Competitive eating has become a delicious part of our nation’s sporting history. What started as pie eating contests at county fairs has turned into major sport.
Many Americans only go big and refuse to go home. With that mindset, it’s no surprise that even competitive eating has reached the professional level. There are multiple organizations that promote competitive eating events, domestically and internationally. The All Pro Eating Promotions sanctions competitions that abide by the picnic-style rules, meaning they must eat the food without modifying it before consumption. Another recognized organization is the International Federation of Competitive Eating, which was established in the 1990s and hosts almost 50 Major League Eating events per year.
Bureaucracy aside, one question remains: how did eating become a professional international sport?
It may have all started in 1919 when Ping Bodie, an outfielder for the New York Yankees, supposedly challenged an ostrich to a pasta-eating contest in Jacksonville, Florida. The legend claims the ostrich couldn’t get past the eleventh bowl, making Bodie the champion. Notoriety for eating feats grew in 1963 after Eddie “Bozo” Miller downed 27 roast chickens (2 pounds each) at a Trader Vic’s restaurant in San Francisco, setting a new Guinness World Record.
But the turning point for competitive eating occurred when George and Richard Shea took over publicity for Nathan’s Hot Dogs. Nathan’s had hosted its traditional Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest since the 1970s. In the mid 1990s, however, the Shea brothers took the annual hot dog eating contest to a new level. They gained the support of local restaurants and increased advertising for the event by involving local TV networks. Instead of an audience of hundreds, eaters were performing on multiple television networks, including ESPN, in front of thousands. The Sheas, recognizing the profitability in holding contests where participants shovel down food in obscene quantities, founded the IFOCE.
Don’t be fooled into thinking competitive eating is for the faint of heart. On the contrary, this is a sport that must be trained for.The period prior to consumption is the true test of champions, though, as eaters prepare for the big day by stretching their stomach’s capacity. Stretching one’s stomach can involve drinking massive amounts of water within a short period of time. Another method combines the water-drinking technique with eating large quantities of low-calorie foods. Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, now retired, used to consume whole heads of boiled cabbage followed by two gallons of water in the days before a competition. Because of the dangers of training, the IFOCE does not encourage intensive training prior to major league competitions. How they expect contestants to prepare is anyone’s guess.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect about competitive eating is the impressive physical shape of professional eaters. Gone are the days when spectators placed their money on the biggest eater on the stage. The top eaters today are lean and mean. In fact, the record holder for greatest number of chili cheese fries eaten in 10 minutes (8 pounds) is held by Sonya Thomas, a 44-year-old woman who barely weighs 100 pounds.
In addition to training, eaters have developed various techniques to achieve maximum consumption. For example, some eaters prefer to dunk their food in water before shoving the it down their throats. The idea is that getting the food wet makes it easier to chew and swallow. Famous professional eater, Takeru Kobayashi, has developed the “japanesing” technique, also known as the “Solomon Technique,” where an eater breaks his or her food into smaller chunks to fit more food into his or her mouth. Joey Chestnut, another of the world’s prominent competitive eaters, prefers to jump up and down while chomping down on his food.
Today’s world of competitive eating has become grand in scale, filled with rules, regulations, and intensive training. ESPN commentators have compared the success of Joey Chestnut, the current record holder for Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest, to that of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. The world of sports will not remain stagnant; it will continue to grow and evolve. And it seems it is growing and evolving in the same way as the American waistline.