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My mother and I both had early morning flights out of Birmingham on Sunday. We sat at her gate, talking and looking at the latest pictures of my kiddos on my phone. Two sets of travelers waited at her gate. Mom’s group had booked tickets to Dallas/Fort Worth. The following flight would go to Miami. When we approached the remarkably crowded gate at 6:00 a.m., the seats we found were close to the counter. While we talked, we noticed a woman approach the gate agents and ask if she could be put on the Miami flight. One agent got on the radio and asked a supervisor if they could accommodate the woman’s request. No, the answer came back, we can’t, because she has checked her luggage through to Dallas.
This tickled us to no end. We tried not to giggle loud enough for the woman to hear. What self-aplomb to make that kind of request in this era of air travel! You have to admire her. Several of my friends commented later that they’d often had the same impulse.
On that note, my mother boarded her plane, and I crossed the walkway to my own gate, where I encountered a man whose story interested me far more than the woman’s request, and who opened up a whole new segment of our popular culture for me.
It began when I took note of a gold trophy sitting on the seat next to this tall, fit young man. I sat down and scrolled through Facebook and Twitter, killing a little pre-boarding time. As the agents announced that first-class passengers could board, the trophy-winner asked the man next to him if he would mind carrying a camera case if the agents wouldn’t let him take his bag, his camera, and his trophy. The man demurred, saying, “No one’s ever asked me to carry something on an airplane before.” I had two bags, so I was of no help to him, but I spoke right up anyway. “He’s gone through security,” I remarked to the other man. “It’s safe; he just might not be allowed to carry three items instead of two.” Turning to the champion of who-knows-what, I said, “I’d do it if you let me carry the trophy!” He grinned; the other man loosened up and said, “Oh, sure, I’ll do it.”
With the problem solved, I asked the young man, who turned out to be 21-year-old Eric “Silo” Dahl, “What did you win?”
“I won the Salvation Army National Pecan Pie Eating Championship this weekend.”
“Wow!” I exclaimed. “How many did you eat?”
“Three and three-quarters pies in seven minutes.”
Y’all. Almost FOUR PIES in SEVEN MINUTES. That’s some major eating!
The security-conscious guy and I were totally sucked in. We found out quickly that Silo eats professionally. He studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, and travels around the country to eating contests, treating professional eating as his part-time job. He actually earns enough by eating to take care of his living expenses! He proudly sported an “All Pro Eating” shirt. When we asked him about that, it turns out that the company promotes eating events and has instituted contest rules to sanction specific events as professional ones. Sometimes, he said, All Pro will invite specific eaters to events. “The more competitive eaters, the more exciting the event,” Silo told us.
At this point, I rose to board. With a wistful chuckle, I told him, “Enjoy yourself. You won’t be doing this when you’re 40!”
When I got home, I told the kiddos about meeting Silo. Honey found the story fascinating and asked me more. How did he get started? Was he fat? Can he really earn enough money eating? I realized I’d let a golden opportunity slip through my fingers. How many times do you encounter a professional eater at your airport gate? Particularly one who can eat that much pecan pie?
I pulled out my phone and searched for “Salvation Army Pie-Eating Contest Birmingham.” Sure enough, there he was. Knowing his full name, I found him on Facebook. Eric “Silo” Dahl – Athlete. Athlete? For an eater? I sent him a message, and he was kind enough to answer my follow-up questions.
I had to ask about the “athlete” appellation first. Yes, he told me, that’s on purpose. “I take it as seriously as any other sport,” he said. “You’ve got to push your body to achieve a goal, just like any other sport.” Silo consumes 3000 calories a day to maintain his weight. He’s over 6 feet tall and he weighs 215 pounds (97.5 kilos). To eat 3000 calories, he said, he eats lots of vegetables. “Broccoli, lettuce, spinach. It takes a lot of those to make up 3000 calories. You’re getting your stomach accustomed to that amount of food.” Silo said he also brings his average calories down in the days just before a contest, then gradually brings them back up in the days after, so his average over the course of a week will still be around 3000 calories per day, “though of course there’s a spike on the day of the event.”
The nickname was my next query. It’s so apt, I commented. It seems like he must be hollow inside to be able to eat so much since he’s not overweight. “It came from my fourth or fifth event,” he told me. “It was an omelette-eating contest. I eat with headphones on, but some buddies were filming it when a guy said, ‘He’s gonna do it!’ and a lady told him, ‘It’s because he’s built like a silo.’ They picked up on it when we watched the video, and it stuck.”
How did he discover competitive eating? He started out at a 3-pound cheesesteak sandwich contest at his university, and it grew from there. He won $250 in a pulled pork sandwich contest in his hometown, and realized he could start to make money at this. “I’m eating for my education,” he said. “It’s a fun part-time job.” Now, Silo prepares for contests by getting familiar with the food he’ll be eating, and making some samples for himself to try out ahead of time.
During the busy period, usually from April to November, he may have more events scheduled. In May, he’ll compete four times. On average, though, he said he likes to schedule 1 1/2 to 2 events a month. “It’s easy to maintain a healthy weight when you compete in moderation,” he said. “It’s all about nutrition. The stereotype of an overweight eater is something I’m trying to change. A lot of the best eaters are at a pretty trim weight. Two of the best eaters are even skinny.”
Even so, he says, he agreed with me that he won’t be doing this at 40. “I probably don’t want to compete past 30. Like with a marathon, you put a lot of stress on your body doing this. I want to keep expanding my winnings and the ‘Silo’ brand and see where it takes me.”
Based on his poise, easygoing manner, and record, it looks like Silo will go far. I’m proud to have met him, and I’d love to run into him again one of these days. But I won’t be inviting him over for dinner, unless we have more than four pecan pies for dessert.