Backstory: Eating as sport and spectacle

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The contrast takes a moment to digest. Ed "Cookie" Jarvis - a man of NFL-lineman proportions - has been explaining the mostly genial rivalry among competitive eaters on the pro circuit. Seven of that community's ranked American members are due here at the DeVille Lounge in Boston to decimate large trays of chicken wings in a 10-minute display of gustatory gusto.

He stiffens slightly at the arrival of Sonya Thomas, "The Black Widow," No. 2 in the world behind Japan's Takeru Kobayashi. Ms. Thomas, an unassuming Burger King manager from Alexandria, Va., weighs about 100 lbs. - at least at the start of contests like these.

Think you packed it away on Thanksgiving? This petite Korean-American woman has consumed 65 hard-boiled eggs in under seven minutes, 35 bratwurst in 10.

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Mr. Jarvis, the world No. 4 and a Long Island real-estate agent, acknowledges her with a nod, then leans in and lowers his voice. "She can be beat," he confides, reaching up to adjust his signature Old Glory bandanna.

That the pro game's personalities come in such radically different physical forms - Jarvis and fellow big man Eric "Badlands" Booker are, in fact, increasingly atypical body types - will be just one of the day's revelations. This superlative-stuffed subculture has its own lexicon (wings and ribs, for example, are "debris food"). It has corporate sponsorships (often food purveyors, though Verizon VoiceWing banners hang here today). It even has a governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). And it's growing.

"The most noble and inherent sport known to man," says Rich Shea, the IFOCE's president, adopting a hyperbolic tone one might expect from a man who wears a boater to work. Mr. Shea stalks stages like a carnival barker, and his midway has expanded. The number of sanctioned eating events in the US will pass 100 this year,up from a dozen six years ago. Sponsors will pay out more than $200,000 in prize money.

It is impossible, of course, to effectively institutionalize gluttony without raising serious and sensitive questions in a nation grappling with obesity, an obsession with dieting, and - more quietly - hunger. Some experts on psychology and food react to queries about competitive eating as they might to spoiled meat, perhaps not wanting to be associated with a phenomenon many people consider the dietary equivalent of a circus act. "Outside my area of interest," one replies to an exploratory e-mail. Predictably "exhibitionistic," answers another in a demurral. Others do weigh in.

"They've set up a ritual that's like an icon of a consumptive society," says Richard Shweder, a cultural anthropologist and professor of human development at the University of Chicago. "It's a very public display of mass consumption, and to me it reads almost like a satire."

In fact, the vibe - county fair meets World Wrestling Entertainment - seems rooted in the confluence of playful Americana, modern American excess, and a popular culture in which the ordinary is ordained as "reality" entertainment.

It does have a pedigree. The Nathan's Famous hot-dog-eating contest in New York is a July 4 perennial dating back to Coney Island in 1916. "It's like the Super Bowl of competitive eating," says Randy Watts, a spokesman for Nathan's Famous, in Westbury, N.Y. "Or like winning the green jacket at Augusta."

If pie-eating contests remain a quiet heartland staple, IFOCE events are becoming more of a mainstream spectacle. ESPN and Sports Illustrated now turn up at major competitions. A recent event sponsored by Krystal, a hamburger chain, involved an 11-city tour.

Modest stakes lay on the line today in Boston: $6,500 in prize money to be divided among the top four finishers. The temperature seems to rise as the lights of TV cameras snap on. A local rock station, broadcasting live, pumps out Beck and Eminem. Thomas sits back behind the stage area, yawning to stretch her jaw muscles. Jason "Erbivore" Erb, a financial analyst from Washington State, does torso twists.

Training methods vary. Some competitive eaters drink copious amounts of water to increase stomach capacity. Many profess to have healthy eating habits outside of the competitions. Several eat one big, balanced meal each day, slowly. A few are vegetarians off the circuit. Most are physically active. Not a few compete simply because they discovered they had an aptitude, or had it pointed out to them.

"We all know people who can really gobble it down - they're either made fun of or admired," says Paul Rozin, a professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied eating. "Suddenly there's an avenue for them."

Presentation helps the sell. "Crazy Legs" Conti, a crowd pleaser with Boston roots, wears a Rastafarian look, his blond dreadlocks dangling from beneath a white velour hat. He is media savvy. "Call it the anaconda model of digestion," says Mr. Conti of his relaxed postgame posture. An oyster specialist, he has donated winnings of late to Louisiana oystermen hit by hurricanes.

There are rules. Regurgitation - involuntary or self-induced - is taboo. "If anyone were to have a reversal of fortune like that they'd be disqualified. As crazy as the whole thing is, we actually are here to advance the sport safely," says Mr. Shea, who calls accidents rare (though a woman did die last year in a city-staged event in Japan). "We have EMTs on hand."

We also have about 125 pounds of wings. Jarvis has been over to scout the victuals. The sizes look ideal, he says, and they look hot. A good thing? "Oh yeah," he says, "the meat comes right off the bone."

On stage, Shea is in his glory. "The passion is raw," he crows, "the poultry is cooked." The eaters swagger out to rock anthems.

Ten minutes is a long stretch of speed eating. "Badlands" stands tall and perspires, a CD blaring through his ear buds. Rich "The Locust" LeFevre, record holder in both birthday cake and chili, hunches over his tray. Grease spatters his glasses. He is a grandfatherly figure, rail-thin, who eats with frightening efficiency.

Thomas - whose skills can net her $50,000 a year - quietly bobs, taking frequent sips of water. Pacing is critical, she had said earlier. Hand speed. Concentration. She defends this exertion as a sport, like any other. "Some people have a different opinion," she concedes. "But they should not judge."

Contestants keep chewing when time is called, and even as the weighing of the wing bones begins. The announcement of a winner comes quickly: Joey Chestnut, a promising rookie whose initial success came at an asparagus-eating contest in Northern California. He'll use the $3,500, he says, to advance his civil-engineering degree at San Jose State University.

Backstage, Thomas sits behind bone-heaped trays and works her cellphone. She just wasn't herself today, she says. Next time. She slings a handbag over her shoulder and melts into the crowd. For her, it's all in a day's work.

Shea, the IFOCE president, acknowledges that for many others, a relationship with food can seem crushingly complex. He's heard all the criticisms. "I understand those concerns. But that is not our game or our dialogue," he says. "Although we celebrate food feats, I'm not encouraging people to eat this way every day."

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