At first, Tim Brown’s parents thought maybe he was a little crazy.

He called home from college one day and told them he had just become the burrito-eating champion of Indianapolis.

OK, they thought. He’s their son, he’s in college. Let him have a good time.

Then came the grilled-cheese eating competition in Detroit a couple of years ago. Tim came in third in that contest and won a little money. Next, he downed 22 brats in the bratwurst-eating championship in Sheboygan, Wis., and made it onto ESPN.

More recently, Brown has inhaled 25 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Thirty-eight Krystal hamburgers in eight minutes. And, oh yes, 8.47 pounds of blueberry pie in 8 minutes, a second-place finish that won him $600 in prize money.

Last year Brown, who is 29 and works as a marketing manager in Chicago, was ranked 47th in the world of competitive eating. During the past year, his ”rookie year,” he has chewed through the ranks of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, rising to the No. 15 position.

Jim and Linda Brown, who own the Upper Deck Cafe in Boothbay Harbor, say their son has always been a big eater. When he was small, they had to tell him to slow down and chew his food. Now, his father says, ”we’re kind of happy he didn’t listen to us.”

”He’s nibbling around the edges of the top 10,” Jim Brown said proudly. ”For somebody who has no experience and wasn’t very involved in it, he’s risen very quickly to where he is.”

This summer Tim ”Gravy” Brown, as he is now known on the competitive-eating circuit, made the finals of Nathan’s Famous 4th of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, the Super Bowl of competitive eating. The contest was broadcast on ESPN and featured on the network morning shows. He will fly to Las Vegas soon to participate in a Spike TV special on competitive eating.

And the Browns will be in South Portland on Saturday to watch their son compete in the Costa Vida World Burrito Eating Championship. He’ll be facing off against some of the top competitive eaters in the United States, including Sonya Thomas of Alexandria, Va., aka ”The Black Widow,” who won the world lobster-eating championship in Kennebunk two years ago.

The contest involves inhaling as many Costa Vida ”Big Kahuna” burritos as possible in 12 minutes. The burritos are filled with 18 ounces of rice, beans, sweet pork and cheese.

I caught up with Tim Brown the day after he competed in the La Costeña ”Feel the Heat” Jalapeño Eating Challenge in Chicago. He downed 80 jalapeños in just six minutes, which may seem impressive to the rest of us, but Brown was a little disappointed with his performance. Seems the organizers were running out of peppers and cut the contest short, leaving Brown at a disadvantage even though he had come up with a winning strategy for consuming the jalapeños without taking on too much heat.

”For these jalapeños, it’s such a volatile fluid that they just allowed you to do whatever you needed to do to get them down,” Brown said. ”It’s tough, so I had chocolate milk and a 4-pound tub of sour cream. And I was taking them down as fast as possible. It was a good time. It was supposed to be an 8-minute competition, and some guys are sprinters and some guys are good up front. I consider myself a good sprinter, and they just cut it off two minutes before it was supposed to end.”

Chocolate milk and jalapeños? A good time?

Sure, competitive eaters get to swallow some pretty good stuff, like pizza and birthday cake. Some unusual things, too – there are contests for everything from deep-fried asparagus to Hamentaschen, or traditional Purim cookies. But professional competitive eaters also have to put up with events that ask them to consume things like cabbage, bologna and pickled beef tongue.

Brown, who is trying to crack the Top 10, now regrets passing on the World Pigs’ Feet Eating Championship in New Jersey in June.

”Usually they have a slate of 10 or 15 for each event, and only four guys were daring enough to try it,” he said. ”I really should have gone to that one because my goal right now is to get my first record, to get something up there. And something like that is a good place to go.”

Brown spent summers in Maine as a child and still visits his parents here regularly. (No wonder he did so well in that blueberry pie competition.) He looks at competitive eating as a good way to travel and make friends all over the country. Part of his expenses are covered if he wins some cash, and in some cases he gets hotel and transportation, too. He was flown to New York, for example, by the organizers of the Nathan’s hot-dog contest, and they put him up in the W Hotel.

”They give you a wad of cash to spend when you get off the plane,” he said. ”They treat you really well.”

Brown knows he can also win a healthy second income on the circuit if his appetite is hearty enough. Some of the top eaters can make $30,000 to $60,000 a year. Right now, Brown is going through qualifying rounds trying to make it into the finals of the Krystal hamburger competition. The purse at the November championship in Chattanooga will be $30,000.

Brown prepares for contests by being his own kind of couch potato: He sits down a couple of times a week with 10 pounds of cucumber or asparagus and tries to eat it all while he’s watching television. He also does ”water training,” gulping down a gallon of water in 3 or 4 minutes.

”What I need to work on is I hit a wall (in food competitions) around 6 or 7 minutes, and I need to really be able to eat past that,” he said. ”Right now it’s about stretching my stomach and getting my capacity up there.”

That’s the kind of training that allowed Brown to take third place last year in a horseshoe-sandwich-eating contest in Illinois.

”(The horseshoe) is, like, the regional sandwich in southern Illinois,” he said. ”It’s basically an open-faced Texas toast, hamburgers and then French fries, covered in cheese sauce.”

You might think that this kind of pastime would be bad for the waistline. But Brown, like many competitive eaters, has not let his hobby go to his hips. That’s one reason he trains with cucumbers instead of cookies. He also runs every day, and hits the gym six times a week. He’s actually lost weight, going from 230 pounds last year down to his current 195.

”I just figured if I was going to make a commitment to it, I was going to have to make a commitment to my health, too,” Brown said.

That doesn’t mean he’s free of, shall we say, issues.

He once threw up in an Arizona airport after a hot-dog competition and missed his plane. The ticket agent felt so sorry for him she waived the fee for changing his flight.

”It just happens,” he said. ”When you eat stuff like this, you get really dehydrated, so afterwards you crave water or something sweet. Especially if it’s a hot dog or a hamburger, you crave sugar, so you can’t help but drink. And so I was drinking water, I was drinking orange juice, and I was just getting fuller and fuller on top of all the things that I ate.”

And then there’s that nickname, bestowed upon him by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Why ”Gravy”?

Well, the explanation is too disgusting to go into here. Suffice it to say that, at the Nathan’s qualifying round in Hartford, Brown instructed his father to keep his mother in the back of the crowd ”because he didn’t want her to get upset about him eating all the hot dogs and the way he looked,” Jim Brown recalled.

His parents now not only recognize their son’s natural talent but encourage it, even putting up a little display in their Maine restaurant that honors his eating exploits.

Still, Jim Brown said, ”We’re hoping that this is just a hobby.”

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