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Eating Competitions

In the 2006 Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July international hot dog eating contest held this year in New York, professional eater Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi consumed more than 50 hot dogs, with their buns, in twelve minutes.

Professional speed eater Eric “Badland” Booker, the second place finisher, could only manage 26 hot dogs (despite holding the American record, previously set at 28). The victory was not without controversy, however; Kobayashi appeared to regurgitate at least some of his eatings, though not too much that he could not keep the remnants contained in his mouth. According to rules of the New York City-based International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), such a “roman-method incident” would call for immediate disqualification. The judges reviewed an instant replay, however, and declared Kobayashi’s victory legal.

The diminutive Kobayashi, who went from 113 to 120 pounds during the contest, competed with men twice his size and weight. As in any sport, this proves that size isn’t the only thing that matters. Competitive eating is a serious sport that requires training and preparation as any other. The IFOCE sets standards and maintains safety and procedural rules.

Competitive eating events have been around for as long as Americans have had state fairs and church picnics, but professional level eating, the type of competition that attracts major food company sponsorship and national television coverage, particularly on the cable Food Network and ESPN, is a more recent phenomenon. The IFOCE acts as the arbiter for events dealing with all types of foods (though these are usually classifiable as “comfort” foods), and in many different geographic settings. The events of only a few months reveal how strongly this sport appeals to the American heart (or should we say stomach).

  • At the Waffle House World Waffle Eating Championships held in Atlanta, Georgia in September, 2006, winner Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set a world record when he ate more than 18 large waffles well within the regulation 12 minutes. His aggressive challenger Chip Simpson was on a roll after having just set a new world record at the National Buffalo Wings eating contest (158 wings within 12 minutes, also a world record). Simpson would come in third, however, thanks for the late-minute efforts of Virginian Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, who, though weighing a mere 100 pounds, holds 27 world titles (including the British mince pie eating title; she ate 46). For his victory, Chestnut (himself not a big man) earned $5,000, Thomas banked $1,500 and Simpson won $1,000. Waffle House is a nationwide chain of breakfast-oriented restaurants.
  • At the World Italian Sausage Eating Championship at the Utah State Fair, Chestnut again came out ahead of determined competition, this time bringing home $3,000 for his efforts. The Utah-based Colosimo company claims to have specially designed their sausages (Chestnut ate 29) for the event so they could be consumed at great speed.
  • At New York’s 79th annual Feast of San Gennaro, held in the city’s “Little Italy” neighborhood, Tim “Eater X” Janus, his face partially covered in war paint, tied a world record by eating 26 cannoli (Italian confections made from deep-fried dough filled with cream) in six minutes.
  • At Harrah’s 2nd Annual Pulled Pork Eating Contest, held in Council Bluffs, Iowa, it was Joey Chestnut again who took the prize, consuming 9.6 pounds of Omaha Steaks pulled pork in ten minutes. Second place weighed in at 7.4 pounds, third at 6.1.
  • At the World Fried Okra Eating Championship at the Oklahoma State Fair in Oklahoma City, female eating champion Sonya Thomas set standards for this popular vegetable by eating nearly ten pounds of the delicacy in 10 minutes.
  • At the Jalapeno Eating Championship at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas, winner Rich LeFevre consumed 247 pickled jalapenos in 8 minutes. Competitive consumption of the fiery pepper has long been considered the ultimate challenge in the professional eating world.
  • At the Krystal Square Off at the Mississippi State Fair in Jackson, one of the many qualifying events sponsored by the Krystal Hamburgers chain, Crazy Legs Conti won by eating 38 of the company’s burgers in 8 minutes, thus qualifying for a place in the 2006 Krystal Square Off III World Hamburger Eating Championships in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The Tennessee-based Krystal Hamburger chain produces a signature small, square burger, hence the title “Square Off.”

The Krystal Square Off III World Hamburger Eating Championships, the only hamburger competition sanctioned by the IFOCE, is covered by the ESPN sports television network and is expected to draw many thousands of spectators from around the world. 2005 champion is Takeru Kobayashi. The winner takes home the Krystal Square Off Champion’s Belt and Trophy (made out of crystal), as well as $10,000.

Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit, by Ryan Nerz, is a humorous but detailed look at the sport. Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, by Jason Fagone also covers competitive eating with gusto.