Ryan Nerz | Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory On the Competitive Eating Circuit

Contests involving spicy items, like the jalapeño-eating championship, can cause hours of intense pain later on.

 

Two things happened in New York during the summer of 2001 that would send shock waves through a dumbstruck world: Terrorists murdered thousands by steering jets into the World Trade Center, and a 131-pound Japanese man named Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes at the Nathan’s Famous hot-dog-eating championship in Coney Island, obliterating the previous record of 25 dogs. A foreign power had struck at our vitals, and we would never think of our national security, or our stomach capacity, in quite the same way again.

Many probably don’t know that the hot-dog-eating contest—though televised on ESPN every Fourth of July—is just one event in a long season of gustatory challenges that have their own sports league, with ranked eaters and modest cash prizes. The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) sponsors contests to pack in the most hard-boiled eggs, meatballs, pumpkin pies, you name it, in brief bursts of speed-eating. The subculture has its own peculiarities.

Hot dogs are often dunked in water to speed their passage down the gullet. Competitors train by gulping down an entire gallon of water in a minute or so, to stretch the stomach. Contests involving spicy items, like the jalapeño-eating championship, can cause hours of intense pain later on.

The eating contests may be freaky, but no more so than the colorful eaters themselves. Eric “Badlands” Booker is a 6’6”, 420-pound New York subway conductor who has released an album of rap songs all based on the theme of speed-eating, called Hungry and Focused. Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, a 100-pound wisp of a woman, is currently ranked No. 2 in the world, and has eaten 48 chicken soft tacos in 11 minutes, and 46 dozen—yep, that’s 552—oysters in 10 minutes. Like some kind of exotic animal, she has been known to eat more than 10 percent of her body weight during a competition. The mysterious Eater-X wears a different mask to every contest. Crazy Lags Conti once tried to eat his way out of a “sarcophagus of popcorn.”

Eat This Book reads like a hilarious, stranger-than-fiction magazine piece extended to book length, with laughter throughout. The endpapers feature a list of all the current speed-eating records from the IFOCE circuit. It would only be fair to call it…a bursting appendix.

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