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TOPIC: food

Stuff Your Face

Everyone Eats Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner-Just Not Professionally

According to Rich Shea, the first instance of competitive eating occurred when a wayward rabbit accidentally ran into a cave full of cavemen.  Rich would know. As president of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), he heads the only governing body of stomach-centric athletics. And in case anyone hasn’t noticed, competitive eating has come a long way since those dark and desperate days. Today, competitive eating is America’s newest professional sport. Rich’s brother George, chairman of the IFOCE, likes to say that professional gurgitators are the next American pioneers. Competitive eating is the new baseball—a tradition on par with mom’s apple pie, hot dogs and the Fourth of July.
    For a competitive eater there is no greater dream than winning the World Hot Dog Eating Championship and holding the coveted, bejeweled mustard-yellow belt above one’s head. Combining the hype of the Super Bowl, the rigor of the Tour de France and the class of the Masters, the World Hot Dog Eating Championship descends every Fourth of July on the original Nathan’s Famous hotdog stand at Coney Island. For the past 87 years, teeming crowds have braved the elements to observe history in the making. The clock strikes noon, the jaws clamp down and the natural sheepskin casing pops on the first Nathan’s dog—a snap heard round the world.
    I had heard such tales of the world championship long before I moved to New York. (Some want to see the Statue of Liberty; I wanted to see 400-pound men eat hot dogs.) And there is something awe-inspiring, for sure, about watching Brooklyn’s own “Hungry” Charles Hardy (340 pounds) and Eric “Badlands” Booker (a man-mountain at 395 pounds) stuff their face with hotdogs. But when I arrived at Nathan’s Famous hotdog stand on July 4, 2001, no one was prepared for what we were to witness that day.

***
    Perhaps a quick history lesson is in order. Although the hot dog is an American invention, eating it quickly is a worldwide phenomenon. The Japanese dominated the early landscape of hot dog eating until Mike “The Scholar” Devito became the first gurgitator to eat 20 hot dogs and buns in twelve minutes, capturing the 1993 title. He was known as “The Scholar” because he figured out if you eat one hot dog and bun in 30 seconds...in twelve minutes you will have eaten 24. This was the only science in competitive eating, until Ed “The Animal” Kratchie came along.
    Ed Kratchie, also known as “The Masbeth Monster,” was a large man with a larger appetite. After “The Scholar” retired in 1995 (his mustard-stained jersey raised to the rafters in a tear-filled ceremony I will never forget), Kratchie took over. He was America’s hero, capturing the belt that certainly could not fit around his voluminous waist.
    But then the Japanese countered. A smiling Hirofumi Nakajima appeared in 1996, and, barely breaking a sweat, defeated Kratchie with 24 and 1/4 hot dogs and buns. Nakajima would successfully defend his title three times. Following in his countryman’s stomach-steps, Kazytoyo Arai ate 25 and 1/8 hotdogs and buns in 2000, setting a new world record. And here’s the kicker: both men weighed under 145 pounds.
    The American eating community was flabbergasted. Four-hundred-pound Kratchie himself went to the chalkboard to compose, “Can Abdominal Fat Act as a Restrictive Agent on Stomach Expansion? An Exploration of the Impact of Adipose Tissue on Competitive Eating.” The study, more commonly referred to as “The Belt of Fat Theory,” postulated that a small man with little fat separating his stomach from his abdominal wall has more room for expansion than a big man with, say, an overhanging gut—the big man’s stomach’s expansion would hit the subcutaneous fat at the abdominal wall and stop. The New England Journal of Medicine rejected the theory, but competitive eaters and fans believed.

***
    Suffice it to say, I arrived at Coney Island in 2001 a serious and studied fan.  Also, as a man who weighs less than 400 pounds, I had a vested interest in seeing how the Belt of Fat Theory held up. I asked “Badlands” Booker how he trained. He told me that the winner of each Nathan’s regional contest receives 600 hotdogs. “You ate them all, didn’t you?” I asked.  He just smiled and rubbed his belly.
    On the other end of the weight spectrum, a 135-pound Takeru Kobayashi stood at the competitors’ table. The clock struck noon, and twelve minutes and one burp later, this unassuming kid had eaten 50 hot dogs and buns. That’s right, 50, five-zero. Kobayashi doubled the world record and was immediately dubbed “The Tsunami.” If I wasn’t there myself, I would not have believed it. I was there, and I still had trouble believing it. I ran over to George Shea and asked if he ever thought anyone could eat 50. Dazed, George replied, “When I woke up this morning I thought 30, maybe the 30-dog barrier would be broken, but 50, no way.”
    A few feet away, Gersh Kuntzman of the New York Post (the first journalist to cover competitive eating seriously) was yelling into his phone, “I don’t care if you’re the editor, this is the cover story!” And on that day, after years of obscurity and a sideshow-like existence, professional eating entered the mainstream.
     Fox networks, recognized for its provocative programming, aired in 2002 a two-hour, prime time special known as “The Glutton Bowl.” The finest eaters from around the globe, almost all ranked by the IFOCE, were to compete in an elimination round tournament. Each round involved a mystery food released from a steel drum mounted on the ceiling. The food would drop 20 feet into a huge, clear bowl. Round Five released a tidal wave of mayonnaise that caused eaters to dive for cover to avoid the deluge. With George Shea as the color commentator (“After two pounds of pickled beef tongue, Sonny Manzi is exhibiting what is known as the meat sweats…”), competitive eating became a televised sport. In the very first round, with the shadow of Cool Hand Luke hovering nearby, Eric “Badlands” Booker ate 38 hard-boiled eggs. It wasn’t Paul Newman’s 50, but then again, Badlands ate the 38 in eight minutes.

With the rise of Kobayahi, the entire sport has been revolutionized, and suddenly I had a hero.



    Although the Glutton Bowl featured food not normally sanctioned by the IFOCE—mayonnaise (Oleg “The Great” Zhornitskiy, eight pounds in eight minutes), butter (Don “Moses” Lerman, 1  pound, twelve oz in five minutes) and cow tongue (Dominic “The Doginator” Cardo, 3 pounds, 3 oz in twelve minutes)—it was every fan’s dream. Koybayashi dominated the field until the finals, at which point he put on a consumption clinic, eating a nausea-inducing 17 pounds, 7 ounces of cow brains (the rest of the cow had been consumed in earlier rounds). Japan conquered again, leaving America queasy in defeat.

***
    Although I didn’t know it at the time, the rise of Kobayashi whetted my appetite (so to speak) for a piece of the action. The entire sport had been revolutionized, and suddenly I had a hero. But with the Glutton Bowl over, I was forced to turn my attention to a less important sporting event: the Super Bowl. I grew up in Boston, and the New England Patriots had advanced to the big game in The Big Easy—New Orleans. Unfortunately, getting tickets to the game was not so easy. I wandered Bourbon Street looking for a place to watch the game on T.V. I had a beer. I felt like some oysters on the half-shell. I walked into a place that was all countertop; seasoned shuckers split the shell of the mollusk and gently place the half-shell in front of the customer.
    I quickly discovered that Louisiana oysters are the best in the world, and I was a dozen in when I noticed this bearded old-timer tearing through his pile at the far end of the counter. He looked like King Neptune himself—stabbing his trident into the helpless bivalves and slamming the enormous Gulf of Mexico oysters into his maw. I asked my shucker, “Kenny, how many has anybody ever eaten at once?” “Well,” Kenny said, “across the street at the Acme Oyster House the record is 33 dozen—you eat 34 dozen and they give them to you for free.” For free, I thought. “Kenny, cut me off. I’m going across the street. I’ll be back in a couple of hours.”

Most people recoil at a gray blob with the viscosity of phlegm. Not me.



    I’ve always loved seafood and never really eaten my fill. I spent summers in Maine, and when the price of lobster dropped to under three bucks I would eat eight in one sitting. I went to school in Baltimore, and many a spring day was spent on Andy Bilello’s porch drinking Natty Boh beer and eating a bushel of crabs (which is roughly twelve dozen). Back in Boston, my father’s Christmas Eve meal put Thanksgiving dinner to shame. Not satisfied with the Italian obligation to serve nine different kinds of fish, he would aim for double digits. I was weaned as a small child on razorback clams, conch, squid, shrimp, mussels, periwinkles and other species he called low tide food—“nothing that grows above the ankle.” It was a decathlon of seafood. But oysters? I don’t think we ever had oysters.
    Most people recoil at a gray blob with the viscosity of phlegm. Not me. So I crossed the street, walked into the Acme Oyster House and announced my intentions to eat 34 dozen oysters in one sitting. The Acme staff couldn’t have been more receptive. Laurie the marketing director came right over and said she believed in me. The folks at Acme saw a lot of big boys walk through the door, Laurie told me, but they know, from years of observations, that sometimes the small guys can put it away. The record at the time was held by a Spaniard, and Acme was hungry for an American to regain the title. I was hungry too, and in 20 minutes I made 15 dozen oysters disappear.
    My shucker’s name was Johnny, but everyone called him “The Dirty Dozen.” He was a fine shucker. But at 16 dozen, when they knew I was no flash in the pan, Laurie switched shuckers to a young kid nicked named “Black Magic.” Fast and showy, he was to be my middle relief. Black Magic told me to stop slurping the shells and to avoid the excess liquid by using the small fork. The football game started. A crowd formed. Acme was at near capacity—everyone shifting his attention from the Super Bowl to the oyster bowl. I was at 20 dozen when Black Magic noticed two comely women enter the restaurant. He lost focus, so Laurie looked into the bullpen and called out Acme’s number one closer, “Stormin’ Norman.”
    Stormin’ Norman was a solidly built guy with a soft, comforting face. As he placed each successive dozen in front of me, he would lean in and whisper a piece of advice. At 25 dozen he said that if I wanted to quit, Acme would only charge me half price. I said, “I’ve come this far, I might as well eat all I can.” He winked and said, “All right then, let’s take this home.”
    I finished 30 dozen by halftime, but the bivalves were fighting back. While my upper body was shaking slightly, my legs had seceded from my body, thrashing under the table, bouncing every direction off the stool. I had been drinking a little water, but Norman told me to stop. I requested a cup of coffee, which I mostly sipped for warmth. It was as if my body had assumed the icy depths of the ocean, welcoming the mollusks back into the womb. My swollen and distended belly made my Hawaiian shirt rise up above my bellybutton (which at 33 dozen officially went, with a brief pop, from an “innie” to an “outie”).
    It took me the entire third quarter to eat the last dozen oysters. Stormin’ Norman was patting them down with napkins, knowing that the agony of victory and the ten-fold agony of defeat are separated by nano-ounces of oyster residue. I forked the last oyster—it looked the size of a small car—carefully put it in my mouth, chewed slowly and swallowed. The crowd rose to their feet, Laurie burst into tears of joy, and Norman helped me stand up. I was shaky but managed to get my shirt off. Someone snapped a photo of me behind 34 dozen shells. Norman went to hug me. “Gently,” I said. “Gently.”
    Two Boston champions were crowned that day: the New England Patriots and “Crazy Legs Conti, The Oyster King.” While eating all those oysters, it never entered my mind that the IFOCE would get wind of my accomplishments in New Orleans, but George and Rich Shea soon came calling. I was signed to a professional contract and asked to compete in the World Speed Eating Oyster Championships. I had gone from fan to player and was asked to join the professional eating circuit. I was welcomed into the inner circle by the athletes I had cheered on all those years at Coney Island. “Coondog” O’Karma, the world doughnut champ, pulled me aside and whispered conspiratorially, “Everyone calls Charles ‘Hungry,’ but we call him ‘The Godfather.’” I was living the impossible dream—until the reality of hot dog season approached.

***
    While a nation looks forward to the lazy summer days of sun and backyard barbecues, competitive eaters hunker down in dank basements with a stopwatch around the neck, watching videos of Kobayashi and practicing the water method (a stomach-stretching callisthenic in which you drink a gallon of water in under three minutes). As a rookie, I was struggling. I again remembered Paul Newman, who, playing Cool Hand Luke, accepted a simple bet: to eat 50 eggs in one hour. The rules were simple. Luke had one hour to eat 50 hard-boiled eggs, and he couldn’t throw up. An IFOCE event follows similar parameters, but in the pro ranks, one does not use such vulgar vernacular. Instead the act is referred to as “urges contrary to swallowing”—or sometimes, in extreme cases, a “Roman incident.” It is every eater’s worst nightmare—the moment when he looks deep within and can’t contain himself.
    Luke started off strong, downing egg after egg, but then he slowed with 32 in his stomach. Much like marathon runners, competitive eaters reach a point when the body cries out—often in agony—with a plea to stop. Most IFOCE-sanctioned contests are twelve minutes, and it is well known on the circuit that the eight-minute mark is where most eaters “hit the wall.” It is the great gurgitators who can push beyond satiety (some even say sanity) and power-eat into those last four, grueling minutes. Those four minutes are when dreams are made.
    I learned that in order to qualify for Coney Island, hopeful competitors must win one of the 20 Nathan’s regional contests. I lost in Boston to Ed “Cookie” Jarvis (360 pounds—“one pound for each degree in a Lazy Susan,” George Shea would note). In Philadelphia, “Gentleman” Joe Menchetti out-ate me by four dogs and buns. A most meticulous eater, “Gentleman” Joe always adheres to the rules of formal dining and wears a tuxedo. At Belmont Stakes Racetrack, “Badlands” Booker set a new American record, eating 30 while being filmed for “The Carson Daly Show.”
    I came extremely close in Norfolk, Virginia. Down one dog in the closing seconds, I went for a two-dog stuff at the buzzer. (Whatever is in your mouth at the close of a contest counts, as long as you swallow it eventually.) I placed the remaining half dog and bun on my plate. The head judge assumed that the leftover detritus was the result of a Roman incident, and I was disqualified. A cameraman rushed the stage in protest, replaying the footage of my victory in the final seconds. It was to no avail. Instant replay has yet to come to competitive eating.
    My next shot came at The Molly Pitcher Travel Plaza off the New Jersey turnpike. Nothing whets the appetite more than all-you-can-eat hot dogs at a New Jersey truck stop. The oil waves were rising off the asphalt in the hot summer sun. I stretched and thought about the Zen-like calm of Kobayashi. Then I looked around. With the big name eaters already qualified for the finals, this contest was a battle of the junior varsity squad. I noticed Sabatino “Sonny” Manzi, Dominic “The Doginator” Cardo, and David Kondik (strangely without a nickname) lurking around the dog table. I did not notice the petite Korean-American woman patiently waiting for the contest to begin. No one else noticed her either. The buzzer sounded, and the Kondik surged forward, reaching a dozen first. The Doginator and I were about even at 15. Manzi had bowed out at eleven. And then this tiny, tiny woman named Sonya Thomas delicately put away her 18th hot dog and bun, smiled and won.

***
    It wasn’t unheard of for a woman to excel in competitive eating, but it was rare. Donna “Belly Donna” Tellis, a plump, kind-hearted postal worker, was a fixture at several events until a reversal of fortune at the Glutton Bowl. (It was a foot-long, wasabi-filled sushi roll that did her in.) Carlene LeFevre is a formidable competitor still on the circuit today. She is married to Rich “The Las Vegas Locust” LeFevre, so named for quick hands that resemble mandibles, picking apart and consuming not one but two 72-ounce steaks in one hour. The Lefevres had decimated steak houses across the state of Texas before turning professional. They are both endurance eaters with enormous capacity—and they are further proof of the Belt of Fat Theory. Rich resembles a rail thin Mr. Magoo, and Carlene could be a lady of high society. During Las Vegas’ Battle of the Buffet, Carlene polished off five pounds of appetizers in ten minutes and then fixed her slightly smudged lipstick in the reflection of her knife.
    Takako Akasaka is the only woman to rank in the higher levels of the Japanese eating community. Her admirers know her as “The Sweet Queen,” and no bakery was safe from her stomach’s wrath. Although retired, she still holds the Chinese meat bun title. At Nathan’s she completed the Japanese sweep of 2000, placing third with 21 hot dogs and buns. Akasaka was the only woman to ever place on the Fourth of July. But there was something about Sonya Thomas.
    On the Fourth of July, 2003, Sonya appeared nervous. This, the ultimate eating extravaganza, was only her second contest. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect of the Tinkerbell-sized lady sandwiched between two 400-pound men. Sonya looked like she would be more at home at a beauty pageant than at an all-you-can-eat event. I was competing too, having qualified as a wild card (I had consumed roughly 80 hot dogs and buns over five regional contests).  I stood at the far end of the table (“Badlands” Booker raps that one has to “eat your way to the middle”), but even so, I could clearly see how similar Sonya’s eating style was to Kobayashi’s. They each set a pace and ate to that pace for the entire twelve-minute contest. Sonya never wavered or faltered, and she certainly didn’t perspire. With a dazzling smile and demure wave she calmly and neatly ate 25 hot dogs and buns, placing fourth and setting a new female record.
    Sonya was learning from Kobayashi, and her triumphant arrival had set the eating community buzzing.  One month later, she and I met again, this time at the X-Fest in Indianapolis, Indiana.  Sponsored by Indianapolis’s alternative rock radio station, X-Fest is a carnival of hardcore, thrash, metal and rock band superstars. Amidst the loud music would be two eating demonstrations. On second stage I, Crazy Legs Conti, would be eating oysters, and on the main stage that night, Sonya Thomas would be eating hardboiled eggs.
    Sonya sat quietly in the greenroom as Rich Shea and I guarded the oysters. My geography has never been good, but I’m pretty sure Indiana is landlocked. The “local” oysters had come from the nearby Hooters. To stave off any disappointment of quality, they had also come with two Hooters girls.
    I was scheduled to open for Mudvayne, which was described to me as a Satanic death-metal thrash band. Their fans, 8,000 kids packed into a giant mosh pit, were climbing the chain link fence in a hopeless attempt to get to the stage. Most had been in the pit since eight o’clock that morning. It was now five in the afternoon, and they wanted to see Mudvayne. They did not want to see a thin, dreadlocked guy eat oysters.
    Undeterred, Rich Shea bounded on stage. Maybe it was his IFOCE blue blazer and tie that set them off, but 8,000 individual middle fingers went up. My onstage escorts, the Hooters Girls, fled as soon as debris started flying. Cups, shoes and even a phone were thrown from the crowd. Rich discovered he could pacify the crowd by asking if they wanted me to eat faster, so Mudvayne would play sooner. I finished eating, and was lucky to get off the stage alive.
    When we returned to the greenroom, Sonya was still sitting quietly in her chair—no calisthenics, no meditation, nothing. I asked about her job as manager for a large food court at Andrews Air Force Base in Virginia. Each day surrounded by a cornucopia of food, I asked if she thought it was ironic that she had become a professional eater. “Oh, I never eat at work,” she said, “even though I love french fries. I eat when I get home, from five to nine or ten.” Wait. One four- or five-hour meal a day? “And two hours on the stair master.” I recalled a Japanese video that revealed that Kobayashi only ate one long meal a day. A million follow-up questions flooded my mind, but Sonya was ushered to the main stage for her first look at the hard-boiled eggs.
    Twenty-one thousand fans were seated, waiting for Godsmack. Godsmack may be rough around the edges, but nothing compared to the broken glass quality of Mudvayne, and these fans seemed more receptive to an eating demonstration. Sonya was behind a folding table, upon which spread twelve Styrofoam bowls, each containing five hard-boiled, peeled eggs. Two jumbotrons showed Sonya, larger than life, patiently waiting. The head DJ had long since passed out, so Rich Shea took the stage solo. Never before had the IFOCE commanded the attention of so many people.
    “There is a prophecy in competitive eating,” Rich began, “that one day a great eater will appear. This eater will be known as ‘The One.’ I believe this eater is Sonya Thomas.” Sonya waved. The crowd looked puzzled. A heavyset stagehand turned to me and said, “That little girl is going to eat all those eggs? No way. No one can eat all those eggs.”  The sky was a brilliant blue as Sonya popped the first egg into her mouth. And then another, and another. Rarely reaching for the small bottle of water, Sonya made egg after egg disappear. Her cheeks swelled like the crowd. The fans, quiet at first, were yelling, then standing, then screaming. As she approached the forty-ninth egg a look of concern crept into Rich Shea’s face. Even Rich, who believed so much in her talent, thought his eyes were deceiving him. How could she keep going, eating so nonchalantly? But the crowd fed off Sonya, and she off them. The last egg, the 65th egg, disappeared as quickly as the first. The time on the giant scoreboard was six minutes, 40 seconds. She had out eaten Badlands Booker by 27 eggs and had done it a minute and 20 seconds faster. As for Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke, she had done 15 more eggs than the impossible, in a tenth of the time. The stagehand was flabbergasted—he yelled, “Now that was rock and roll!” Twenty-one thousand fans agreed.

George Shea would introduce Sonya as a combination of Billie Jean King, Anna Kournikova and a jackal loose on the plains of the Serengeti.



    Sonya walked off, waving. I rushed to her with two E.M.T.s in tow. “That was unbelievable,” I screamed. “Are you okay?” Sonya smiled and whispered, “I ran out of eggs.”
    Sonya never looked back. She would go on to defeat men four times her size (seven three-quarter-pound burgers in ten minutes to upset Ray “The Bison” Meduna; 23 pulled pork sandwiches in ten minutes to defeat Dale “The Mouth from the South” Boone; seven pounds, twelve ounces of Thanksgiving buffet in twelve minutes to humble Ed “Cookie” Jarvis; four pounds, 14 ounces of fruitcake in ten minutes to put away Eric “Badlands” Booker; and 43 soft tacos in eleven minutes to defeat the Godfather of competitive eating, “Hungry” Charles Hardy). George Shea would introduce Sonya as a combination of Billie Jean King, Anna Kournikova and a jackal loose on the plains of the Serengeti. She, however, would choose a much simpler moniker, instilling fear in the hearts of her male opponants: “The Black Widow.”
    Most recently, the Black Widow consumed an incredible nine pounds of crawfish jambalaya in ten minutes. Who did she beat that time? Well, not only did she beat me—she lapped my meager four pounds at the nine-minute mark. My own mother was in the audience. At the contest’s conclusion she rushed to give Sonya a hug. Later, my Mom gave me a pat on the back and said, “You know, Sonya Thomas is my favorite competitive eater.”  [t]

[T]

  • Crazy Legs Conti is currently ranked 17th in the world by the IFOCE. His rookie journey on the competitive eating circuit is chronicled in the “Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating,” a documentary film currently making the festival rounds.  Crazy Legs lives (and eats) in New York City.
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