POULSBO — Much like a stewing vat of lye, Eric Perkins’ reputation as a legendary lutefisk lover seems to bubble and take on a life of its own as time passes.
Just recently coming to grips with what must have been an agonizing loss at the 2001 Viking Fest, Perkins was fresh and ready for this year’s challenge, consisting of nine other contestants and four pounds of the lye-soaked codfish.
It’s a Norwegian delicacy, really. Hard to believe when Miss Viking Fest Alex Duchemin described the regulations to the group.
“You’re not allowed to purge between rounds,” she said, stifling a laugh.
Duchemin also pointed out that in order to complete a round, advancing contestants not only had to clean their plates and the table of any loose fisk, but beards and mustaches as well.
The latter part of the rules led to serious controversy during last year’s event when Perkins raised his arms in false triumph only to lose by decision to Poulsbo’s Tom Westerlund. The judges found that even though Perkins’ plate was clear, his goatee and mouth still had lutefisk in them. An offense punishable by second place.
Keeping this in mind, the two-time champion was clean-shaven as he took his seat at Kvelstad Pavilion. The crowd cheered and members of the Perkins clan showed up in numbers, raising signs that stated: Eric fears no fish; Go champ, Eric #1; and even; Eric says, ‘Got fish?’
Westerlund also had his contingent of fans and, as returning champion, had plenty of crowd support. While some favored the big Viking Charles Jensen, others put their hands together for contestants like Jeff Jensen and Matt Richardson — two guys and four diet colas that show up each year, give it their all and go out before the closing rounds.
Unlike the 2001 contest, there were no condiments available. No salt. No pepper. No butter. No buffer.
This didn’t stop Westerlund though. After describing lutefisk as an “aphrodisiac,” the returning champion’s first half pound went down like shot. Jensen, always a contender, chowed his way to a distant second but Perkins’ pace was steady, that of a marathon runner and not a sprinter. He took a close third.
The last two finishers were out.
Round two was another half-pound plate, and once again, the 13-year veteran seemed steady and sure. Perkins even took time to lick his plate clean but trailed a first-placed Westerlund as he gobbled huge chunks of the fisk.
Two more late eaters were excused.
The table had been sliced to six — all facing one full pound of lye-soaked cod. Perkins was sloppier than usual, at times sweeping bits and pieces of the codfish off the table, into his hand and then into his mouth for disposal. The gambit was beginning to pay off.
Perkins finished round three at the top of the pack.
“Yeah. Yeah. Yeah,” he shouted at the top of his lungs, thrusting his arms into the air before cheering on fellow contestants.
Westerlund and Jensen took second and third place respectively in the heat, earning a ticket to round four. Two would advance to the finale.
Mauling their way through a third pound of the lye-soaked delicacy it quickly became apparent that Perkins would be the man to beat, he was smiling, bobbing his head to the techno-bass-beat from the song “You All Ready for This?”
Finishing his plate off, the two-time champ once again turned his attention to the remaining eaters to give them some much-deserved encouragement.
Jensen stood up a split second before Westerlund, giving the appearance of a tie.
Royalty turned judges, Queen Duchemin and Viking Fest Princesses Victoria Jones and Kelsey Erickson, called for a huddle. Westerlund and Jensen looked a bit nervous. Perkins was cool and collected.
When the decision was announced that Westerlund had actually swallowed his fish before Jensen, the Viking didn’t dispute it. He just grinned at a job well done and congratulated the remaining duo.
All smiles between the two quickly faded.
It was grudge match time.
Westerlund removed his baseball hat and Perkins put on his game face as a whopping two pounds of the jelly-like codfish were slopped down in front of them. First and second place were hanging in the balance but so was a year’s worth of bragging rights.
Even so, Perkins was already assuming the championship was his.
“I’m the lutefisk king,” he informed Westerlund, whose pace had slowed considerably as he struggled with the first of his pound-bearing plates. There would not be a second.
Looking queasy, Westerlund turned beet red. He reached for his water bottle and then the bucket as he emptied himself of the lye-soaked bottom feeder.
Within seconds Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust,” which blared out of the speakers at the pavilion, became Perkins’ redemption song.
Despite the spectacle next to him, he just kept on eating.
“I feel great,” Perkins remarked, rubbing his belly after he had been declared the official 2002 champ.
“They’ll eat quick like that then they can’t go the distance,” he said. “After doing this for 13 years I’ve kind of developed my own style.”