Summer is the eating contest season. The concept that competitive eating is a sport is not set in stone, but Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, the so-called Super Bowl in the world of competitive eating, is treated like a sport in that it is broadcast on ESPN and viewed by millions.
With their origins in country fairs from the old days, eating contests now are becoming increasingly popular, with more events scheduled and further contest food items added than ever before. On July 26, spectators can, for the first time ever, watch how competitors gorge spiedie, a sandwich with marinated cubes of chicken, on the first World Chicken Spiedie-Eating Competition in central New York.
A strong jaw muscle is one of the crucial factors in winning these “glutton for punishment” contests. Chewing large amounts of gum can train the jaw muscles to exert 280 pounds of force, similar to that of a German shepherd.
Also, the ability to expand the stomach is critical. Competitors train by drinking gallons of liquid at one sitting. Speeding up the eating process is another factor that is essential for success. Contestants achieve this by doing things like hopping up and down, pressing on their stomachs to push food down and timing their breathing properly. Top performing eaters also work out to stay fit as extra fat prohibits the expansion of the stomach.
The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), also known as Major League Eating, warns on its website against home training of any kind and emphasizes that any training or competitions should take place in “a controlled environment with appropriate rules and with an emergency medical technician present.”
There are possible risks that can occur from participating in eating competitions and training for them. The risks include injuries to the muscles of digestive tracts and water intoxication. A couple of deaths from choking were also reported.
Why would competitive eaters participate despite all these discomforts and risks in addition to the public humiliation that some of them experience by taking part in an eating contest? There are rewards, such as appearance fees and prize winnings; but still, only the top-ranked eaters can afford not to hold down a day job. The vast majority of contestants are not motivated by monetary rewards, or at least not those rewards alone.
Eating is an intimate and innate skill in everyone. It is natural for people to feel they can find a food that they can eat enough of to become a success in one eating contest or another, just like the people that they read about and watch on TV.
Joey Chestnut, the winner of the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest for the eighth consecutive year, likes to push his body to new limit during training and competing. He also enjoys traveling to contests and making people laugh. Another contestant said the contests help her get rid of the shame of her big appetite.
Why would spectators subject themselves to viewing gluttonous eating competitions? There is nothing remotely attractive, intriguing or pleasant about such activities. People who participate in an eating contest like Nathan’s have no trace of dignity left by the end of the competition. It may be funny to watch sch competitions, but there must be a better reason to explain the more than 60,000 spectators who attended the Fourth of July hot dog eating contest at Coney Island.
Professor Vivian Nun Halloran, in her 2004 article in the Iowa Journal of Cultural Studies, argues the public’s confusion and concern about weight and eating practices are the reasons. The constant bombardment of contradictory information on nutrition, weight-loss, and proper dietary habits make the public confused. The difficulties involved with consistently following a balanced diet and getting sufficient exercise leave the public in anxiety and guilt. These complex feelings about eating, according to Halloran, prompted its entertainment aspect.
The public has been more confused and concerned over the growing epidemic of obesity and poor eating practices since 2004 when Dr. Halloran wrote critically about the spectacle of eating contests. The eating events have been thriving and will continue to entertain the public until the public’s confusion and concerns go away.That is something which will probably not happen for a very long time.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things to decide about entering an eating contest is choosing the right one. That is because eating contests have an almost inexhaustible list of food items to challenge the competitors and amuse the spectators.
Aside from competing in everyday foods such as hot dogs, pizzas, burgers, chicken wings, ribs and hard-boiled eggs, there are also plenty of wacky contest items to choose from. Oleg Zhornitskiy finished one gallon of mayonnaise in eight minutes in February 2002; Richard LeFevre had six pounds of spam in 12 minutes in April 2004; Sonya Thomas wolfed down 44 lobsters in 12 minutes in August 2005; Patrick Bertoletti consumed 275 pickled jalapenos in eight minutes in May 2011; and Joey Chestnut devoured 121 Twinkies in six minutes in October 2013.
Entering an eating contest might not be for everyone, but they are becoming increasing popular and are attracting more competitors and spectators every year. Expect more food items to be added to eating contests as time goes on.
Opinion by Tina Zhang