I've spent half a century writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.
Who knew there is an International Federation of Competitive Eaters, otherwise known as Major League Eaters (MLE)? Also, there’s another less prominent circuit called the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters. These organizations set the rules for eating contests, and ABC News tells us without a hint of irony that “Competitive eaters are trained, skilled athletes, and there are medical staff stationed at every event in case of emergency.” Just like downhill skiing or triathlon really.
History of Competitive Eating
The MLE claims, although lacking evidence to support the assertion, that competitive eating dates back to “30 hungry Neanderthals in a cave” fighting over a rabbit.
We do know that Romans gorged themselves stupid at feasts and medieval nobles could chow down a haunch of venison with the best of them. But it wasn’t until the 20th century that eating became competitive.
County fairs in the United States have run pie-eating contests since the start of the 20th century. They usually involve a hands-free face plant into a dish of peach cobbler or huckleberry crumble and are designed to cause hoots of laughter when friends and neighbours emerge with their faces covered in strawberry mush or whipped cream.
Such high jinks are not to be confused with tournaments that attract professional, competitive eaters.
A Feast of Oysters
Nor is the exploit of the gentleman reported in The Oyster (London 1863): “I once heard of an individual who made a bet that he would eat twelve dozen oysters, washed down by twelve glasses of Champagne, while the cathedral clock . . . was striking 12.
“He won his bet by placing a dozen fresh oysters in 12 wine glasses, and having swallowed the oysters, he washed down each dozen with a glass of Champagne. I should not have mentioned this disgusting feat, but to add that he felt no evil effects . . . proving incontestably the digestive and sanitary properties of this mollusk.”
And, in 1919, major league baseball outfielder Ping Bodie took on Percy the ostrich in a pasta-eating tussle. The yarn is that Percy swooned into unconsciousness after his 11th bowl and Ping was declared the winner.
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs
MLE dates the start of competitive pigging out to 1916, when Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs of Coney Island was the site of the first Fourth of July wiener feed.
The inaugural Nathan’s contest is said to have been a bet-settling deal to determine which of four immigrants was the most patriotic. Legend has it that an Irishman named Jim Mullen scoffed 13 dogs and buns and won.
The first organized affair was in 1972, however, and it’s been held annually ever since. At first, spectators were numbered in the hundreds, but now they turn up in the tens of thousands and the sports network ESPN covers the event. It drew almost two million viewers in 2011.
The deal is that the person who can consume the most hot dogs with buns (known as HDBs among the cognoscenti of the trade) in 10 minutes is the winner. There are few rules. Contestants may use water or other liquid to aid consumption. A “reversal of fortune,” what is sometimes poetically referred to as a “technicolour yawn,” means instant disqualification.
Not just anybody can turn up and start feasting on franks. Coney Island is the big time, the Super Bowl of gustatory combat; no amateurs allowed. Contestants must first qualify through regional eat-offs.
The 2021 winner was Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, taking home his 14th tube steak crown in 15 years and a cheque for $10,000. He managed 76 dogs and buns. This is a world record and amounts to 22,200 calories, 1,332 grams of fat, and 54,242 milligrams of salt in 10 minutes.
Recommended daily allowances for a man are 2,000 calories, and no more than 200 grams of fat or 2,300 milligrams of salt. To work off his “meal,” Chestnut would need to run 180 miles at a 10-minute-a-mile pace.
Joey Chestnut vs. Takeru Kobayashi
You’d expect competitive eating’s superstars to be 400-pound behemoths, but they’re not.
With his 11 Coney Island Hot Dog victories, Joey Chestnut has now ousted Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi from the pinnacle of the sport.
Kobayashi was at the top of his game between 2001 and 2006, winning six trophies in succession. An ESPN commentator once breathlessly announced that “He’s arguably the best competitor practising any sport today.”
Kobayashi’s fame spreads way beyond sausage consumption. He once chugged 57 cow brains in less time than it takes to cook a cup of rice. He held world records in lobster rolls (41 in 10 minutes) and rice balls (20 pounds in 30 minutes).
His prowess at the hot dog stand made him “an overnight sensation in his home country,” Japan (International Business News).
Kobayashi has since fallen out with the Major League Eating group and no longer competes in its sanctioned events.
However, he and Chestnut still duke it out even if they aren’t at the same event. In 2012, while Chestnut was scarfing 68 franks at Coney Island, Kobayashi staged his own show at a bar in Brooklyn and sank 68.5.
Each man claims to best the other in various categories; deep fried asparagus, Twinkies, squid, jalapeno peppers, you name it.
Tim Janus, also known as Eater X, is no slouch in this field either.
ABC News notes that “By eating 12 pounds of burritos in 10 minutes, Janus became burrito-eating champion of the world. He is also the tiramisu, pork rind, and ramen noodle competitive eating world record holder.”
Other Eating Contests
But enough frivolity, there are serious contests out there, such as Uncle Bob’s Self-Storage Cupcake-Eating Contest in Upper Saddle River, New Jersey.
There was the Peanut Butter and Banana Sandwich World Championship of Biloxi, Mississippi; a sort of homage to Elvis Presley whose favourite food it was.
The 2012 winner was Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti with 31 sandwiches and a prize of $1,500. But sadly, the PB&B joust seems to have vanished off the calendar.
Good old “Deep Dish” won the 2011 Isle Casino Pompano Park World Pickle Eating Championship in Pompano Beach, Florida. Bertoletti polished off 5.2 pounds of sour pickles in six minutes. But the pickle fiesta seems to have passed into oblivion as well.
However, Deep Dish still claims many world records: Mars Bars (38 in five minutes), whole turkey (four pounds, 12.8 ounces of roast turkey meat in 12 minutes), Moon pie (60 in eight minutes), corned beef and cabbage (10.63 lbs in 10 minutes), and on and on.
Other foods with world record holders include:
- Corned-beef sandwiches (Joey Chestnut: 20, 8-oz sandwiches in 10 minutes at TooJay’s World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship in 2012)
- Deep-Fried Okra (Sonya Thomas: 9.75 pounds in 10 minutes at the Oklahoma State Fair in 2006)
- Haggis (Eric Livingston: three pounds in eight minutes in 2008)
- Spam (Richard LeFevre: six pounds in 12 minutes at Spamarama in Austin, Texas in 2004)
Are Eating Contests Safe?
No, they're not safe.
- In October 2008, a 23-year-old student in Taiwan choked to death on a chunk of bread while taking part in an eating contest.
- 64-year-old Bruce Holland collapsed and died while downing a chili pie during a competition at the Bushland Beach Tavern in Townsville, Australia in July 2013.
- Edward Archbold, 32, ate dozens of live cockroaches and worms to win the Midnight Madness event at Ben Siegel Reptiles in Deerfield Beach, Florida in October 2012. His prize was a python, but he didn’t get to take his new pet home for a cuddle. Outside the store, he collapsed and died. An autopsy revealed his death was caused by “asphyxia due to choking and aspiration of gastric contents."
- Oliver Thring of The Guardian writes that competitive eater “Don Lerman, has confessed that training will ‘stretch my stomach until it causes internal bleeding.’ A 2007 study into speed-eating conducted by the University of Pennsylvania found that another participant, Tim Janus, is now incapable of feeling full: he is endlessly, torturously hungry.”
For these and other reasons, the American Medical Association has denounced competitive eating as unhealthy.
It isn’t all about driving high fat, high salt, and high sugar foods down the pie hole. Let’s stop in at Kale Yeah!—The World’s Healthiest Eating Championship presented by Healthy Options in Buffalo, NY in July 2016. And, here’s Gideon "The Truth" Oji, famed son of Zaria, Nigeria, who guzzled 25.5 16-ounce servings of kale salad. That’s a lot of roughage, Gideon; shouldn’t stray too far from a comfort station for a while.
Most people have what’s called a satiety reflex. It’s a signal from the stomach to the brain that says “Full up.” “No more chicken wings.” “If you keep driving those honey-glazed doughnuts in there’s going to be a messy regurgitation.” Competitive eaters train their bodies to overcome the satiety reflex by eating increasingly large amounts, so the only limit to what they can eat is the elasticity of their stomachs.
Marc Levine at the University of Pennsylvania has studied this. He told Time magazine that a stomach once stretched to accommodate 7.9 pounds of french fries (Bob Shoudt, 2010) probably won’t return to its normal size. This might cause “intractable nausea and vomiting, necessitating a partial or total gastrectomy to relieve their symptoms and restore their ability to eat.”
- “5 Things You Didn’t Know about Competitive Eating.” Liz Neporent, ABC News, July 4, 2013.
- “A Brief History of Competitive Eating.” Claire Suddath, Time Magazine, July 4, 2008.
- “Joey Chestnut Does it again! Champ Wins Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest For Record Seventh Straight Year.” Casey Tolan and Stephen Rex Brown, New York Daily News, July 4, 2013.
- “Takeru Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and the Rift in Competitive Hot Dog-Eating.” Mark Johanson, International Business Times, July 4, 2013.
- “Competitive Eating: Fair or Foul?” Oliver Thring, The Guardian, September 17, 2009.
- “Ready, Set, Eat! 15 Wackiest Eating Contests.” Sharon Tanenbaum, Everyday Health, undated.
- International Federation of Competitive Eaters.
- “Here’s What Competitive Eating Does to Your Body.” Abby Abrams, Time, July 3, 2014.
- “Joey Chestnut Consumed More than 20,000 Calories to Win Hot Dog Contest.” Nina Mandell, USA Today, July 4, 2018.
© 2017 Rupert Taylor