Two summers ago, Takeru Kobayashi touched the stars.
The 27-year-old “prince” of competitive eating downed 53-and-a-half hot dogs and buns at the 88th annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. His closest competitor, fellow Japanese Nobuyuki Shirota, swallowed 38 tube steaks. Sonya Thomas, a 99-pound Korean immigrant who lives in Alexandria, finished a distant third with 32. Until Koby retires, the only question in the event is: Who will round out the leader board?
That same year, Philadelphia magazine writer-at-large Jason Fagone profiled his city’s Wing Bowl 12, a local, blue-collar chicken-eating affair. In preparation for the piece, he stumbled across the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) Web site and—struck by the earnestness with which competitive eaters competed in events beyond the Nathan’s contest—set out on a path that would, over the next year, lead him to watching people scarf oysters in Louisiana, competing himself in a pizza-eating contest in Ohio, and seeking out Kobayashi—the holder of the Mustard Yellow Belt himself—in Japan.
But upon arrival in the Land of the Rising Sun, Fagone discovered that his printed description of one Wing Bowl competitor as “fat” had offended the 132-pound champion, who refused to speak with him. His trip suddenly headless, Fagone decided to stay a while, limning the Japanese iteration of competitive eating, oogui, which encompasses implausibly lush TV shows where, he writes, “imperial overtones and laser beams and explosions and inconceivable quantities of food all combine to convey the opposite of seriousness—the feeling that oogui is still, despite the high stakes and athleticism, a game.” Eventually, he outlasted Kobayashi, who agreed to meet for an interview, during which Fagone discovered that he is brain-meltingly boring. “I had jack,” he writes. “Koby is a nice person, but not interesting.”
Kind of like the beginning of Fagone’s book. If the surfeit of italicized text in Fagone’s quotes has already made you wince involuntarily, you’ll probably be driven completely bats by his tendency to write cute footnotes, à la David Foster Wallace, for facts he can’t seem to work into his text. But Fagone’s preciousness isn’t as much a problem as the fact that he spends the first third of his book chronicling his pursuit of a story he admits just isn’t there. Fagone and his traveling companion, disgraced gurgitator (the preferred term for competitive eaters; the IFOCE Web site claims they are known as “epicuriators” in France) Dave “Coondog” O’Karma, loll in their hotel room, search out competitive-eating groupies, and become fans of Japanese pastries. It’s enough to make you wonder why he bothered writing any of it down.
But you see, the eating contests touched a part of Fagone’s soul benighted by President Bush’s re-election in November 2004. He writes that he felt a need to parse the “whole goopy range” of what the increasing pop-culture visibility of these contests means in a post-9/11 world, that he wanted to come to terms with what he calls “everything that makes me want to buy a ranch in Montana one day and move to Scandinavia the next.”
If that sounds like bullshit, well, so is competitive eating. There might well have been a Nathan’s contest on Coney Island in 1916, but the modern event traces its roots back to a fast-talking old-fashioned PR man named Max Rosey, a master of the nearly vanished art of the publicity stunt who, charged with reviving the Nathan’s brand, reconstituted the contest in 1973 with heaping helpings of corn and chutzpah. Rosey’s spiritual heir is his former employee George Shea, who, with his brother Richard Shea, took over the joke, incorporated the IFOCE in 2000, and has been laughing all the way to what suspiciously looks like the bank ever since.
The IFOCE’s Web site claims that the contest has been held every year since 1916, with breaks to protest World War II (in 1941) and free love (1971), but like so much of the federation’s mythology, those facts are products of George Shea’s gift of gab. Shea MCs federation events in a straw boater, his baloney ballooning as the main event draws near. During one Nathan’s contest Fagone attended, Shea brandished the teeth of Jim Mullen, the almost certainly fictional winner of the first Nathan’s contest. He refers to the early days of the contest, when a 13-dog total could chalk you a W, as the “Dead-Dog Era.” He introduces the more famous eaters with a mountain of malarkey: Sonya Thomas, for instance, is “that cold chill you get in the middle of the night.”
Less charmingly, Shea and his brother sign all the top-tier gurgitators to management contracts. They develop the circuit’s contests, negotiate the TV rights, and are always available for interviews. Gurgitators are kept on a tight leash in terms of what contests they can participate in. But, Fagone discovers, much like musicians in the early rock ’n’ roll era, the competitive eaters don’t care that they’re being exploited. The U.S. gurgitator talent pool is drawn from American “Big Men”—spiritual heirs, he writes, of “Diamond” Jim Brady, who “ate highly public dinners so lavish that he’d start off six inches from the table and would only stop when his belly touched wood.” The Big Man’s diet was perfect for people who had to get up every morning and scratch a nation out of the wilderness. That this vestigial taste for huge meals persists long after tunnels have been blown through the mountains and the tall trees have been felled only underlines the fall of our gelatinous has-been heroes. “As the buffet spreads got steamier, and the food more toxic,” Fagone writes, “the Big Man only sank farther into the pleather booths of the proliferating strip-mall All-You-Can-Eats.”
And of course, it’s one of life’s little ironies that America’s eaters, arguably the best in the world at stuffing their bellies, routinely get their flabby asses roundly kicked by skinny Asians who’ve figured out how to game the digestive system. No doctor Fagone talks to can quite figure out how competitive eating works, though most agree it has something to do with paralyzing the esophagus by swallowing very quickly. “So it becomes an inert tube,” one doctor tells Fagone, “and at that point, I guess, you could stuff that tube until it’s full.”
Every successful gurgitator has his own strategy for stretching the bag at the end of that tube, and Fagone details the skunkworks of Tim “Eater X” Janus, a day trader and rising IFOCE star who tries yogurt, cottage cheese, Jell-O, and finally “a certain kind of noodle” to get his stomach up to Koby-level capacity. But the short answer to why a 99-pound Asian woman can soundly clobber a 420-pound American Big Man like Eric “Badlands” Booker is that no one really knows. There’s a pseudoscientific theory about the so-called “Belt of Fat,” which holds that “fat guy’s stomachs get trapped by their ‘belts’ of fat,” Fagone writes, “and can’t expand as much as the guts of skinny guys.”
So why compete at all, if you’re on the losing end of the American dream, with even your ability to put away pounds of scrapple totally dwarfed by the medically inexplicable talents of weedy Far Easterners? Because, Fagone decides, “[I]f the eaters have taught me anything, it’s that to run straight at trash culture, to engage it and live inside, is a complex and contradictory act.”
Wing Bowl 13 is Fagone’s stunningly successful attempt to do just that himself. The annual event has grown from a sports-bar novelty to a beast that overtakes Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center with a dark, Martin Amis–like quality. Beer cans fly at 7 in the morning, strippers flash the crowd, eaters enter on sedan chairs, and Fagone suggests that the whole thing is probably more wired than a Halliburton contract. The organizers had apparently decided that it was time to return the Wing Bowl ring to an American Big Man, Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, whom Fagone profiles in extremis—he eats Christmas dinner with the Simmonses, watching El Wingador’s wife ritually deny him the bacon she’s fried up to get him in a fighting mood, and notes his Nexium dosage.
El Wingador is Fagone’s favorite type of eater, one just this side of starring in a Bruce Springsteen song: a truck-driving son of a gun who embodied Philly blue-collar resentment after Sonya Thomas clobbered him in Wing Bowl 12. Which, of course, makes his redemption in Wing Bowl 13 all the more sweet. “They didn’t give it to me,” Simmons tells Fagone in the Wachovia Center’s locker room after collecting his ring and brand new Suzuki Verona. “I earned it.”
Fagone does his best to prove otherwise, reviewing tape of the event and interviewing a judge who won’t confirm or deny Wing Bowl is fixed. But that hardly matters, Fagone decides. The reason competitive eating is growing in popularity has nothing to do with angry white male rage—it’s that we as a culture don’t care anymore if we’re being sold down the river as long as it’s entertaining. “[C]ompetitive eating is the perfect twenty-first-century sport,” he writes, “because it’s sold out so hard already. It’s pre-sold out. Its athletes go beyond slapping a brand name on their shirtsleeve, they actively consume the product, they’re shitting out the product.”
It’s all a bit hard to swallow for our man, who finally takes refuge in a small-town blueberry-pie-eating contest in Maine, then is horrified to find out SportsCenter is in town to cover it. Even small-town fairs, it turns out, are no match for the big dumb American culture he’s been playing chicken with. But Fagone takes refuge in the happy villagers’ obliviousness to how quickly they, too, are traveling down pop culture’s gullet, learning to love the “brief berserk moment” when the inherent weirdness in our national character manifests itself. You just gotta stuff the tube ’til it’s full.CP