Backstory: Eating as sport and spectacle
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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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."