The crazy world of competitive eating
Eating for a living: it sounds like the ideal job. But do you have what it takes to be a professional ‘gurgitator’? And more to the point, would you want to?
We don’t generally consider eating to be a spectator sport. But in the USA, food competitions are big business. And by ‘food competitions’, we don’t mean cooking up tasty dishes with great skill and panache, but shovelling as many hot dogs, chicken wings or pizza slices down your throat as you can in the shortest possible time.
It might sound rather unsavoury to most of us, but in America, competitive eating is proving very popular with food fans. The ‘sport’ even has its own governing body, with over 100 national eating contests a year, official rules and records, and total prize money in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Of course, eating contests are nothing new. They have their roots in America’s village festivals back in the early twentieth century, where competitors were challenged to eat as many pies as they could to celebrate the end of harvest. But since then, things have changed beyond recognition. Sponsorship by some of the major food companies, coupled with US reality TV shows like the evocatively named Gutbusters and The Fear Factor, have brought big money and attracted millions of dedicated fans. The biggest events, like the hot dog contest that has been run by Nathan's in New York since 1916, the Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, or the Krystal Square Off hamburger eating competition held in Tennessee, easily attract up to 40 000 spectators. Eating has gone professional.
It may seem like an easy way to make a living, bringing a new breed of ‘food celebrities’ onto our television screens and promoting this or that brand of food or restaurant chain. But there’s a distinct downside to all this gluttony. Besides the moral issue of eating to excess while others starve, there are the unnatural and unhealthy training regimes these ‘gurgitators’ put themselves through. Some consume large amounts of food or drink litres of water to expand their stomachs; others fast for several days to work up an appetite, chewing gum to build jaw strength. How would you like to regularly gorge on cabbage to keep your stomach in tip-top gurgitating form?
Studies(1) have shown that over-eating to such an extent causes the stomach to distend to an unnatural degree, forming a big flaccid bag capable of accommodating huge amounts of food. This huge stomach occupies most of the gurgitator’s abdomen, and is just about the nearest a man can get to experiencing pregnancy! In the long term, the expansion of the stomach during competition could very well become irreversible. Losing its ability to contract and empty could ultimately require gastrectomy. Over-eating could also lead to morbid obesity. Worse still, one competitor choked to death when food lodged in his throat at a hot dog eating contest in Custer, South Dakota.
To prevent abuse and look after competitors’ health and safety, the International Federation of Competitive Eating has established a set of rules governing eating contests. To be eligible to take part, all competitors must be aged 18 or over, with each contest lasting no more than 10 or 12 minutes on average. You can soak your food in water for easier swallowing, but for no more than 5 seconds. Emergency medical personnel must always be on hand. And if you vomit, you’re out (this is called a ‘reversal of fortune’ among those in the know).
The popularity of competitive eating has spread beyond America’s borders – it’s now big business in Canada and Japan, too, with programmes like Man v Food being exported across the Atlantic. So what’s behind this relatively recent and highly controversial phenomenon of professional competitive eating? Could it simply be a reaction to the official warnings to ‘eat healthy’? A morbid fascination with watching others gorge themselves until they’re sick? Or is it just another manifestation of our increasingly obese and food-obsessed society?
Whatever the answer, competitive eating is good, clean fun for some, and unhealthy, immoral and wholly unacceptable to others. But one thing is certain: for the sponsors – generally fast-food chains and some big-name food and drink manufacturers, with a smattering of heartburn and indigestion remedy producers thrown in to calm the queasiness – it’s a great way to promote their goods and services. After all, if eating supremo Joey Chestnut can manage to put away 68 legendary New York hot dogs in just 10 minutes while top female gurgitator Molly Schuyler guzzles her way through 348 chicken wings, surely you can find room for a few yourself?
From wedding cake to caviar, spicy peppers to green pancakes, they all have their own dedicated eating competitions. Admittedly, you’ll probably baulk at the World Slugburger Eating Championship in Mississippi. But don’t worry – it’s not as bad as it sounds. Slugburgers are just a local mixture of beef and breading that's then deep-fried instead of grilled. As for Montana’s annual deep-fried bull's testicle eating challenge – yes, they genuinely are real, making this one event you definitely wouldn’t want to enter!