You know it's not going to be a normal trip to Key West when you text a friend who lives in Old Town in order to make plans and he casually mentions, "By the way, you're busy on Sunday . . . because I entered you in a conch fritter-eating contest."
Then again, when is any trip to Key West a normal one???
We arrived on a gorgeous October morning and were quickly whisked away to the Paradise Inn on Simonton Street, a secluded oasis of calm amid the cacophony on Duval Street of noisy bars, drunken boors, and the kind of people who participate in competitive eating contests.
But peaceful as Paradise Inn may be, this is still Key West.
Our "usual" suite on the second floor overlooking the pool was unavailable, so we took the one next door instead.
After a quick change of clothes, we headed over to Lagerheads, a cheery Caribbean-style spot on the water near the Key West Bight.
We snagged two seats at the bar, then ordered up crab cakes, fish tacos, some smoked fish dip, and a couple of frozen drinks to get ourselves into island mode.
Afterwards we biked around for a bit, then headed back to Paradise Inn to laze around the pool.
Later, we stopped by Louie's to usher in the sunset.
We checked out some of the island's Halloween decorations on our way back to the hotel.
Back at the hotel, we devoured the pizza we'd picked up along the way, then called it a night.
The next day we met up with friends Stephanie and Ari at Hot Tin Roof for brunch.
It's always nice when they're expecting you.
Hot Tin Roof has a great brunch deal: For a set price, you can order anything on the menu -- in any order, and as much as you want -- and they'll serve it up with unlimited bottles of Prosecco and OJ, or unlimited Bloody Marys if that's your thing. And so what is billed as "brunch" is really an all-you-drink vodka-and-Prosecco party with everything from chicken and waffles with cayenne maple butter to compressed watermelon salad with tequila and feta to sesame tuna with crispy pork belly. Oh, and pancakes.
That afternoon, our friend Mark invited us to stop by for a slice (or three) of the homemade key lime pie he'd made for me.
Which was one of the nicest things anyone's ever done for me, especially after I've shamelessly accosted them on social media every time they post a photo of anything even resembling a pie.
He even saved the limes as proof that he really made the pie from scratch, since he knows I am suspicious of anyone who claims to use their oven for anything other than shoe storage.
That evening it was time to start preparing for the conch fritter-eating contest, so I did what any competitive athlete would do: I headed over to Abbondanza for some carbo-loading.
I love pasta, but I was even more excited about the meatballs.
That cheesy chicken parm was no slouch, either.
The next morning we made a beeline for Agave 308 for some last-minute preparations for the conch-fritter eating contest: Tequila for courage and tacos for...ever.
The conch fritter-eating contest was the brainchild of the aforementioned Mark, he of the fabulous key lime pie and even more fabulous Key West Food and Wine Festival, an annual bacchanal of food and booze at which I have engaged in various questionable behaviors that I have heard rumors about but do not actually remember. The fritter-eating contest was just another of Mark's evil plots to make sure everyone who visits Key West leaves with an XXL pair of elastic-waist pants and plans for a juice fast.
A big crowd turned out to watch us all make fools of ourselves.
I checked in with our friend Deb (who was clearly skeptical that a skinny chick like me stood a chance at this thing -- especially one who doesn't particularly like conch fritters), then signed a waiver that said something about how I wouldn't sue if I ended up in a ditch with a belly full of fried dough.
We'd arranged to meet up with friends Jessica and Jeff, who came to cheer me on (and, in Jeff's case, be goaded into participating himself).
Of course, I dressed appropriately for the big event.
Or at least I thought I did.
I'd told Mark beforehand that I would be wearing a conch dress in honor of the occasion, and at the contest he sweetly presented me with an award for "Best Dressed."
However, when I tried to duck out of the contest since I'd already "won," he snatched my Major Award back, forcing me to actually participate before he'd turn it over.
The competitors were grouped into four heats, mine being the last. Of course, because this is Key West, it wouldn't be enough to just have a conch fritter-eating contest; there had to be a twist.
We couldn't use our hands.
And adding insult to injury, the day was windy. Really windy. I'd worn my hair down and didn't have anything to pull it back with. And so I suddenly realized that while I had no chance of winning a conch fritter-eating contest that day, I stood a very good chance of winning a hairball-eating contest.
Of course, that didn't stop Mark from drawing a tapeworm on my name card, or stop me from bragging that I'd already won (at least the fashion portion of the competition).
The first three heats were a tough act to follow, putting up some impressive numbers.
Jared and Kevin were tied for first with 14 fritters each, but then Big Don ascended the dais . . . and quickly ascended to the top of the pack.
But not without some not-so-gentle "encouragement" from his girlfriend, who pounded on the table so violently that we figured Big Don was Dead Don if he didn't top 14.
Luckily, having downed an impressive 16 fritters in three minutes flat, Big Don seemed like a shoo-in to win . . . until my heat. I'm not saying this thing was rigged, but it can't be a coincidence that The Tapeworm was seated between two guys who ended up placing in the top three.
Sadly, however, I failed miserably when it came to living up to my reputation, at least for eating food. I'd downed roughly 2.5 fritters and an entire head's worth of human hair before giving up and chugging some wine.
Which did not go unnoticed by at least one disgusted competitor.
Meantime, Big Don's record of 16 fritters was about to be shattered by the unassuming Pac-Man on my left, Loren, who was gobbling up fritters as fast as they could bring them.
In the end, Loren bested everyone, including Big Don, to take home the prize, having somehow managed to scarf down a whopping 19 conch fritters in just three minutes.
It's always the skinny ones you gotta watch out for.
Wanna stick it to Hurricane Irma and your own liver? Get your tickets for January 2018 Key West Food and Wine Festival here: https://www.keywestfoodandwinefestival.com/