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In Gorging, Truth
The day after George W. Bush won his second term, a friend of mine e-mailed me, "How about this as a possible theme for your book?"
americans are big, fat, infantile, stupid assholes who love to shovel shit down their throats, and so to shovel more shit down one's throat than any other is to be truly king of america.
At that point I had been covering eating contests for three months. In the thick of a nasty presidential election and a dumb bloody war fueled by certain American appetites, I had been humping around the country on Southwest Airlines, taking notes on the exploits of professional gluttons. It was hard not to make the connection. One Saturday in October, I flew to Jackson, Mississippi, for a Krystal-brand hamburger contest. When I woke up the next morning in my Red Roof Inn in an asphalt no-man's-land next to a Whataburger franchise (try our triple meat and triple cheese), an anonymous Bush adviser informed me, via the online New York Times, "We're an empire now," and anyone who didn't agree was "in what we call the reality-based community." The adviser said that "when we act, we create our own reality. . . . We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do." Pass the gravy, suckers. I walked fifty yards to the Waffle House and ate my reality-based eggs along with fifteen or twenty other Jacksonians, all of them non-historical actors like me. Somebody had left a Clarion-Ledger on the counter, with headlines like n. korean nukes likely powell topic and utah bioweapons test site to grow. I walked to the fair, where the Federation's gurgitators* visited terrible indignities upon their hamburgers under a sweltering sun. In the bleachers, I talked to a man with one tooth who said he eats all day and never gets full. I met two men from Texas who'd driven eleven hours to compete here. "I think it's sort of a celebration," said one. "A celebration of our prosperity. We're able to do this, so we might as well do it, I guess." After the contest, the TV cameras descended upon Nick Blackburn, a roly-poly local who had placed third. I interviewed his loudest supporter, a youngish guy with black spiky hair, who said he was Nick's pastor. If Christ happened upon an eating contest, I asked, what would Jesus do? "God knows our heart," the pastor said. "He judges what's in our hearts, not the stupid things we do." He laughed. "If he did that, we'd all be in trouble."
The Federation's critics are easy to find, having left a trail of acerbic, disapproving quotes in thousands of newspaper and wire stories about competitive eating. Food historians like Barbara Haber ("It's the fall of Rome, my dear") and physicians like the Harvard Medical School's George Blackburn ("This is sick, abnormal behavior") have lined up to take a whack, as have foreign critics such as The Guardian, which in the same 2002 article that quoted Blackburn called competitive eating "a sport for our degraded times" and connected its rise to "an unprecedented boom in the American economy fuelled by rampant consumption." In 2003, consumer advocate Ralph Nader sounded the alarm about four "signs of societal decay": three involved corporate greed and congressional gerrymandering, and the fourth was competitive eating. The Federation's chairman, George Shea, responded to Nader by talking up his Turducken contest. A Turducken is a chicken stuffed into a duck stuffed into a turkey. Shea called his contest "the first real advancement in Thanksgiving since the Indians sat down with the Pilgrims." Shea's counterattacks tend to mix deadpan charm and gentle mockery. "There are those who object to our sport," Shea told me when I asked if it was wise to promote gluttony in the fattest nation on earth,* "and for the moment I'd like to refer to them as," and Shea's voice sped up and dropped a half-octave to let me in on the joke, "knee-jerk reactionaries and philistines." He continued, normal-voiced, "A lot of people have had trouble separating this superficial visual of people stuffing their faces with large quantities of food with the stereotype of the Ugly American. That is not where I am. I see beauty. I see physical poetry."
Poetry, exactly. Shea's eating contests were poetic in their blatancy, their brazen mixture of every American trait that seemed to terrify the rest of the planet: our hunger for natural resources that may melt the ice caps and flood Europe, our hunger for cheap thrills that turns Muslim swing voters into car bombers. If anti-American zealots anywhere in the world wanted to perform a minstrel show of our culture, this is what they'd come up with. Competitive eating was a symbolic hairball coughed up by the American id. It was meaningful like a tumor was meaningful. It seemed to have a purpose, a message, and its message was this: Look upon our gurgitators, ye Mighty, and despair. Behold these new supergluttons, these ambassadors of the American appetite, these horsemen of the esophagus.
There was a time, of course--a year and fifteen pounds ago--when I didn't watch people gorge themselves in public and try to figure out what it meant, or if it meant anything at all. I was a serious journalist with a good job. I wrote for a magazine in Philadelphia. I wrote about doctors, developers, politicians, and the occasional eccentric who wanted to change the world. I had never heard of the Belt of Fat Theory. I couldn't tell the difference between "Hungry" Charles Hardy and Hungry Hungry Hippo. I couldn't rap a single verse of competitive-eating-themed hip-hop. The only thing I knew about competitive eating was what everybody else knows: that every year, some skinny Japanese guy kicks all of our American asses in hot dogs.
I was okay with all of that.
Then, one day in the summer of 2004, while using my magazine's Internet connection to distract myself from thinking about my doctors and developers and politicians and eccentrics who wanted to change the world, I came across the Federation's website, ifoce.com.
The outer rim of the donut hole.
Across the top of the page, a banner spelled out international federation of competitive eating. The site's design was unremarkable except for an illustration on the page's upper left: a heraldic seal with two facing lions. Upon closer inspection, the lions were eating a hot dog from both ends while pawing tubes of mustard and ketchup that crossed, like swords, to form an X. A Latin inscription read in voro veritas.
In Gorging, Truth.
I clicked "Media Inquiries."
Within a day or two I got a call back from Rich Shea, younger brother of George Shea. In the meantime I had done some more reading. I had discovered that my hometown, Philly, hosted an annual chicken-wing contest called Wing Bowl. A couple of times since I had moved to Philly, friends and strangers had tried to tell me about Wing Bowl, but I must have blown them off. On the phone, Rich Shea explained the significance of Wing Bowl's greatest champion, a truck driver named Bill "El Wingador" Simmons. "Wingador's done a lot for competitive eating, certainly in Philly," Rich said. "So, you know, he could be the Moses Malone--did Moses Malone play for the Sixers? He could be the Doctor J"--he paused, thought of something better--"the G. Love and Special Wing Sauce of competitive eating." He laughed.
Rich talked quickly and thought quickly. He explained that he and his brother maintained a public relations firm in New York--Shea Communications--and their bread-and-butter clients were legitimate types like detectives and commercial real estate managers. The Federation was a separate track of the business, run from the same loft office in Chelsea. The Sheas got into the eating game in the late eighties, when both of them graduated from college, one after the other, and went to work in New York City for two old-school PR guys from the era when PR guys were called "press agents." The two old-school PR guys were the ones who invented the biggest eating contest in the world, the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog contest, back in the 1970s. The brothers eventually took over the Nathan's account and formed the Federation in 1997 with the goal of extruding that single hot dog contest into a gluttonous empire.
And they were getting close. The Federation claimed to have 300 active eater-members. Rich said that by the end of 2004, the Federation would have sanctioned about seventy-five contests that year, anywhere from three to ten per month. This was in addition to a handful of non-Federation contests that came in two flavors: indie and bootleg. The indie contests--one or two per month--were organized under the umbrella of an offshoot league called the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, or AICE. Because AICE was newer, its contests were far smaller than the Federation's. As for the bootleg contests, they were harder to characterize: dozens, maybe hundreds, of minor spectacles at low-rent venues, at America's crummy bars, small-town carnivals, drive-time radio stations.
Eaters had options, but there was a catch. They couldn't mix and match. The Federation required its top talent to sign exclusive eighteen-month management contracts, and it had not been reluctant to shoot off cease-and-desist letters to wayward eaters it suspected of breaching the contract. Ambitious eaters--those who desired the imprimatur of a league--were therefore forced to pick either AICE or the Federation. Most eaters went with the Federation because it was bigger in every way: bigger stage, bigger money, bigger media. The Federation contests were sponsored by food companies, mostly, but also by municipal festivals and casinos on Indian reservations. The Sheas earned a per-contest fee from each sponsor, usually in the mid-four to low-five figures. The sponsors also put up the prize money, which Rich described as "a thousand dollars here, a thousand dollars there." In 2004, the total cash prize money was more than $60,000, of which the top American eater, Sonya Thomas, took home at least $17,000, plus a car--but the prizes, the number of contests, and the fan base were all growing; in 2005, sponsors would dole out more than $160,000, and Sonya would double her cash winnings. "It appeals to our competitive nature," Rich told me, adding, "You could also argue it's packaging and promotion and marketing. We've been very careful with how we've presented it." The Shea brothers had targeted "that guy demo," landing the horny eighteen-to-thirty-four set that loved Maxim and FHM. Capturing the guy demo allowed them to pitch eating specials to the Travel Channel, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and even such bigger fish as Fox. In 2004, ESPN scored 765,000 household viewers for its first live broadcast of the Nathan's contest.
Eventually, said Rich, he and his brother hoped to convert eating from a hobby into a professional sport, like bass fishing. "That's sort of the curve we're looking at," Rich said.
He didn't mention it, but in 2001, the B.A.S.S. league sold to ESPN for a purported $35 million.
Eating contests weren't invented by the Shea brothers or their mentors, or even by Americans. Anthropological studies and old copies of scurrilous newspapers suggest that the will to gorge is universal. Speed and volume competitions pop up in Greek myth, in the Eddas of Norse myth,* and even in what may be mankind's first novel, Apuleius's Golden Ass, written in the second century a.d.: "Last night at supper, I was challenged to an eating race by some people at my table and tried to swallow too large a mouthful of polenta cheese." (Choking ensued.) Ethnographies show that eating contests were regular events at lavish Native American potlatch feasts, and there's historical evidence of rice contests in Japan, beefsteak contests in Britain, mango contests in India. Even in France, that supposed bastion of foody sanity, les goinfres (pigs) compete to pound le fromage at seasonal festivals.
We're different because we have more of it, more types of contests in more places. We do it broader and bigger, and unlike the British, the French, and the Germans--whose health ministry explicitly condemned the German variation of eating contests, called Wettessen, in a letter to a researcher of mine--we make no apologies. We unabashedly marry the public-gorging impulse to our most sacred American rituals (the catching of the greased pig followed by the pie contest followed by the reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July) and give organized gluttony an iconic role in our most iconic movies. One of the feel-good pinnacles of Cool Hand Luke, Paul Newman's epic prison flick, is the scene in which Luke wins over his fellow prisoners by declaring, casually, that he can eat fifty hardboiled eggs--"Yeah, well, it'll be somethin' to do," says Luke--commencing days of fevered speculation, betting, logistical preparation, training meals, and exercise leading up to the eventual eating performance itself. Luke eats the fifty eggs, winning his buddy Dragline a ton of cash and triumphing existentially over his captors by making prison seem like fun. Also uplifting, though in a different sense, is the infamous blueberry-pie-eating scene in Stand by Me. A young boy in a small town, cruelly nicknamed "Lardass" and taunted by classmates and adults alike, gets revenge by entering a pie contest and vomiting on one of his competitors. Lardass ignites a chain reaction: "Girlfriends barfed on boyfriends. Kids barfed on their parents. A fat lady barfed in her purse. The Donnelly twins barfed on each other. And the Women's Auxiliary barfed all over the Benevolent Order of Antelopes . . ."
I never found a newspaper clipping that described a "total barf-o-rama" like the one in Stand by Me, but minus the barf-o-rama, it could be any contest in any small town. Prison masculinity tests like the one in Cool Hand Luke also have a basis in reality, if my interview with a Baltimore gurgitator nicknamed Tony Hustle, formerly incarcerated in the state of Maryland for armed robbery, is any indication. When it comes to contest lore, fact trumps fiction. The great Damon Runyon, the bard of 1920s Broadway, staged a fictional eating contest for his short story "A Piece of Pie," but for my money, his nonfiction account of an eating contest in the March 5, 1920, New York American is more pleasurable. Runyon, reporting from the Yankees training camp in Florida, describes preparations for a "gustatory grapple" between the sportswriters (especially a top eater-scribe named Irwin Cobb) and the ballplayers (primarily Babe Ruth, for obvious reasons):
It was decided that Mr. Cobb should start from scratch with Ruth, and that they shall spot their competitors one Virginia ham each, and a double porterhouse. George Mogridge, who is managing Ruth, insisted on a rule that Mr. Cobb shall not be permitted to tell any stories during the encounter, as George says his man cannot do a menu justice if he has to stop and laugh, while Mr. Cobb's ability to laugh and eat at the same time is well known. He can emit a raucous guffaw and chamber a Dill pickle simultaneously.