The mysterious appeal of competitive eating

I hate wasting food. I really hate it. Hence I also hate things like food fights, sculptures made of butter and other foods, and any other occasion where people use food for things other than providing nourishment or eating pleasure. My strong feelings may be due to growing up a country where access to food was not taken for granted.

A corollary to that feeling is that I also hate those food-eating contests where the goal is to see who can eat the most or fastest. The idea of people stuffing themselves with food when they are not hungry seems to me to be grotesque. Last weekend saw the most famous of these events, the Coney Island hot dog eating contest, in which the men’s event was won for the seventh year in a row by Joey Chestnut who ate a record 69 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. A separate women’s contest has been held for just three years and has been won each time by Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas.

In November 2012 Jon Ronson filed a story for GQ magazine on the people who compete in these kinds of events. As he confesses, “The truth is, rarely have I done a story about something that’s so utterly, existentially pointless and so emblematic of the American tendency to go way too far.”

His description of what he saw at a similar corned beef eating contest leaves me baffled as to why people would want to even see it.

So after all of Joey’s talk of science and preparation, I was imagining the corned-beef contest to be somehow more graceful and balletic. But as Shea counts down to zero and the eating begins, what I see instead are twelve people grotesquely cramming huge piles of meat and fat-sodden rye bread into their mouths. The juice drips down their arms, saturating their shirts. Their puffed-out cheeks are beetroot red. They resemble sweaty, meat-smeared squirrels. The sickly smell of fat permeates the hot air. I notice that the fastest eaters are squeezing the sandwiches in their clenched fists before swallowing them. With one hand they’re shoveling in the food, with the other they’re gulping liters of water or, in the case of Pat Bertoletti, bright red cherry limeade. Coupled with the semi-masticated sandwiches that are spraying from their mouths in globules as they slobber onto themselves and the table, the whole thing looks like an unimaginable crime scene.

He also describes a cupcake eating competition.

I’ve calculated that each cupcake contains around 500 calories, which means the contestants will be eating something like 25,000 calories in eight minutes. It would take a normal person eating a normal amount of calories ten days to consume that many. I find this horrifying, but no one else seems to care. Also horrifying: There are buckets under the stage. Today’s emcee, Dave Keating, explains they’re for “reversals. We don’t use the V-word on the circuit.” A reversal, by the way, results in immediate disqualification.

People actually want to see this?


  1. CaitieCat says

    I wonder if it stems from a misunderstanding of the concept of “bread and circuses”. They’re not necessarily required to happen at the same time…

  2. Lofty says

    Conspicious, wasteful consumption, it’s the American Way. The idea that you could offer a hundred poor people a free feed instead? That’s unamerican, that’s trash talk that!

  3. atheist says

    I have to admit, competitive eating is a super-gross hobby in every single way. I don’t get the appeal either.

  4. machintelligence says

    It does seem to follow the American adage: “Some is good, more is better, and too much is just about right.”

  5. wtfwhatever says

    The Pie-Eating Contest -- Stand by Me (Stephen King narrated by Wil Wheaton)

  6. elly says

    I agree 100% -- eating contests are revolting.

    But they’re also serious business/advertising for various brands -- for example, this Hooters wing-eating contest offers some hefty prize money for the “athletes” involved. Joey Chestnut, for example, earned $218,500 in 2010.

    And for everyone else, it’s a spectacle -- when you make a huge deal out of something, people will come to watch it -- the grossness of the event is obscured by all the hoopla. If you check out the pics from the Nathan’s event, you’ll see that no one in the audience gets close enough to really see how disgusting it is.

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