For the past five years, a 144-lb. Japanese man by the name of Takeru Kobayashi has taken home the Nathan’s belt, somewhat of a black eye for proud lardbuckets all over our nation. ….”
“THAT’S IT!!” I bellowed, pointing at the tube during a recent evening at home with Mrs. Grant. I may have startled the poor woman by coming out of my TV induced lethargic state suddenly and without warning. I was watching a skinny, gray-haired man in large square glasses downing what must have been a two gallon bowl of baked beans. We were watching a local late evening newscast, and this was one of the fluff pieces they always run to bring viewers down from their usual stories of meth-heads, rapists, murderous thugs, gang violence, internet kiddie molesters, flesh-eating bacteria, lethal weather systems (rain, sun, snow, ice, you name it, it’s gonna kill you), and a host of other dangers, all blasted out in a format that might otherwise leave viewers too hyper-stimulated to sleep for weeks. And TV news directors love nothing more than a good fluffy segment on a local eating contest.
In this case, competitive eaters (officially termed “gurgitators”) from around the country were descending on Lincoln City, Oregon, a small coastal town which has been pretty much taken over by outlet malls and a casino, to take part in the Chinook Winds World Rib-Eating Championship. The baked beans being slurped up for the benefit of TV cameras were nothing more than a show of gustatory ability, since the contest wasn’t going to happen until the following weekend. But that old guy was sucking down those beans as if his life depended on it; in fact his speed was remarkable—it was like watching an automaton as he swept his spoon hand in a circle and rhythmically gulped each mouthful, not even bothering to chew as he inhaled scoop after scoop. There were others slathering beans all over their faces right along with him, but this guy stuck in my mind. His concentration was impenetrable. He was built like a toothpick.
Once Mrs. Grant ceased her impressive display of levitation and calmed down a bit, I could see by her glowering expression that she would like to know what in the hell all of the fuss was about. “That’s what I’ll do in my next Rant,” I explained. “These eating contests have been sticking in my craw—sorry about that, dear—for years now. Where do these morons get off stuffing their faces with obscene amounts of food just to show off their gluttony, anyway? This has got to be the most American of all insane activities…if anyone in the rest of the world has any doubt that we’re off our rockers all they’d have to do is take a look at one of these damn eating competitions.” The old guy on TV was still shoveling; Mrs. Grant was still displaying an ill humor. “I could try it myself,” I offered. “You know how I love to research my Rants. I’ll bet I could give this guy a run for his money and prove what a pathetic waste of time these things are while I’m at it.”
Mrs. Grant’s expression took on a dark, menacing dimension that frankly shocked even me. Somehow, without uttering a single word, she was able to convey a multitude of threats, not the least of which concerned the current state of our marriage—to put it mildly, one Dutch oven away from an appearance on TV’s ever-popular “Divorce Court.” So much for that idea.
Eating contests have been a sore point for me for many years. I wouldn’t say they’re a “craze” along the lines of low-carb diets, blogging, reality TV, or other things that explode into our mass consciousness all at once. Eating contests have been with us forever, it seems, from pie-eating with your hands tied behind your back at the county fair to seeing who in your cabin can choke down the most weenies at summer camp. And who can forget seeing Paul Newman eat fifty hardboiled eggs in “Cool Hand Luke,” or Lardass hosing down his pie-eating rivals in what is absolutely best mass puke scene ever in “Stand By Me?” Organized gluttonfests do seem to be gaining in popularity, though, as evidenced by efforts to promote competitive eating as a legitimate sport. Look no further than the website for the IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating) if you don’t believe me. If ever there was an organized group doing its best to spark its own bona fide craze, this one is it. Recognized as the governing body of international competitive eating, their mission statement pretty much says it all: “The International Federation of Competitive Eating, Inc. supervises and regulates eating contests in their various forms throughout the world. The IFOCE helps to ensure that the sport remains safe, while also seeking to achieve objectives consistent with the public interest — namely, creating an environment in which fans may enjoy the display of competitive eating skill.”
“Eating contests in their various forms around the world?” Well, that shoots down one of my initial assumptions: that competitive eating is an all-American phenomenon, one with roots right here in the good ol’ U.S.A. Actually, to hear the IFOCE tell it, competitive eating “dates back to the earliest days of mankind and stands alongside original athletic pursuits such as running, jumping, and throwing.” A dubious statement, if you ask me, since I wasn’t able to come up with any corroborating claims elsewhere. Japanese culture is also said to have a long-standing tradition of reverence for those who eat for guts and glory. But the granddaddy of all eating contests is an American event: the annual Nathan’s Famous July Fourth International Hot Dog Eating Contest.
The rules are fairly simple: 20 contestants line up at a long table on the Coney Island boardwalk with large mounds of hot dogs piled in front of each. They get 12 minutes to eat as many tube steaks as possible, and the winner takes home the coveted Mustard Yellow International Belt, a prize “akin to the Master’s green jacket of golf or the Vince Lombardi trophy to football,” according to the Nathan’s Famous Weenie website.
One would think that America’s widening waistlines would assure an unbroken chain of wins in this or any other gurgitation event, but for the past five years, a 144-lb. Japanese man by the name of Takeru Kobayashi has taken home the Nathan’s belt, somewhat of a black eye for proud lardbuckets all over our nation. This year he failed to top his personal best—and world record—of 53? dogs set in 2004, but he’s still the king, a mind-blowing contradiction when you compare him to the 300 or 400-lb. behemoths who regularly go up against him. The current thinking on this puzzle is that the thick, not-as-stretchy-as-you-may-think layer of blubber encircling a typically obese American gurgitator restricts the stomach’s ability to stretch; the skinny little Japanese masters are therefore able to run circles around their gargantuan opponents.
In fact, it was one of these smallish gurgitators that started me on my quest for more knowledge of world of competitive eating. I found the guy who was gobbling the baked beans on TV listed on the IFOCE website: it was none other than Richard “The Locust” LeFevre, a 60-year-old, 132-lb. Henderson, Nevada native who was hoping to repeat his win of last year’s rib-guzzling competition. His bio says, in part:
“He is known for his strong jaw and for his capacity, which seems to increase, not decrease, as a contest progresses. Previously considered an outsider in the competitive eating community, Lefevre embraced the formal eating circuit for the first time in 2002, participating in hot dogs, all-you-can-eat buffet and chili. Since then his prowess and reputation have grown.”
For those who might be curious, “The Locust” took second place this year, downing a mere 4.85 lbs. of ribs in the allotted 12 minutes.
Maybe this only counts as a half-hearted Rant, since I have to admit to some self-doubt when it comes to my distaste for eating contests. I mean, what kind of a guy am I to dump all over such a venerable example of good clean fun? Have I become nothing more than a crotchety, cantankerous spoilsport? Should I just lighten up and stick to ranting and raving about issues of actual import?
But to hell with this waffling. I’m still bothered by eating competitions and I can tell you exactly why: dunking. If you ever go see one of these events or catch some footage on TV, you’ll see what I mean—strangely enough, in all the photos and stories I found while surfing around for information on eating contests, it was nearly impossible to find much information on dunking. But that’s what the competitors are doing when they grab a hot dog, douse it in a large cup of water, and then shove the whole gooey mess into their faces. I suppose it would help your speed if you didn’t have to bother getting actual saliva involved in the engulfing process, but dunking is where competitive eating loses me. It can’t feel all that great to waddle around with fifty hot dogs in your gut, hoping against hope that none of them decide to retrace their steps. But at least the first five or six must have tasted pretty good—unless you had to dunk them all in water just to be able to gobble them as fast as possible. Go ahead. Try it. I’ll wait. Just do one. And if that soggy, disgusting thing doesn’t come rocketing back up your esophagus like a mortar shell you have my respect.
Dunking really is why I come squarely down on the side that says gurgitators are not athletes and competitive eating is not a sport. Eating competitions do nothing but ruin any shred of pleasure or decorum or fun to be had in eating hot dogs or any other food item—by dunking, mashing, disassembling, liquefying, or whatever gut-stuffing innovation may come next—and then turn it into an officially sanctioned, public, vulgar spectacle with money and fleeting glory going to those who manage to rack up the most points.
Of course, if you look at it that way, maybe competitive eating really does qualify as a professional sport after all.
(toons: marc covert)