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Ready? Set? Eat!

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Crazy Legs Conti (third from left) and Sonya Thomas (second from right) compete at the World Lobster Eating Championship in Kennebunkport, Maine (Courtesy of MLE)

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From left to right: Eric Booker, Sonya Thomas, Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobayashi, Chip Simpson and Pat Bertoletti at the 2006 Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest Circuit (Matt Roberts/ Courtesy of MLE)

Picture yourself wolfing down 53 3/4 hot dogs in 10 minutes. How about devouring 6 1/4 pounds of fried asparagus in the same amount of time? Try ravaging through 182 chicken wings.

Full yet?

If you’re a member of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, you'd better not be, because there’s more coming.

Eating and sport could be the two longest-running passions of humankind, and they are often paired together. The hot dog is an institution at baseball games, and what is a Super Bowl party without the taco dip?

The eating federation has literally brought sport to the dinner table, bringing along fans and critics.

With contests for food as diverse as the triple poultry concoction known as turducken and the Italian dessert tiramisu, the federation is reaching out to television and seeking to expand internationally. Its growing contingent of athletes from around the country and beyond will compete in a variety of contests in the next few months, some of them broadcast on ESPN2.

“There have been eating contests for hundreds of years,” said George Shea, chairman of the federation, “but we organized this thing into what it is now.”

Many people know about eating federation from its flagship competition, the Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. But many don’t know about the nearly 100 other contests involving baked beans, bologna and birthday cake or and the rules that govern their consumption.

Contests are open to the public, but each draws a handful of devoted athletes, many of whom train for the events.

Participants cannot interfere with other contestants’ pace of consumption. They can dunk their food in water, but not for more than five seconds. The question always on everyone's mind is what happens to the food after it has been eaten.

“Reversal of fortune during the competition is a disqualification,” Shea said, referring to the organization's word for regurgitation. “You can do it after the contest, but very few do.”

It is not infrequent for first-time participants to become stars.

Joey Chestnut, winner of a recent chicken wing contest in Philadelphia, “is a great example,” Shea said. “He came right off the asparagus circuit and jumped right to the top.”

Chestnut, a 23-year-old civil engineering student from San Jose, Calif., is ranked second in the world behind Takeru Kobayashi, the 27-year-old Japanese sensation who has won the Nathan’s contest six years straight.

Chip Simpson, 25, became a regular in 2005 after he realized his potential following a wing-eating contest in his native Gainesville, Fla.

Shea said the average contest purse is $3,000 to $5,000. Simpson, who is completing a doctoral degree in physical therapy, said he netted almost $20,000 in 2006.

Shea and his brother, Richard, run the eating federation, which recently established the Major League Eating brand to designate all top-level competitive eaters, eating events, television specials and merchandise. The federation's relationship with sponsors, which include restaurant and food companies, has allowed the sport to be profitable.

While no studies have been conducted on the long-term effects of competitive eating, doctors have viewed the contests skeptically.

“If you eat fast, you’re swallowing fast and repeatedly, and you might be at risk for getting some of the food into your airway," said Dr. JoAnne Robbins, a professor of medicine and an expert on swallowing disorders at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. "Your system only works so fast. Regurgitation is a predictable outcome.”

Robbins has compared the competitions to marathons. “Are our bodies really built to run 26 continuous miles?” she asked. “In the long run, we’re not built to maintain extreme sports. The stomach would be similar. It's not built to maintain food in extraordinary amounts.”

As with many sports, competitive eating is not without internal divisions. Arnie Chapman, who is known as Chowhound and who heads the rival Association of Competitive Eaters, broke from eating federation because of what he calls his “different philosophy.”

“We don’t like each other very much,” he said of Shea and the federation. “It should be fun, it should be silly.”

In Chapman’s organization, food is not dunked in water or torn apart, and “you have to eat the food in accordance with the way it’s traditionally eaten.”

Such guidelines, Chapman said, promote the joy of eating more than competitive devouring. “We think the worst direction competitive eating can take is being seen as a sport instead of for its absurdity," he said.

Shea has acknowledged the rift but still prefers his league’s rules. He also insists that safety is one of the group’s main priorities. Participants in all events must be over 18, and an emergency medical technician is always on hand.

“We don’t have contest durations that would put anyone in danger,” he said, explaining that the matches range from 8 to 15 minutes.

“One-minute contests would force people to eat way too quickly, and four-hour contests would force people to eat way too much," he said. “Our length is solid. It’s not a frat-house kind of thing.”

Simpson, who says he holds the world record for sausage sandwiches (13 1/4 in 10 minutes), believes the contests are a good thing, too.

“Anyone who says this is disgusting, I tell them to just go watch one," he said. "People begin watching thinking it might be some sort of freak show, but it’s actually a great family environment. We don’t do anything revolting.”

Simpson is eager to adjust his strategy for more success.

At last year's Fourth of July Nathan’s competition, “I ate the bun and dog together,” he said, “but this year I think I might separate the dog and bun."

E-mail: abe2109@columbia.edu