In ten minutes a man can eat an awful lot of cabbage, if he sets his mind to it, and one day I met a man with just such a will. His name was Bill Whellish and he hailed from some little farming village in southern Missouri that no-one I ever heard of has ever heard of yet. Sitting at a train stop in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Bill and I got to talking, and this is one of the many fascinating things he told me: cabbage alone can give an ordinary fellow an outstanding case of intestinal gas, but if you combine that with a constitutional predisposition to flatulence and a contest designed specifically, even scientifically, to encourage the consumption of a great deal of the stuff, then there really is a potential for trouble. Here's how he sketched out the details of this scenario.
In his part of the country, there just wasn't much of interest going on: some college football, an occasional scandalous dalliance with a high school cheerleader, a fair deal of bad home-made liquor, quilting bees. But mostly boredom of the common rural variety. And cabbage.
In a fine season, when the Good Lord has sent rain aplenty and put the bugs over in Arkansas, there can be miles and miles of the leafy little spheres. Even people who would otherwise swear it has no smell at all (and there are many) will drive through the place and feel ripe with the stink of raw cabbage in their clothes and hair. The year is divided into two main fields of activity: making cabbage come strong and healthy into this world and getting it the hell out of town as quickly as possible. It was at the end of this second season, with just a little too much stock than the market or local stomachs could bear, that Bill Whellish came up with the idea that bagged him just over one hundred dollars in cash and a permanent invitation to stay out of Kansas City, Missouri forever.
The idea was to take this surplus cabbage, with the whole-hearted approval of his neighbors, and truck it up to the Big City to see if he could get rid of it in a profitable and even legal way. Otherwise he'd just dump it into the Mississippi and let the catfish bloat on it. A lot of these cities, full of people who've never seen a living vegetable in its natural lair, have a kind of get-together called 'farmer's markets,' where actual farming folk sell their vegetables and whatnot at extra steep prices by telling the city types that the food is organic. This means 'grown outside of all the filthy chemicals we take for granted in cities.' So Bill, who swore that his people's produce was as clean as the preacher's diary, he took his cabbage-hauling truck to a farmer's market to see what'd bite.
And on this particular day at this particular farmer's market, there was a pie eating contest all set up for two in the afternoon. Many people had come just for that. It had been announced on the radio. The only problem was that, on this particular day, about four miles from this particular farmer's market, a pie-hauling truck had overturned on the highway and there was not one whole pie to be salvaged for the contest. Gosh, and there was to be a cash prize and everything. It looked as if only the crows on the interstate would qualify, now. But this gave Bill an idea.
True, it was too late to make proper pies out of his half ton of cabbage, and there was neither money nor labor to invest in making a giant coleslaw, but he had a magic word on his side, and he intended to use it. That word, of course, was 'organic.' Bill just singled out the man in charge of the contest, a skinny fellow in brand new overalls (he'd obviously never worn any before) and a look on his face of being bested by fate. Bill walked up to him and, clearing his throat, said, "Sir, I am William Whellish and I think I can help you solve your problem."
Well, those are powerful words in any situation and this fellow, whose name was Harlan Ponty, looked into Bill's face of honest rusticity and asked how this could be. And Bill told him. "First, take some paint and scratch out the word 'Pie' on all of these signs," he said, pointing around at the many advertisements for the contest. "But don't cover the word completely, just an 'X'. Then, write above that 'Organic Cabbage.' At the bottom of the sign, write Men Only'."
"But I don't think we can get away with such blatant gender discrimination. Why does it need to be men only?" asked Mr. Ponty.
"Well, first of all," replied Bill, "how many women have you ever seen competing in public to prove that they can eat the most of anything?" Mr. Ponty conceded that point. "And second, men love pie, but they love to look like real men even more. If we make it look like we're upping the stakes, like no pansy fruit pie is challenging enough, why, I reckon we'll have a lot of these real men hooked."
Right was right, and Mr. Ponty agreed to the tactic, but not to the gender exclusivity clause, so they struck 'Men Only' and decided on 'Are You Man Enough?' Even better, thought Bill, though he wondered if there actually were any real men living in cities, especially after Mr. Ponty asked whether he thought cabbage went best with red or white wine.
But soon the details were worked out and the signs changed and, sure enough, come 1:30 the entrants were filing in, each with their five dollar entrance fee. And yes, they were invariably manly enough, and Bill never heard wine mentioned at all. Twenty-one fellows signed up altogether, and Mr. Ponty said that, to tell the truth, those pies would only have brought in eight or nine. It was already a success! Luckily they had brought enough plastic bibs for everyone. Not that raw cabbage is particularly messy, but it makes for good theater.
So, came the hour of truth and the contestants were at their seats, hands bound behind them and a metal pie tin before each one. In the background of the rousing speech given by Mr. Ponty the activity of placing on each tin a single head of raw cabbage (carefully hosed down beforehand to minimize weevils and sand) was taking place. Soon the crowd settled into an expectant hush. Mr. Ponty asked if everything was ready and raised his left hand. In his right he held a stopwatch. Each man had exactly ten minutes to eat the maximum number of cabbage heads. And with a swift downward gesture, the Great Organic Cabbage-Eating Contest was on.
There was at first a tremendous rush at the heads, some larger than those of the contestants themselves. Gaping mouths charged and pecked at their leafy prey with ferocious grace. Some tried to gouge little holes from the mass before them, while others opted for a kind of peel and nibble approach. For all it was a frustrating task, no doubt, with the crowd cheering madly to egg them on. But soon a couple of minutes had passed and not a single head of cabbage showed significant signs of wear. There was a long, breathless moment when Bill could feel the emotional tide turn in one great and subtle shift from harmless country fun to feral animal ire.
At that point Bill, who had collected the entrance fees, backed slowly toward his now cabbage-free truck. He could feel a kind of ancient genetic frustration building in the crowd. What kind of animal, hunting or no, had its teeth so close to its nose and eyes? Why had God put no snout on the human being? It was painful to watch these obviously manly men pounding their faces into seemingly defenseless vegetables and losing so badly. It was no longer a contest of man against man, but one of man against his inability to control nature. The general fury mounted. The womenfolk began to weep for their sons and husbands. Mr. Ponty felt a light thud against his leg and realized that someone had thrown a bundle of organic celery at him. The smell of vegetal blood was in the air. At this point, Bill was just closing himself into the truck and locking the door.
Like a match igniting, as if in slow motion yet with a perfect inevitability, the crowd began to rise as one body and reach into the stands of the innocent farmers around them for something to chuck with full force into the air, without target or reason or purpose. For a moment it was like the triumphant rage of a band of warriors out of the middle east, discharging their firearms straight into the open sky with piercing cries of release. But, though we never see the footage on TV, each bullet must descend in its arc, and so each peach and tomato and handful of snap peas.
When this hail of organic produce hit the crowd in mute retaliation, each person passed over a moment of shock and straight into a dark red mood of provocation. The wanton vegetable violence of the scene astounded even the sturdiest veterans of many a college cafeteria food fight of years long past. The contestants struggled to rise and shake off their bondage and bibs, yearning fiercely to hurl cabbage from the fullness of their vengeance. Pumpkins and squash did fly. There was heard the hard smack of onion against chest, the soft liquid squish of pears and melons in hair, subtle music in a raging orchestra of organic produce. Pecans were lodged in ears and dried apricots wedged deep in the shoes of the damned.
Bill had the truck revved up and was starting to back out on the massacre when his instincts caught another mysterious shift occurring amongst the multitude. It started when a young lady caught a peach-smeared skein of hair in the mouth from a nearby whirling hippie. She responded by pressing a basket of berries into his beard and lo, they laughed! Together the two commenced a gentle strategic assault on their fellows' mouths with fruit and nut. Spontaneously, the crowd began to sample the very armaments with which they had been pelting their own kind. One by one, their flailing subsided and calmer gestures from hand to mouth prevailed. Lovers began to feed one another, turning the bare heat of violence to a smoldering and forbidden semi-public lust. Cries of anger and disgust melted in tone, and the still loud murmur became a cathartic moan of lush abundance. They had conquered the Organic Vegetable threat, and there was unleashed an orgy of healthy communal feasting.
Bill had seen enough. These city people obviously could not handle themselves in a civilized way. As he backed up his truck to return to home and sanity, a lumpy multicolored mass of steaming pulp was flung against the door with a hot, swampy 'flump!' The vague shape of a human face slid half-way down the window in horror. It was Mr. Ponty.
"Don't you ever come back to this town again, you communist! I'm giving your name to the Mayor! The Governor! You'll never sell cabbage in this state again, Bellish!" And he slumped to the ground, a deflated man, as Bill backed up and left Kansas City forever.
Bill Whellish, then, was the hero of his little town when he got back. Everyone had seen it on the evening news. The townsfolk would have been content just to know that Bill had gotten rid of the burdensome surplus, but now he was a celebrity. Already wild tales were circulating; of how he'd made ten thousand dollars on it, of how the very devil had possessed the entire crowd and the Good Lord and Bill had tamed them together. It was, as he told me there at the train station, something else.
There was even held a little celebration in the center of town, with a proper cabbage eating contest and all. Of course, to a tribe bred from generations of cabbage eaters trained in the craft, such a contest was hardly the mayhem that occurred in Kansas City. Bill himself ate four heads whole in ten minutes, and came in third! Now, as his train arrived, he was philosophical about the whole affair.
"Those city folk spent the next week more regular than ever in their lives. It was a blessing in disguise. People from every county around there report huge increases in the demand for their organic produce from that town. Just goes to show."
He didn't say what it went to show, but he didn't have to. The awesome mystery of the workings of the universe had let escape a little whiff from its tight bag of secrets. And that reminded me...
"That's a remarkable story, Bill," I said as he got up to catch his train, "but I guess I expected it to end in a hurricane of cabbage-induced flatulence."
"Ah, no," said Bill. "That's just malicious lies! Nothing settles the stomach better than cabbage. You should eat some every day." And off he went for greener fields.