the second heat of the 20th annual Pickle Fest contest, and he never stopped smiling as he shook the hands of the judges and shimmied over to the chair.
When Brenkus arrived, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a full box of Tums antacids. Those were key to Brenkus’ success at winning one of the four heats a year ago. He needed them again if he wanted to win the whole contest this year.
The other 11 competitors in the heat looked nervous. They looked down at the three pickles in the tray in front of them, and their stomachs started to churn.
Not Brenkus, though. He was hungry. Last year, he prepared for Pickle Fest by eating as much food at Nelson Dining Hall as possible a week before the contest. This year, he ate nothing the day of the event so that he would see the pickles as an easy meal.
So when the announcer shouted “Go!” from the speakers, Brenkus shoved half a pickle into his mouth and chomped. The other competitors took nibbles as Brenkus devoured as much of the first pickle as possible.
“Pickle Rick” was back on top. Then, he wasn’t.
Brenkus looked to his right as a judge held up a white board with a “1.” Someone else finished their first pickle before him.
It was “Pickle B----,” also known as E.J. Goschinski. He calmly began chewing on his second pickle as Brenkus’ eyes widened in disbelief.
But it was OK. It was just one pickle, and Brenkus knew that. He shoved the rest of the first pickle down his throat, and the score was tied again.
As Goschinski gnawed at his second pickle like a peanut butter sandwich, Brenkus delivered another lion-sized bite to his next pickle.
Then, Brenkus put the pickle down. He reached for the Tums, opened the cap and chugged a few pills, and when he resumed his work, he jumped up and down like a boxer ready for battle. His fight now was with Goschinski, who led the heat with two pickles already finished in three minutes.
Brenkus tried to concentrate on only himself, but he couldn’t. He kept peeking at Goschinski, who looked as though he was happily enjoying another Thanksgiving meal. His steadiness concerned Brenkus, who needed to take another swig from the Tums box before he started his third pickle. Goschinski was on his fourth.
Two minutes were left, and Brenkus’ smile had faded. Goschinski was on his seventh pickle, and Brenkus was still working on his third. A comeback was impossible.
Pickle B---- was going to win.
The announcer counted down the final seconds of the heat. Brenkus shoved the entirety of his fourth pickle into his mouth, but it didn’t matter. Goschinski had already finished eight pickles.
The announcer crowned Pickle B---- the winner of the second heat. Brenkus spit the pickle into a bucket and shrugged in defeat. He still smiled as he exited Bagel Street Deli, but he blew his chance.
“He got on my psyche,” Brenkus said about Goschinski. “I was doing my technique, and it just threw me off. He got in my head for sure.”
Unlike last year, Brenkus didn’t need to wait around to see if he won Pickle Fest. He had fallen a few dills short.
He weaved through the crowd one last time, still smiling. But now he didn’t think about eating pickles.
He thought about having a beer.