a most noble search
Ken Hoffman reunites with Houston's top-ranked competitive eater who's searching for her birth parents
The first time I met Mary (“I Love ‘Em Hot”) Bowers was in 2014. She was competing in a hot dog eating contest at Memorial City Mall. Two winners, the top man and top woman, would earn a seat at the Nathan’s July 4 Hot Dog Contest in Coney Island, the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating.
I was Bowers’ judge, standing directly in front of her, practically nose-to-nose, counting how many hot dogs and buns she ate and held down. Rules must be followed. She was no newcomer to competitive eating and employed the separate-and-dunk method of consuming the franks, made famous by Japanese eating legend, Takeru Kobayaski
First she removed the hot dog from the bun, broke the hot dog in half and shoved it in her mouth. Then she dunked the bun in a bowl of warm water and pushed that into her mouth. Then with minimal chewing and apologies to 7-11 convenience stores, she took a Big Gulp. (You won’t find this technique in Emily Post’s Book of Etiquette.)
I was no rookie on the competitive eating circuit, either, but as a judge, stationed on the other side of the table piled high with hot dogs. I counted hot dogs for some of the biggest names in competitive eating for about a dozen years in Coney Island. I knew the ins and outs of the contest rules. I knew what to look for.
And then something happened that I wasn’t looking for and wasn’t counting on. Ever. At a hot dog contest — or anywhere else.
About seven hot dogs in, Bowers coughed or burped or hiccupped – doesn’t matter – and shards of partially chewed frankfurter and gloppy wet bun flew onto my face.
Some it landed in my mouth.
A really gross intro
This wasn’t like when someone is talking with you and a tiny bit of spit flies out of their mouth and lands on you. You wipe that away discreetly and pretend it didn’t happen.
There was no pretending this time. I hocked out what had flown into my mouth and wiped the rest off my face with my sleeve. (That’s because I got class.) Both Bowers and I were gamers and the contest continued. She won the women’s event that day and earned her ticket to Coney Island, where I again counted her hot dogs and buns — this time without incident.
Bowers became a star on the Major League Eating circuit – while also working as project manager for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. She is the No. 9-ranked female eater in the world. Her best effort in a sanctioned event: five pounds of boysenberry pie in eight minutes.
Bowers has displayed her astronomical, gastronomical ability on television shows around the world, including America’s Got Talent (she received four "no" votes, but admiration from Sofia Vergara), and the new Gong Show in the U.S.
She also is a model, poet and fashion designer, dubbed “The Chanel of Beschamel.” For each contest she creates a special fashion accessory, for example, a fascinator made with shrimp cocktail.
Ken's spit take
That was the last I heard from Bowers … until I opened an email the other night.
“Remember me? I am sorry that I spit food into your mouth when you were a judge at the hot dog contest in Houston.”
That’s a heck of an opener.
She continued, “I would love to catch up with you regarding an international news story I’m involved with.”
You had me at “spit food in your mouth.” Call me.
Bowers was born in South Korea in 1982. At five months old, she was flown to U.S. by a Korean adoption service and placed with a couple in Colorado. She grew up, graduated from the NewSchool of Architecture and Design in San Diego, and began a career with U.S. Home Security, while designing clothes and entering eating contests on the side.
A noble quest
In early 2020, just before the start of the COVID pandemic, something stirred in Bowers. She sold everything that didn’t fit in to two suitcases and moved to South Korea, an hour outside of Seoul, in a quest to find her biological parents – and she says – herself.
“I have been told that my birth parents are alive and married. This information was provided to me by the adoption agency that also has said I am a legal orphan whose parents are unknown. The papers confirming that my adoptive parents received had little information, even the space for my name was blank,” she said.
Bowers lives in a small apartment and teaches English at a private school to support herself. She says that adoption services in South Korea often were allowed to operate without regulation and, in some cases, oversight concerning legality.
She said that an estimated 200,000 babies were sent to adoptive homes around the world from South Korea over the last six decades, with at least 30,000 sent by her adoption agency alone.
Bowers isn’t alone in searching for her biological parents. There are hundreds of others, from the U.S. as well as Australia, Denmark, Germany, Belgium, Sweden and Norway, who also submitted cases to the Korean government's Truth and Reconciliation Committee.
“As of last week, I have joined 368 other adoptees in submitting cases to Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, requesting investigation into international adoption practices. Unfortunately in my case there are no relinquishment papers on record, nor a consistent paper trail between the time I was born and the time I was sent abroad. This seems to be a common issue across adoption files.”
I asked Bowers why it is important for her to find her birth parents.
“A tree can be uprooted and put in a pot and transported somewhere else. It will grow with enough light and water, but its roots cannot grow beyond the container. But a tree that is planted in the ground can grow roots that are deep. Its branches will be taller and it will reach greater heights. Growing up, I felt like a potted plant. If I am to reach greater heights, I must connect with my roots,” she said.
And what will be the first words she says to her birth parents if she finds them?
“I don’t know. When words fail, the heart speaks. I am Korean-American. I have two families, two countries, one heart. My heart is big enough for both,” Bowers said. “I am searching to create a life that allows for all of it.”