For anyone with a weak stomach or strong objections, this might be a good time to stop reading or start composing your letter to the editor. I understand. Part of me wants to stop writing. But then there’s another part: the part that wonders who these people are. Why do they do this? What’s a moderate-to-a-fault guy like me missing here?
Until recently, the wild world of competitive eating was not on my radar beyond that pie-eating scene in Stand By Me (and that was plenty). Names like Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas and Takeru “the Tsunami” Kobayashi meant nothing. The Fourth of July had no ties to Nathan’s Famous hot dogs. And the Home Slice pizza-eating competition and hundreds like it nationwide that turn any kind of food out there — chicken-fried steak, oysters, matzo balls, wings, conch fritters, cannolis, pickled eggs, pancakes, spinach, fried wontons, bratwurst, brisket — into gorge-out events that sometimes lure TV cameras, big sponsors, PR operatives and the occasional in-flight magazine weren’t even mild curiosities. From a healthy distance, they were kind of revolting and just plain weird, right?
Well, not for everyone. Not by a long shot. Like with most things in life, it really depends on whom you talk to.
A week before the Home Slice competition, I called up Floyd, a 6-foot, 200-pound, 34-year-old hospital administrative assistant who’d just pulled into the parking lot of his gym after work but was happy to answer any questions before his cardio training. Right off, it was pretty clear that Floyd wasn’t trying to sell me on any of this. He’s just a down-to-earth guy with a busy schedule, weekly basketball and softball games, a congenitally huge appetite, and three brothers he thinks must have spurred “a need in me to seek all kinds of competitive outlets.”
Outlets that include — red flag — all kinds of competitive eating contests in the greater Austin area.
I’d already spoken with some big guns on the Major League Eating (MLE) pro circuit — all pleasant-enough, regular-sounding folks who wash windows in New York, supervise sales teams in Boston, manage a Burger King in Prince George’s County, Md., etc., but who also regularly compete against each other (all over the world), eating ridiculous portions of food at insane speeds in front of rapt audiences. As a hobby. Because, even when you’re a nationally ranked eater, you’re not quitting your day job. But there’s still one question that I haven’t gotten an answer to, and right now, I’m hoping that Floyd, an amateur who’s on MLE’s mailing list but who isn’t that serious about the endeavor, might be the guy to put my mind at rest.
The basic question that keeps eluding me is this: All county-fair-cherry-pie-eating lore and competitive-outlet-seeking aside, isn’t scarfing down nasty amounts of food in front of a cheering crowd just plain wrong on all kinds of levels? Or am I too quick to judge?
“Well, it’s obviously pretty gross, and it’s definitely not for everyone,” Floyd says. “But I guess what I’m trying to do in these competitions is to push the disgustingness of it aside and just focus on some sort of quest for accomplishment. I mean, this is not an easy task. It’s something that only a few people out there can actually do well.”
Or want to?
“You’d be surprised,” laughs Floyd. “Whenever I meet a friend of a friend, and it comes up that I just won a cupcake- or ice-cream- or pizza- or whatever-eating contest, regardless of the food, the response is often enough, ‘I can eat a lot of that, too.’ I can’t explain it, but this stuff just brings something out in a surprising number of folks who may never compete, but you can see them mulling it over.”
What feels better, I ask him, winning a softball championship or an eating contest? I’m sure I know the answer. I don’t.
No competition, says Floyd. “I love recreational sports, but anyone can win a softball league. Taking first in an eating contest is a whole different ballgame. It trumps a sports championship for sure.”
George Shea, MLE chairman and co-founder, disagrees. Not that the drama, entertainment value and sheer physical demands of competitive eating (let alone its bonus shock and controversy factors) don’t smoke recreational softball and other sports out of the park, but that there should be any distinction between competitive eating and sports at all.
“Competitive eating at its peak level isn’t a gag or just some outrageous spectacle. All irony aside, it is 100 percent a sport,” Shea proclaims, with the nudging certitude of a New York PR man who also calls the activity a “cultural imperative” and “an amazingly effective free-media platform to promote a brand” in almost the same breath.
Shea and his brother Richard, MLE president, have spent years building the International Federation of Competitive Eating (now branded as Major League Eating) into an actual league with rules, records, rankings, judges, on-site EMTs and exclusivity contracts signed by a turnstile of dedicated top performers with names and everyday faces that beg for a pack of obscure playing cards. There’s No. 3–ranked Tim “Eater X” Janus (age 35, 165 pounds), the tiramisu champion of the world (4 pounds in six minutes) and a tamale record-breaker (71 tamales in 12 minutes). And No. 8–ranked Tim “Gravy” Brown (3.74 pounds of potato wedges in eight minutes). There’s also veteran Eric “Badlands” Booker, ranked No. 15 (50 traditional Purim hamantaschen cookies in six minutes) or even Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, a legend from competitive eating’s golden era (eight or nine years ago), who once consumed 1 gallon, 9 ounces of ice cream in 12 minutes.
At the top of the heap, though, is five-time Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating champion Chestnut (No. 1; 68 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes), the guy who dethroned the formerly unbeatable Kobayashi — aka the first eater to break the 50-dog mark at Nathan’s, the age-old July Fourth, Coney Island–based hot dog-eating contest which started in 1916 and now garners 30,000 live fans, millions of viewers on ESPN and a cemented status as the Super Bowl of competitive eating. There’s a $20,000 purse for both the men’s and women’s competitions (until last year Nathan’s was coed), with the winning male and female competitors at Nathan’s taking half the pot — $10,000 each. The rest is divvied between the second- to fifth-placers. That’s a good payday for a pro eater. So is bagging the Wingstop World-Wing Eating Championship in Dallas or the Wild Carp Week World Salt Potato Eating Championship in Baldwinsville, N.Y. — both of which put up a $10K cash prize purse. Even better — claiming the $12,500 first prize at the TooJay’s World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship held on St. Patrick’s Day in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. If you’re a superstar eater, you can hit the jackpot collecting unspecified appearance and endorsement fees, which MLE says can range from a few hundred bucks to several thousand dollars per gig.
But if you’re not Chestnut, MLE’s top-gun, who reportedly bagged more than $200,000 in contest purses and appearances in 2011 (and close to $220,000 in 2010, according to Shea), or Sonya Thomas (No. 4) and Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti (No. 2), who’ve each reportedly made about $50K per annum, can you make money doing this?
The top three or four eaters can, Shea says. But after that, it drops off. In other words: No one’s quitting their day job.
“The first paying gig I got was at a food vendors’ convention in Marlborough, Mass.,” recalls “Crazy Legs” Conti (No. 20), a 41-year-old, sweet-corn and Lumberjack Breakfast Eating champion who’s been on the MLE circuit for a decade and is the subject of a documentary entitled Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating. “I ate corned beef hash in the evening and donuts in the morning. I got paid a month’s New York rent, and I thought — what could be better than this?”
That said, Conti adds, “If a competitor is in the sport to make money, they’re probably going to be very disappointed.”