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'Collard Eating King' returns

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Three time winner Taria Crenshaw competes during the collard eating contest at the Ayden Collard Festival on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016. (Abbey Mercando/The Daily Reflector)

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By Kim Grizzard

Friday, September 8, 2017

In the weeks leading up to his class reunion, through training and careful attention to his diet, Mort Hurst has managed to gain 35 pounds.

Two hundred twenty-three pounds is not necessarily the ideal weight for going on a dinner cruise with his high school classmates from 50 years ago. But Hurst said it is nearly perfect for his first return trip to Ayden Collard Festival’s collard-eating contest in more than 30 years.

On Saturday, Hurst, 68, who made a name for himself in the 1980s and ‘90s as a world-champion eater, is set to make his first eating-contest appearance in nearly a quarter century.

“I told them I was coming back one day. and I’m going to stick to my word,” he said. “Plus I started in Ayden, and I’m going to finish in Ayden.”

In 1984, the Robersonville man set the record for collard consumption — 7.5 pounds in 30 minutes. It is a record Hurst would like to break this weekend.

“I’m planning on eating a record number of collards in a record number of minutes,” Hurst said. “Those first five minutes will be five minutes that will be remembered for a long time.”

In his prime, Hurst was the Usain Bolt of the competitive eating world. He held records for pistachios (1,248 in five minutes); watermelons (21 in 10 minutes); shrimp (3 pounds in less than 3 minutes); and soft-boiled eggs (38 in 29 seconds).

“If I could run like that, I’d be a professional runner,” he said.

His rise to fame was nearly as fast. Hurst’s feats of daredevil devouring attracted attention from media throughout the country and overseas, as well as ESPN and “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

Edgecombe County attorney and musician Steve Graham recalls traveling with Hurst to New York for MTV’s “Jon Stewart Show” in the early 1990s. Hurst ate collards while Graham performed his original song “The Legend of Ol’ Eatin’ Mort Hurst.”

“He is quite the character,” Graham said. “Just the theatrics and the act he goes through before he sits down to eat is worth going to one of these festivals to watch him. He really gets into this and kind of goes into a trance before he eats.

“(Once he starts) it’s just like this constant whirl,” he said. “You can’t see his hand, it’s going so quick.”

But that speed nearly killed Hurst in 1991 when he suffered a stroke after setting the world record for eating eggs. Two years later, paramedics were called after he scarfed down a massive meal consisting of a hot dog, a quarter-pound hamburger, a dozen eggs, a watermelon and a MoonPie, washing it down with soft drinks and ketchup in a minute and four seconds, all while hanging upside down from a crane.

Following that exhibition in 1993, Hurst hung up his competitive-eating hat for two decades.

Collard Festival committee volunteer Herbie Carson said organizers have been hoping to draw Hurst back to the festival for years. Carson, who has known Hurst since childhood, ran into his old friend a few months ago at McDonald’s in Robersonville and extended an invitation.

Hurst’s acceptance has become the talk of the town. Carson can’t go anywhere without having someone ask him about the eating champ’s return to West Avenue Stage.

“Word has definitely gotten out,” Carson said. “He’s known as the Collard Eating King. Everybody over there is excited. They love Mort Hurst, and they’ve always wanted him to come back.”

So, why come back to the table after all these years?

“The festival needed a big boost,” Hurst said. “I think we can pull a big crowd over there. I’m certainly not going for myself because I’ve got all the accolades I need. I’ve been around the world. I’ve been in everything you can think of from hospitals to tabloids. I’ve been in everything.”

For about a month, Hurst has been in training for the first time in decades. Outside of competition, he is not really a big eater, so he has to build up to the contest.

That has meant going from a breakfast of a pancake and two eggs to a dozen pancakes and two dozen eggs — gradually increasing his intake.

“You’ve got to train for this,” Hurst said. “I train because if you sit down and eat like this, you could kill yourself.”

In the name of competition, Hurst recently worked his way up to 100 chicken McNuggets in one meal and 500 shrimp in another. He has consumed meals in excess of 27,000 calories.

One of the few things he hasn’t eaten is collards. Hurst calls it cross-training, eating different foods from the ones he will consume in the contest.

“I have not eaten any collards in this training period,” he said. “But I’ll be eating enough to make up for it on Saturday.”

While he is avoiding collard consumption, the eating champ is replicating contest conditions in other areas. On Tuesday, with temperatures just under 90 degrees, Hurst sat at a picnic table in the sunshine and packed in 10 quarter-pounders.

“We’re not eating in air conditioning,” he said of the contest. “We’re eating outside.”

In the final days of preparation, Hurst will back off the big meals, opting to eat a bottle of mustard instead. (”It keeps you from having a cramp in your arms,” he said.)

When Saturday’s contest rolls around, Hurst will be armed with ketchup, which he always eats on collards. He will also have two new competition forks, one for each hand.

Hurst discovered the fabulous flatware while dining out at Greenville’s K&W Cafeteria. The forks were the perfect width and length, and they weren’t too sharp. (Hurst has stabbed himself in the face with a fork in competition before.) They weren’t for sale either, but Hurst got permission to take them as long as he returns them for display in the restaurant after the contest, win or lose.

While no one is expected to beat Hurst in the collard eating-contest — the closest competitor has only eaten about 5 pounds of collards — Hurst is taking a more modest, low-key approach than he did decades ago. In recent months, the eating champ has undergone cataract surgery and suffered a severe cut on his left hand, which is not his eating hand.

“I don’t know how good I’m going to do,” he said. “I don’t have any excuses. I’m in good shape. I’ve trained hard; I’ve worked hard. I’m going to give it my best shot.

“I’m going to let my forks do the talking.”

Hurst doesn’t plan to stick around for too many long interviews after the contest is over. There is no time for that. He needs to get back home to shower and dress for his 50th Robersonville High School reunion.

“I’ll be on the Belle of Washington for a three-hour boat cruise on the Pamlico,” he said. “They’ll be serving dinner, and I will be eating. I’m serious.”

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