“…Bottomless Pete, nature’s cruellest mistake. Come for the freak, stay for the food.”
“I wish there were hot dogs in jail”
–Takeru ‘The Tsunami” Kobayashi
It must have been a fair spectacle at South Side Pavilion, Jacksonville on April 3, 1919 when the world’s first spaghetti eating competition went down between New York Yankee outfielder, Ping Bodie and the “world’s greatest eater”, Percy, a local ostrich.
As punters jeered from the bleachers, the bird, flustered and eager to out eat the 5’8”, 190-pound baller, accidentally swallowed the timekeeper’s watch and chain over its third bowl of bolognese. By the 11th, it keeled over, swelling with carbohydrate, leaving Bodie—feared slugger of the ‘dead ball’ era—victorious, borderline comatose, saddled with a fresh reputation to go with his love handles and .275 batting average.
Yet it wasn’t a man vs. ostrich pasta-off that spawned the modern obsession with competitive eating. It was hot dogs.
Three years before Bodie’s triumph, burgeoning wiener baron Nathan Handwerker was establishing a reputation of his own with a brand-spanking hot dog stall on the Coney Island boardwalk. On the 4th of July that year, Nathan held his first ever hot dog eat off. The challenge was simple: how many frankfurters could a grown man eat in ten minutes? It took off. Each year, thousands still flock to Nathan’s to celebrate their independence and witness the epic face off between man and sausage.
In 1997, Nathan’s organisers branched out to found the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Initially set up for a lark, they underestimated public demand. Major League Eating (MLE) fast became the peak body in international food challenge, a sanctioned circuit of over 80 different meets where the largest and most forgiving stomachs battled it out over everything from ribs to cheesecake, crawfish to poutine and beyond.
The sport reached its zenith in 2001 when Japanese gurgitator, Takeru ‘The Tsunami’ Kobayashi exploded onto the scene, doubling the pre-existing Nathan’s record from 25 to 50 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
As in pro golf, or Grand Slam tennis, a ranking system was formulated. Professional gurgitators, as they were known, were graded on performance and placed accordingly. Amidst the slew of fresh events, Nathan’s remained MLE’s Super Bowl, Kobayashi, its number one star.
Kobayashi’s arrival spelt a new class of heroism—the epic digester, a workingman’s hero destined to face extraordinary feats of gastrointestinal quantity, endurance and speed. Amongst a stirring list of career triumphs since, he holds the record for ingesting 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes.
Others followed—Joey “Jaws” Chestnut; Matt ‘The Megatoad’ Stonie. In the ladies corner, ranked 4th worldwide, Miki Sudo; Korean born Sonya ‘The Black Widow’ Thomas. Kobayashi remained the poster child—he’d go on to win six consecutive Nathan’s titles, yet to the distress of sponsors and fans worldwide, a contract dispute over exclusivity continues to prevent his involvement in the competition. Dramatically, he was arrested in 2010 for storming the Coney Island stage after protesting his disqualification in the bleachers.
As well as the Kobayashi controversy, other beefs, including excess merchandising, predictable outcomes, and non-picnic rules have led many punters to wonder whether MLE’s eyes have become bigger than its stomach.
Its commitment to safety has also come into question. A study published in the Journal of Roentgenology observed that Nathan’s-style speed eating effectively expands the stomach into an enormous flaccid sac. Professional eaters risk developing morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea, vomiting, as well as the potential need for gastrectomy.
While MLE invites amateurs to compete alongside veterans in select events, many up and coming iron gullets have begun to balk the ‘speed-focused’ big time for the bush league of the online realm, that freakish domain where the limits of excess are bound only by imagination, and viral fandom wildly exceeds anything MLE could ever reach via ESPN.
Over a late night session vaguebooking months back, I stumbled on the videos of a Californian gurgitator known to his 1-million+ followers as “LA Beast”. This man was the son of Jackass, a 275-pound jock with a penchant for dietary masochism, bro’d up and turbo charged with the legacy of Knoxville and Margera tattooed to his cerebrum.
“LA Beast eats a Cactus” garnered my initial attention. It was good viewing. It led naturally to “LA Beast drinks a gallon of Tabasco”, so popular that it made the international cut on Huff Post. His list of challenges appeared as excessive as they were unorthodox—36 raw eggs with the shell still on; a 9000 calorie bacon sandwich—some completed, many failed. Vomiting was a frequent feature.
“Though absurd and vulgar, there was something oddly compelling about LA Beast’s good old-fashioned homemade entertainment”
The Beast, I learned, was in fact Kevin Strahle, a McDonalds burger chef from Santa Monica, who made headlines last year when he declared himself ‘the Burger King’ after eating every sandwich on the rival fast food chain’s menu in one sitting.
Though absurd and vulgar, there was something oddly compelling about LA Beast’s good old-fashioned homemade entertainment—guileless, truer to the rudimentary spirit of pre-corporate era competitive eating. I’d begun to check in with him more regularly than I care to admit.
It also occurred to me that he wasn’t alone. A motley fraternity of extreme anti-heroes surrounded him with feats of their own, including nemesis, “Blum Gum”, a less endearing gurgitator with whom LA Beast is locked in an ongoing ‘egg feud’, the most recent chapter of which involves the looting and skolling of eggs from a live ostrich farm (eerily reminiscent of Ping Bodie).
Yet the Kobayashi of the minor league appeared to be Canadian, “Furious Pete” Czerwinski— LA Beast’s mentor, the Prince William of extreme food challenge; bodybuilder, mechanical engineer and, as founder of ‘Team Furious” apparel, a consummate fashion entrepreneur.
According to Todd Greenwald, chairman of All Pro Eating (rival group to MLE, who advocate picnic rules and do not lock competitors into exclusivity contracts), Furious Pete embodies the qualities of a truly great eater—a rare blend of superior speed, capacity and personality. He holds six Guinness World Records, including for downing seventeen bananas in 2 minutes, a 750-millilitre bottle of olive oil in 60 seconds, and a whole raw onion in 43.53 seconds.
Like Kobayashi, Furious Pete remains glaringly absent from MLE competition. Federation bosses, the Shea brothers have repeatedly denied his application; one can only surmise that Furious Pete is simply too big for the Big League.
In a sport-cum-disorder so heavily dominated by Americans and Japanese, I began to wonder if it translated internationally. Could there be an equivalent scene in Australia?
It was refreshing to discover ‘CompetitiveEating.com.au’, Australia’s home of food competition, set up by Brisbane big meal enthusiast, Billy Boyd in 2012 to meet the domestic need. Amongst local eating heroes listed (from a total of six), Adelaide’s James “Jim Bob” Rose, Melbourne’s “Hungry Haydo” Wilson, and Brisbane’s Colin MacLaurin, aka “Col the Conqueror”, who smashed the previous record by a minute and a half at Adelaide’s 2013 Carnevale Italian pasta eating contest.
The site goes on to list a healthy schedule of DIY and restaurant eating challenges all over Australia. Standouts include the Parmi Army’s “Get Schnitfaced” night at St John’s Park Bowling Club; the 3.5 litre Pho challenge at My Pho, Jindalee; and the annual McKinnon snag-off at Joyce Park Rotunda.
There’s a lot more to be said about all this, or possibly less, but I think I’ll leave the final words to Psychologist and counselling professor, Lawrence C. Rubin:
Is this sport or spectacle, or both? Is it a stage for vicarious satisfaction of unacceptable needs, orality gone wild in a society that values speed, records, and self-debasement, or just plain old fun?
I’m inclined towards the latter. See you at Montana’s “Testicle Festival”, 2015.