After doubling the world escargot-eating record, after leaving nine opponents stunned and staring blankly into greasy reflecting ponds of garlic and butter sauce, Thomas "The Muskrat" Greene downed his 350th snail, patted the crest of his 40-inch waist, lit up a Winston and said, "I've had enough." Thirty seconds remained on the clock, but a champion always knows when it's over.
Greene broke the record set in a Paris disco in 1979 by 367-pound Marc Quinquandon, who downed 144 escargots in 11 minutes, 30 seconds, and died one day later. In case of emergency, the sponsor, Dominique's restaurant, had doctors and an ambulance (as well as a half-dozen buckets) on hand for yesterday's Bastille Day competition. Expect this champ to live. "I feel fine," Greene said. "I just sit down and eat 'em."
After all, Green's been to the summit before; he owns the Guinness World record for oyster eating, too, having devoured 250 oysters in 3 minutes, 56 seconds. "I think I like the oyster better. Escargots are a little rubbery," said Greene. "I didn't eat anything this morning, but last night I ate three sandwiches, big ones.But now I want a beer." As for the grand-prize trip to Paris, Greene said, "My grandmother is going. Not me."
Using a spoon and a methodical style, he outdistanced second-place finisher Thomas Spears, who used everything but his feet to shovel in 250 snails. And he all but humiliated South Carolina challenger Frank Kveton. Before the competition, Kveton, at 6 feet 6 inches, 270 pounds, loomed in front of TV cameras and proclaimed Ali-style: "I will whip them, I'm gonna win." When the race was only 1 minutes, 30 seconds, old, Greene -- at only 5 feet 10 inches and 215 pounds -- had already finished 150 snails, and Kveton lost his appetite. "Jesus," was all he said.
A disappointed Jay Malnik had trained hard, regularly eating 20 dozen oysters as a gastronomical exercise. But he, too, fell short of "The Muskrat," coming in third with 225 escargots.
There were more than 300 applicants for the contest, and one of the chosen, Suzanne Salinger, daughter of ABC Paris bureau chief Pierre Salinger, was a disappointing gorger. She could manage only 40 or so snails. "I think I'm their idea of a joke," said Salinger. "I told my father if he could fall on his a-- while covering the Olympics in Innsbruck, I could get sick here." Throwing up was about the only thing against the rules, but everyone held onto their Gallic lunches.
Dominique D'Ermo said he had to buy 3,000 canned escargots in preparation for the competition. But don't cry for him or his restaurant all afternoon, and the waiters kept the $15 fixed-menu lunches moving and the $36 bottles of Lanson's Black Label flowing.
After the snail eaters trailed off for drinks and a little Bromo, 120 men and women, each balancing a tray holding two splits of champagne and two glasses, lined up for the seventh annual Bastille Day race for waiters. From Dominique's to the White House and back. A 12-block course. The grand prize at stake -- a roundtrip ticket to Paris for one via Air France Concorde, with complimentary lodging at the Hotel Lotti for three days.
D'Ermo called the racers to their marks and popped open at 7.6-quart bottle of champagne to sound the start. While the waiters carefully ran their course, D'Ermo poured out a stream of bubbly to dozens of upraised glasses.
"This race takes place in every major city in France," said D'Ermo, who left Lyon 25 years ago. "I love France for love and food, but politically, especially with the Socialists, I don't trust them. Eventually it will be Communists, too. I think we'll have to land there and free them again soon."
Even if the day's celebration was commerating France's political revolution, no one could have mistaken the escargots and champagne for left-wing political symbols. Nowhere a rose. Instead there were signs reading: "Let Them Eat Cake -- Marie Antoinette; Let Them Eat Rattlesnake -- Dominique."
Everyone put aside their cold lobster and tenderloin to watch Steve Lewis of Tiffin's Restaurant cross the finish line, pop his cork, pour out a glass of champagne and take the title at 9 minutes, 35 seconds.
As Lewis accepted his prize, Jay Malnik, once a voracious eater, stepped in a clump of escargots on the curb. He stared down at his foot and could not believe it "More snails," he said. "Oh God."