Text and photos by Ray Linville
Would you compete in a collard-eating contest? It’s an event I would rather watch, particularly after learning that the winner has to eat almost six pounds in half an hour.
Collard-eating contests have been held in the town of Ayden in Pitt County for as long as most people can remember. The home of the official N.C. Collard Festival, Ayden has a lot of collard aficionados, and they come out in droves on the second weekend of each September when the festival, held annually since 1979, honors the humble but nutritious leafy green.
The collard-eating contest is the highlight of the festival and draws a large crowd. Each contestant begins with a one-pound container of collards cooked by the legendary Bum’s Restaurant. It’s located only a few yards away from the main stage where the contestants assemble. Bum’s is famous for the collards grown and served by Larry Dennis, the restaurant’s owner, although it’s even better known for barbecue cooked slowly over hardwood coals in the eastern N.C. style of whole hog cooking.
The crowd becomes very animated as the contest proceeds to the end of the 30-minute eating period, and then quickly hushes to see if any contestants ask for a “barf” bag. A free bag is cheerfully provided by the organizers when needed. It’s one of the few perks that contestants receive besides all the free collards they can eat. Cornbread, vinegar, tea, water, and paper towels are also provided—but no bathrooms, says Emily Dunn, who is the contest’s entertaining master of ceremonies and also a granddaughter of Latham “Bum” Dennis, the restaurant’s founder.
The rules are simple: Eat as many pounds of collards as possible in 30 minutes—and then wait five more minutes before the winners can be declared. The extra minutes are to make sure that the collards “stay down,” says Dunn. If not, the contestant is disqualified, and the winning prize goes to the person who has eaten the second highest amount—and kept them down. “After the eating stops, the waiting game and fun begins,” said Dunn. Yes, an overachiever has lost the prize during the wait period, and it happened during the event that I watched.
Dunn keeps the crowd interested with her quips. She says that contestants last year consumed 45 pounds of collards. This year, about 60 pounds were brought to the main stage for the event. “Don’t worry,” Dunn says, “We won’t run out. There’s more across the street if we need it.”
To avoid any gender advantage, the festival awards $100 and a plaque to the winning male and female contestants. Because the record for a female contestant is 6½ pounds and the male record is 8½ pounds, only the serious enter. Dunn said that a pound is about three servings in the restaurant, so the winners are really eating a lot. Training in advance evidently is not necessary because Mario Christianto, the male winner for the past three years, eats collards only once a year—at the festival.
Ayden Collard Festival
Collard Eating Contest