I have eaten my weight in hamburgers and then some during my lifetime, but up until this past weekend, I had never consumed a slugburger. The city of Corinth, less than an hour north of Tupelo near the Tennessee line, was hosting its 30th annual Slugburger Festival, so I decided it was time to blaze a new trail in experiencing Mississippi culture.
Just what is a slugburger, you may ask? First of all, it does not contain actual slugs. It is a culinary phenomenon unique to Corinth and surrounding towns within perhaps a 100-mile radius. It consists of ground beef or pork, plus a starchy “extender” such as cornmeal or soybean flour, an amalgamation of protein and carbs deep-fried to a golden brown because, after all, this is the Deep South. It is typically garnished with mustard, pickles, and onions.
Corinth was founded in 1853 as Cross City, taking its name from the junction for the Mobile & Ohio and Memphis & Charleston railroads. A local newspaper editor eventually suggested the name of Corinth after the city in Greece that also served as a crossroads, but I’m pretty sure that’s where the similarities end. Slugburgers came along in 1917, when John Weeks, a Chicago transplant, began making and selling them. They were sold for a nickel, then commonly called a “slug,” hence the name.
You can get slugburgers year-round in Corinth, but you might as well find a reason to take in the Slugburger Festival while you’re at it, even though in these parts, any “(Insert Food Commodity or Ethnic Heritage Name Here) Festival” is typically some version of a county fair featuring a rinky-dink amusement midway and musical acts of regional renown at best. And these ensembles are populated with overgrown middle-aged to geriatric adolescents who have no chance of making it any farther than the county fair circuit.
The Slugburger Festival features all of these elements, but what elevates it an additional notch or two is that it also has the World Slugburger Eating Championship, officially sanctioned by Major League Eating. That really was the draw for me, as I had never witnessed a professional eating competition in person, but before taking in this spectacle pitting human grit and determination against alimentary canal reflexes and stomach capacity Saturday afternoon, I needed to experience the slugburger for myself.
After a 15-minute wait, my husband and I found ourselves perched on two stools at the end of the counter at Borroum’s Drug Store and Soda Fountain (“Mississippi’s Oldest, established in 1865”), across from the courthouse in the center of town, for lunch. At $1.75, the slugburger was the cheapest sandwich on the menu. I don’t eat pickles or raw onions and wanted to mitigate the expected digestive distress anyway, so I limited my condiments to mustard. I rounded out my meal with tater tots and a side of fruit and washed the whole mess down with a vanilla Coke. My less adventurous husband opted for a chicken wrap.
The slugburger arrived along with the tater tots nestled in a red plastic basket lined with parchment paper, the encrusted edges of the quarter-inch thick burger peeking out from underneath a bun roughly 4-5 inches in diameter. I added my fruit cup — which had inexplicably arrived first in a separate basket and actually contained fresh fruit, except for a few cling peach wedges fresh from the can — to bring it all together.
Describing the taste of a slugburger is an exercise in futility, I’m sad to say, because there’s not much to it. The tang of yellow mustard dominated my first fairly generous bite. I subsequently attempted a more mindful nibble around the perimeter of the burger, hearing a faint crunch of the crust, then pausing as I tried to determine what would register on my taste buds beyond the texture.
Nothing. I peered at the cross-section of where I had bitten as if examining growth rings on a tree trunk. The inner layer was an opaque white substance. What was pork mixed with filler, then pulverized into a thin disk breaded and fried beyond all recognition, supposed to taste like, exactly? Was I kidding myself by wondering if it kind of-sort of tasted like a fried pork chop? Was that feeling in the pit of my stomach mild indigestion, or existential nausea? I concluded that this was the “Seinfeld” of burgers – a sandwich about nothing. At least the fruit had some nutritional value.
Not long after we rolled out of the drug store and back into the humidity, it started pouring. We sought refuge inside the car, and I was determined to hang on for the World Slugburger Eating Championship no matter what. After all, we had missed the coronation of Miss Slugburger Festival 2017 (this had winners in seven age groups) that morning, not to mention the Slug Voice singing competition two nights before.
After a 45-minute rain delay, the opening ceremonies got underway in front of the entertainment stage. Ten competitors – including Joey Chestnut, somewhat fresh off his latest Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest victory on July 4 – were in the hunt for a combined $3,000 in prize money going to the top three finishers in the 10-minute contest.
The emcee was an Australian by the name of Sam Barclay, outfitted with a straw boater hat befitting the carnival barker vibe he exuded throughout the proceedings. Barclay dutifully acknowledged about a half-dozen sponsors, most crucially Magnolia Regional Health Center, which provided the required EMT on site. Once the chowdown of fully dressed slugburgers (mustard, onion and pickle) began in earnest, he paced back and forth behind the competitors, providing running commentary on chewing and swallowing techniques and noting who was “eating clean” and who was showering the ground with debris (Chestnut was among the slobs called out). At one point, he opined that the lone woman in the field was eating at “a polite Thanksgiving pace.”
When the crumbs finally settled, Chestnut was declared the winner for the second year in a row, claiming the top prize of $1,500. He successfully pushed 35 slugburgers past his esophagus, six fewer than last year and well short of the world record of 43 held by fellow competitive eater Matt Stonie, who wasn’t present to defend it this year.
As far as I could tell, what went down stayed down, and the EMT’s services weren’t needed. Chestnut looked pretty pained and exhausted from the whole ordeal but graciously posed for selfies with spectators afterward. Meanwhile, the fiber from the small portion of fruit I’d eaten earlier wasn’t enough to counteract the sluggishness induced by the fried foods in my stomach. In the end, the slugburger wasn’t the worst thing I’ve eaten, but I can’t fathom consuming more than one in one sitting, regardless of whether there’s a clock to beat.