Two years ago, Michelle Lesco ordered 150 wings and a side of 10 practice wings at Hooters in Marana to take advantage of All-You-Can-Eat Wings Wednesday. She ate them all.
Lesco is 5'4", 112 pounds, and ranked ninth in the world at competitive eating.
Just two days prior, she competed at the 100th Anniversary Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. She tied for third place in the Ladies' Championship, eating 27 hot dogs in 10 minutes. However, she was disappointed with her performance.
"I went back to the staging area, threw a towel over my head, and just mentally tore into myself for about twenty minutes before shaking it off," Lesco said.
After the staff brought over the large stainless steel bowl of 150 wings and a scale, she looked at the weight — 11.5 pounds. However, the wings were too hot at the moment.
"At the competitions, they're making thousands of wings ahead of time, so they cool down significantly before it's time to eat," Lesco said.
She arranged the wings in the bowl into a ring, leaving a pit in the center for circulation and easy access to rearrange the hottest wings on the bottom.
Her 10 practice wings arrived on the side, so she began fanning both piles of wings using the flyers on the table.
"I'm going to try to eat them fast so that I can get used to the way they break apart," Lesco said. "With flats, one end breaks off easier. If I feel rushed, I'm going to slow down and work on technique."
Once the wings cooled down enough to handle, she tested out different techniques for maximizing wing consumption efficiency. She pinched the broad side of the wing flat and pulled the meat off with her teeth. Next, she tried pulling off the meat entirely using her fingers, amassing a small pile of meat on the side to consume later. She decided to stick with her classic method.
As she approached the titanic bowl of 150 wings, she noticed the next table over with a group of young women staring at her.
"Would you like me to face the other way so you don't have to see this mess?" Lesco asked.
"No, not at all, we find this fascinating," said one of the young women, as she pulled out her phone to record a Snapchat video.
After 10 minutes of swift wing-eating, the scale showed 6.5 pounds remaining. That's five pounds of wing meat eaten in 10 minutes.
"Every ounce counts as two wings for judging purposes," Lesco said. "How many ounces are in five pounds? When I'm full, I can't do math. Not even for a little bit."
Math isn't normally difficult for her. At the time, she taught math, physics, and social studies at a local high school. When it came to eating, the students and staff were all encouraging. She has since changed schools.
Her competitive eating wasn't originally so present in her teaching life.
"You don't want to friend people you work with in certain environments," Lesco said.
To prevent students and faculty from getting too nosy, she had a MySpace page with the alias "Cardboard Shell," inspired by a quote from Jack Handey on Saturday Night Live:
"Today I accidentally stepped on a snail on the sidewalk in front of our house. And I thought, I too am like that snail. I build a defensive wall around myself, a "shell" if you will. But my shell isn't made out of a hard, protective substance. Mine is made out of tin foil and paper bags."
Tucson Weekly wrote about her "cryptic moniker" and fellow competitive eater Crazy Legs Conti kept on calling her Cardboard Shell, so she stuck with it.
In 2009, the O.M.F.G. burger challenge at Lindy's On 4th earned national attention through a visit from the Travel Channel television series Man v. Food. The nine 1/3-pound patties and pound of cheese overwhelmed host Adam Richman, as he failed to complete the challenge by finishing under 20 minutes. After 44 minutes of struggle, he managed to barely finish the burger. Lesco obliterated that time and holds the current Lindy's record at 2 minutes and 22 seconds.
Eating gargantuan quantities has always been easy for Lesco since she stays in shape competing in athletic events such as the Spartan Race.
"Before starting, I used to do the obstacle races," Lesco said. "I'm an athlete by nature but I'm also a lazy procrastinator by nature. The races helped motivate me to train."
However, the technique in competitive eating didn't come naturally.
"I had no idea what I was doing at my very first Nathan's qualifier," Lesco said. "I didn't train or do anything I should have done. The first bite, I choked. Only for a second or two. Then you relax and get it down your throat. It's all fine. When you're on, you're all [hot dog devouring noises], then it's all over."
Though she has competed at Nathan's numerous times, she's still learning to deal with the pressure at the biggest events and isn't always content with her performances.
"At no point was I focused or in the zone," Lesco said of Nathan's 2016 competition. "I was busy looking at my opponents."
High-stakes pressure is something she's been learning to deal with since high school.
"Cross country I got first place in regionals," Lesco said. "At state, I freaked out and did worse than I ever did. At the end of the shoot, I blacked out into the arms of an EMT."
Despite a history of both literal and figurative choking, Lesco is still fearlessly training with pull-ups, push-ups, and cardio.
"Pull-ups make my hands stronger and help rip food apart," Lesco said.
Lesco specializes in eating wings and ribs. It's even her favorite thing to eat when she's not competing. Her doctors don't know her eating choices, however.
"They say, 'you're healthy, you're good, none of your levels are weird or anything,'" Lesco said. "Though I'm sure if they knew how much I ate, they would advise against it."
Her hunger carries over to her daily life as well. Sushi Ten is one of her favorite local joints, particularly for happy hour and all-you-can-eat sushi. Surprisingly, the staff is welcoming toward her behemoth appetite.
"They're really nice," Lesco said. "There were a few times during their dinner rush where I didn't eat as much as normal and they'd ask, 'are you sure you don't want more before you leave,' without even rushing me."
Though wings and ribs are her favorites, fruits and vegetables constitute a significant section of her diet. She's been into plums lately. She also enters vegetable-eating contests when she gets the opportunity.
"I did corn once," Lesco said. "I got lockjaw after it. We were at this festival where they had all kinds of stuff. I was at a booth with salsa, took a tiny piece of bread to dip it in salsa, and my jaw was there, stuck."
Other vegetable-eating contests are in her future, though they don't seem to be a high priority.
Though Lesco is constantly criticized about her eating by strangers online about "the starving kids in Africa," she was previously Major League Eating's Humanitarian of the Year. She regularly fundraises for various charities and donates a portion of her contest winnings.
For more information, visit Cardboard Shell on Facebook and majorleagueeating.com.
February 6, 2019, Editor's note: Michelle has placed second in the last two Nathan's contests and now has a Guinness World Record Title for 'fastest time to eat a bowl of pasta' (26.7 seconds).
Jackie Tran is a Tucson-based food writer, photographer, culinary educator, and owner-chef of the food truck Tran's Fats. Although he...