By Dr. Billy Goldberg and Mark Leyner
Just ask Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti from Chicago who this past Saturday downed 35 dozen oysters to win The Acme World Oyster Eating Championship belt. I have to admit that I've always been a little fascinated with Major League Eating and was a little disappointed that Deep Dish took down one of my favorite gurgitators, Crazy Legs Conti, who finished third with an impressive tally of 24 dozen. My interest in Pro Eating took a personal twist last Thursday when I celebrated my birthday while hosting my weekly radio show on Sirius' new satellite channel, Doctor Radio.
I was overjoyed when I found out that Crazy Legs was going to be a guest. My joy quickly turned to fear when I found out I was going to compete against Crazy Legs and another gustatory athlete, Arturo Rios Jr., in a birthday cake battle.
With twin epidemics of obesity and hunger around the world, I can see why some people might question the value of eating as a sport. From a scientific point of view, there is very little research done on what all this gorging does to the human body. Surprisingly, some of the top eaters are quite thin. Two of the best known, Takeru Kobayashi and Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, weigh just 160 pounds and 105 pounds, respectively.
The eaters increase the capacity of their stomachs by drinking enormous amounts of water, or by eating slowly digested food such as cabbage to "stretch" the stomach. A 2007 study from the University of Pennsylvania called "Truth and Consequences" looked at competitive speed eating. The authors studied a competitive eater and a normal test subject and found that the competitive eater could expand and dilate his stomach to an extreme degree and also slow the gastric emptying. The authors worry that this might cause permanent damage. As this sport is relatively new, only time will tell.
I guess you may be wondering how the cake-eating contest turned out … We each had a third of the cake. I think I did an impressive job by almost finishing my huge piece in the minute allotted, but Rios won the battle. Crazy Legs, who came in second, pointed out that I committed the classic amateur mistake — "chipmunking." Yes, I filled my mouth to the point that my cheeks were bulging, and that impeded my chewing. Lesson learned.
I, too, absolutely LOVE the sport of competitive eating.
I consider superstar eaters like Takeru Kobayashi, Sonya Thomas, Joey Chestnut and Crazy Legs Conti the equivalent of legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Roberto Clemente, and the magisterial and enigmatic Red Sox clutch hitter Manny Ramirez. And two of my all-time favorite pieces of literature involve competitive eating or competitive non-eating: Damon Runyon's short story "A Piece of Pie" (an account of the fictional greatest eater alive, Nicely-Nicely Jones) and Franz Kafka's "A Hunger Artist" (which concerns a professional "faster").
I'm an epically slow eater, so I've always marveled at fast eaters. The conventional wisdom is that people who grow up in large families develop fierce fast-eating skills. This is because they have to share dinner tables with numerous brothers and sisters, each vying for the same limited cache of grub. So they hone competitive-level eating proficiency. This is survival of the fittest, fastest and least finicky.
As much as I admire professional eating in its present state, I have suggestions to make it even better. Standard competitive fare includes foods like hot dogs, oysters, chicken wings, Spam, eggs or meatballs. I think foods closely associated with holidays should be considered, because it's typically hard to imagine eating them in great quantities. Imagine watching people chugging down egregious amounts of eggnog or stuffing themselves with matzoh or candy corn.
And what about foods that are difficult to unwrap – Starbursts, for instance? Desperate competitors would invariably take to just eating the unwrapped candy, paper and all. That would be awesome.
I have so many great ideas for this sport. I hope the people from the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) get in touch with me right away. I haven't even mentioned my ideas about Mixed Eating – the consumption of multiple, but related foods.
For example, The Multiplex Eating Contest would feature buttered popcorn, Raisinets, Milk Duds, malted milk balls and Swedish Fish. And then there's The Mini-Bar. Contestants would be required to eat and drink the entire contents of a hotel mini-bar as fast as possible.
One slight failing of present-day competitive eating is the lack of "resistance" or "defense." No one is trying to stop the contestants from eating. Perhaps professional eaters should be allowed to interfere with each other or actually fight each other as they eat. (This would certainly result in the sport more closely resembling its origins at the family dinner table.)
I can easily picture some octagonal ring in which Ultimate Eaters punch, kick and grapple as they try to out-eat each other. And then there's Ultimate ULTIMATE Eating. This would entail fighting your opponent to the death and then eating him.
Also, an athletic discipline based on bodily functions can't possibly avoid the other end of the alimentary canal. If eating can be a competitive sport, so can excretion. Professional excreters are on the horizon of tomorrow's superstars. We can only speculate on the judging criteria – speed, raw poundage, perhaps something more sophisticated like chemical content. That might be exciting to watch.