OCEAN CITY, N.J. -- Each year on the boardwalk, thousands of french fries are consumed by beachgoers, snatched by sea gulls or tossed in the trash at the end of the day.
But once a year, the lucky ones become art.
Entrants in the city's french fry sculpting contest take plates full of deep-fried potatoes and mash them together in previously unimaginable ways to produce oily masterpieces.
"Anybody can work in paint or clay," said Kevin Brown, one of about 150 contestants this year. "But it takes a real artist to work in potatoes."
Ask the 46-year-old Vincentown man what Monday was and he replies, without hesitation: "The day I beat my wife in a taffy-sculpting contest."
Ask his wife, Tammy Brown, the same question, and she replies, "Our 24th wedding anniversary."
And so, as they began their 25th year of marriage, the battling Browns faced off over plates of cold, limp, greasy fries. Or as close to facing off as two people sitting on opposite ends of a 30-foot-long row of tables -- to discourage spying -- can be.
Still flush from his day-old victory, Kevin Brown entered the potato competition fancying himself quite the spud stud. He settled on a log cabin for his project.
"The fries kind of look like logs," he said.
But when the judges made their rounds, it was Tammy Brown who prevailed, taking second-place honors.
And they didn't taste much better.
"They're nasty," he said. "They cook them just enough so they're soft."
Back at the other end of the table, his wife was pooh-poohing his choice of a subject.
"My daughter told him to try to do the Eiffel Tower," Tammy Brown said. "But that's a little advanced for potatoes. Besides, he cheats -- he uses things like toothpicks to hold the potatoes together."
Back to the other end of the table for a response.
"It's not in the official rule book," said Kevin Brown, who indeed was using toothpicks to hold the log cabin's roof together.
Actually, there is no rule book.
Tammy Brown was hard at work on a Jersey blue claw crab. She started by taking a big wad of fries and mashing them together into a starchy pulp, then pressing it flat on the paper plate.
"It's very greasy, certainly not like clay or pottery," she said. "That's why we learned from past years to bring baby diaper wipes."
She split fries down the middle to make the crab's extended eye sockets and deftly manipulated fatter fries into claws and rear legs. She peeled off the potato skins from some to use as color on the claws and body of the crab.
Meanwhile, her husband was hard at work with a plastic knife, slicing out a doorway and windows from his potato cabin.
"It's soggy, wet and ice cold," he said of the mass of fries. "It's fun. And it makes it even more fun trying to beat her."
But when the judges made their rounds, it was Tammy Brown who prevailed, taking second-place honors. Kevin Brown won an honorable mention -- again -- and a smirk from his wife, who was thinking of serving him french fries for dinner that night.
Top prize went to Mary Beth Carroll, of Wyncote, Pa., who fashioned a bottle of wine (white, judging from the color of the potatoes), cheese balls and crackers out of her fries.
In the children's division, 5-year-old Tyler Omans, of Medford, won for spelling out his name in french fries, along with a realistic-looking Batman mask.
Afterward, most of the contestants left their creations on the table, where they were unceremoniously scooped up and dumped into plastic dish bins on their way to the trash. But some took theirs home, nibbling on the way.
"These aren't french fries!" one young boy wailed after spitting a mouthful back onto his plate. "They're potatoes!"
And, for a brief moment, they also were art.