I love, or rather, live to eat. While recent years have witnessed an embrace of more elitist fare, I’m still a sucker for heart-stopping, ass-splitting junk; whether a Totino’s “pizza” (at this late date, they still insist on avoiding any ingredient to be found in the natural world….thankfully) at the midnight hour, or a dripping, unholy Hot Pocket, which may or may not possess the contents of your average colostomy bag. I’ll inhale cookies, chips, cereal, nuts, beef jerky, and ice cream, as well as a virtual who’s who of frozen meals — so many, in fact, that I may be forced to kill if I am ever again brought face to face with that lump of filth known as a “brownie.” I’ve gulped down three-course meals only to stop at Burger King on the way home for a chicken sandwich and a cheeseburger. I’ve ordered meat-stuffed pizzas, only to put half away for the next day’s lunch, while instead finishing what’s left of a nearly stripped chicken corpse in the fridge. I’ll have a milkshake immediately followed by a cheap beer; a can of Mountain Dew while simultaneously downing a Slurpee; a bag of obscenely buttered popcorn while waiting for a bowl of noodles to finish turning in the microwave. Combine my steady diet of fats, saturated fats, and assorted oils and dyes with an almost fanatical devotion to the art of deepening the ever-increasing dent in my sofa, and you have the makings of a full-fledged, oven-roasted pig; the kind of guy who long ago passed the 200 pound barrier, and is seriously flirting with 250.
And yet, despite an obsession with the expansion of my Jabba-like gut, I am a rank amateur – a fool among enlightened royalty – when it comes to the art of eating. Sure, I’m a slob (with the stained shirts to prove it), but when faced with the madmen and madwomen of Jason Fagone’s Horsemen of the Esophagus, I feel a supreme inadequacy that is usually reserved for my lame — and increasingly unwanted — attempts at lovemaking. Take Takeru Kobayashi, universally recognized as the world’s most accomplished eater; a five-foot six, ferociously cut Japanese man who has, among his numerous records, the astonishing feat of 387 bowls of soba noodles in twelve minutes. Folks, that’s 21 pounds of food in the time it takes the average man to read the sports page. Known on the circuit simply as “Koby”, he is a prickly, often quiet individual who takes his gig very seriously, though not enough to question the overall impact his indulgences might have on his body. So what’s the story? An abnormally expansive stomach? A relaxed esophagus? He’s not telling, but such a “gift” may have little to do with preparation or so-called training, which itself involves little more than binge sessions that flirt with bulimia. Whatever his secret, there’s more to boggle the mind, such as his college-era inhalation of seven pounds of curry in seven minutes, or the 53 ½ hot dogs he shoved down his throat in twelve minutes during a record-setting Fourth of July performance in 2004. Throughout, Koby is calm, serene, and the consummate professional, whatever that might mean in the world of eating.
We also meet such old school freaks as Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a deceptively small Korean woman who leaves men three and four times her size weeping for their mamas. Despite her stature, she plays up her role as a giant-killer, even welcoming brutally mocking receptions from fans where she is encouraged to “show us your won-ton” and “suck my egg roll.” Like a good villain, she understands that if competitive eating is to remain a popular spectacle, it has to be more than the actual eating itself. There are entourages, backstage shenanigans, shit-talking, and rivalries. And with “athletes” named Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, David “Coondog” O’Karma, Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, Tim “Eater X” Janus, and Joey “Jaws” Chestnut (a handsome newcomer we meet late in the book), it remains strikingly similar to professional wrestling, only with fatter frames and even more sweat. This “showtime” atmosphere is largely due to carnival barker George Shea, who runs the International Federation of Competitive Eating (“IFOCE”) like a benevolent dictatorship, where he embraces and/or drops new personalities with all the unpredictability of the weather. But he’s fiercely protective of his “gurgitators”, and isn’t above inventing outrageous myths to sell his product (and it’s little more than that in the end, for these human garbage disposals are literally ingesting a brand at every opportunity).
There are even competing “Wing Bowls” – the original a Buffalo institution, while the other, bigger battle takes place around Super Bowl Sunday in Philadelphia. Featured at the always sold-out Wachovia Center (around 20,000 strong), the event is as outrageous as anything cooked up during Mardi Gras or Carnival. Half-naked “Wingettes” strut their stuff, hundreds of women flash the crowd, hoping to get their moment on the Jumbotron, lights flash, smoke billows, beer flows, and fights break out in every corner. Bodies press against walls, shoving matches ensue, and memories quickly turn back to The Who at Riverfront. Interestingly enough, most of the unbridled insanity takes place before the eating contest itself, which is rather anticlimactic in the face of a virtual riot. But the annual gathering of the tribes is as much a part of Philadelphia as the Eagles or Rocky Balboa. Perhaps more so. The City of Brotherly Love is still a tough, blue collar town, and it’s untamed spirit helps push what would never fly in more elevated circles. Sure, that’s a roundabout way of saying that a Wing Bowl is a sign of low-brow culture and unsophisticated tastes, but that’s less an indictment of the city than its own status as an all-too-typical American symbol. More and more, cities and towns that would host a slobbering, belch-fest outnumber those who would not.
And so we venture from Philly to Coney Island, Vegas to Tokyo; all in service of these complex stomachs that manage to keep it all down (vomiting results in immediate disqualification). We visit with competitors, fans, gastroenterologists, promoters, and yes, even the occasional widow. For eating to excess is, after all, an unnatural act, which says nothing of its status as a symbol of our collective decay. Still, the author – while often shocked, if not horrified – never pushes the social relevance, which, most importantly, means that he never flirts too closely with self-righteousness. His own attempts at gorging are pathetic and largely typical of most human beings, which is all the more reason to be stupefied by those who can erase physical limitations. Fine, eating is entirely different from running or biking, but why not stand in awe of Koby’s noodle feat as we would swimming the English Channel? Each person could likely not do the other, so aren’t they both “amazing” in their own way? Still, this sort of comparison does have its limits; otherwise I might be tempted to ask how many of you failed to shower, change clothes, or even leave the house for eight consecutive days one summer in the mid-1980s? If I stand alone in that task – outside of the bed-ridden or comatose – then do I not command some level of respect, even admiration? I mean, come on – eight straight days!
So is there any validity to the IFOCE’s official creed: In Voro Veritas (In Gorging, Truth)? It’s all-too-easy to say that Americans are boorish, bloated, unendingly crass mountains of flab, and that these contests are merely the absolute bottom of a barrel thought scraped clean years ago. After all, in the face of worldwide drought, starvation, war, and want, should we be celebrating the fact that we are so overburdened with food that we have to have special days where we spill it all over ourselves, much to the delight of cheering crowds? Isn’t this “why they hate us?” Perhaps, but at the same time, there’s something delightfully rude about these events and personalities, almost as if they are deliberately setting out to offend the sensibilities of those who long ago declared that anything that is a pleasure-filled indulgence is sinful, wrong, or at the very least, embarrassing. Where’s the dignity, the self-respect, the temperance? I can’t say that I’d ever want to attend the Wing Bowl, or watch countless hours of oyster inhalation on ESPN, but somehow I’m comforted by knowing that such people are out there, either validating my misanthropic rage, or passing gas in the faces of tight-lipped prudes who believe a hedonist to be at the right hand of Satan. Either way, I’m smiling.