"I'm totally normal, no stomachache or anything"
07/26/03, Mobile Register
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Last Sunday, Joe "Big Joe" Evans was at the end of his first week on the much-ballyhooed Atkins low-carbohydrate diet and he was hungry for some oysters.
See, theoretically you can eat all the seafood you want on that particular diet, as long as it's not fried or cooked in sugar somehow. So he and a few pals decided to go to Wintzell's Oyster House in downtown Mobile for a bite of late lunch.
And eat he did.
When the Fairhope resident stood up after he had finished his "meal," not only had he broken the restaurant's existing raw oyster-eating record by eating 403 oysters (31 baker's dozen oysters), he did it in less than 46 minutes.
That's one oyster about every seven seconds.
In fact, he actually broke the old record in just 20 minutes, surpassing the old mark of 21 dozen by Heather Andrews set on Sept. 30, 1997. He coasted the rest of the way, eating at a leisurely pace and enjoying the moment.
"I kinda did it on a lark, you might say," Evans, 35, said with a laugh. "I asked the guys with me if they'd be will ing to back me up and they said they would so I decided to give it a run," he said.
His dining companions -- Bob Condon, Monsignor Michael Kelly, Clay Rankin, Christy Straughn, Alan Russell and John Blum -- pledged their support. The race was on.
He had no intention of going for the record when he and his pals sat down. His breakfast of bacon and eggs was only a distant memory, and he was hungry.
He opened the menu and noticed that right on the inside cover was the current record and it just set him off. "I saw what the record was and just figured I could beat it," he said.
They call him Big Joe for a reason; he stands over 6 feet 4 inches and tips the scales at more than 300 pounds. It was his time, he said.
So, just precisely how does one go about eating about 2 sacks of raw oysters? In Evans' case, he bellied up to the famous oyster bar, cinched up his britches and told Wintzell's General Manager Emerson Morris that he was going to make a run for it and sat back and waited.
Morris obliged the request. They like it when people make a go at the record. He had one request, though.
"Actually, we asked him to wait because we didn't have enough shuckers on hand to keep up the pace," Morris said. While they fetched in another shucker, Morris and his staff shucked up about 10 dozen or so just to get him going.
At 4:30 p.m., the clock officially started and Big Joe Evans picked up his fork and began to eat.
His strategy was simple: "I load up 3-4 oysters on a fork at the time," Evans said. He ate the oysters unadorned -- no cocktail sauce, no crackers, nothing.
At one point he heeded the advice of some onlookers and tried squeezing lemon juice on them, just for something different. Big Joe quickly figured out that the lemon didn't taste right, so he went back to having them sans seasoning, he said.
Bob Omansky, the general manager for Wintzell's, said he was there at the beginning of Evans' run for glory, but he left right after the eating started. He'd seen this before.
At least five or six times a year, Omansky said, some hardy soul will come in and with much bravado announce that he was making a run at the record. Many try, but only very, very few succeed; the old record, for example, stood for seven years.
"We had a guy come in out west (at the 6700 Airport Blvd., Wintzell's branch) a couple months ago with his girlfriend to challenge the record. He got through seven dozen before he called it quits," Omansky said.
The rules of the contest are simple: Anybody who has the mettle can challenge the record at any time, but they must consume the oysters in one hour's time and they must eat them on the half shell while seated at the oyster bar.
Winners get $25 bucks. The wall behind the long oyster bar bears the names of past winners along with their elapsed times in a sort of oyster-eating hall of fame.
Oh, one other thing: if you don't break the record, you have to pay for the ones you did eat. In Evans' case, he and his backers would have had to pony up $265 if he'd come up short.
About 10 minutes into the spectacle, Morris began to suspect that they may, indeed, be witnessing history. "The shuckers were keeping ahead, barely," he said. It was about then that he called Omansky to alert him that the record was in serious jeopardy.
While Evans is no delicate flower, even he was taken aback somewhat by the ease of his performance.
A Mobilian by birth (a product of the old Providence Hospital), Evans spent the better part of the last 2 years living and working in Michigan. When he returned home recently, he was ready for some good Gulf seafood.
At the 20-minute mark, the old record fell. A cheer went up from the rapidly growing crowd of diners who had abandoned their meals and come to see. Evans pressed on, a fork at a time. With the record safely in hand, he slowed his pace a bit and began to enjoy himself some. He kept up a fairly good pace, downing the oysters from Heron Bay in south Mobile County two and three at a time.
At 5:17 p.m., he put down his fork and announced that he was finished. A loud cheer filled the restaurant.
Not once during or after the ordeal did Evans say he felt anything but fine. "I'm totally normal, no stomachache or anything," he said.
Evans posed for pictures, accepted the adulation of the crowd and offered his vital statistics for the record book. He left the oyster bar with his belly full and a $25 check in his pocket.
That night for dinner he nibbled at some takeout Chinese and a handful or two of pork rinds, but he wasn't very hungry.
As for the new record, Morris said the record is pretty safe for a while. That doesn't mean he wouldn't like to see somebody try and beat it.
"Oh, I'd love for somebody to come in and have a go at it. But if they do try, they're gonna have to get off on a good foot,' he said.
The scary part is that Evans, who prior to setting the new Wintzell's record had never eaten more than two or three dozen oysters at a time, said he's got more in him. "I think I can beat it," he said.
Where Evans stands in the pantheon of oyster eaters remains unclear. The Guinness folks keep a number of oyster-eating records, most of them based on speed.
As for the Atkins diet plan, Evans is still on it; but he also realizes that he's not going to lose a lot of weight by gorging himself on more than 400 oysters on a regular basis. While he may have followed the letter of the diet, what he did most likely didn't follow the spirit of the plan.