Hungry?

The Wide World of Competitive Eating

International Herald Tribune, November 2, 2002

The Wide World of Competitive Eating
by Amanda Hesser

NEW YORK - Ed (Cookie) Jarvis was sipping a glass of water. A large man with a body shaped like a water balloon pinched at the top, Jarvis looked calm.

"I'm really hungry," he said. "I had a brownie about 15 minutes ago." Jarvis, who weighs 409 pounds, stood in the ballroom of the Atlantic Oceana nightclub in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, last Sunday, waiting for the world pelmeni-eating championship to begin.

"What happens is, if you fast," he said, "it keeps you from eating so much."

EATING AS SPORT: An M.C.
urges on competitors at the
pelmeni-eating championship.
For breakfast, Jarvis had four eggs, scrambled with bacon and cheese, two cups of coffee and a brownie; for lunch, half a pound of turkey and a brownie. Brownies, he said, keep him from becoming nauseated.

"I haven't tasted one," he said of the pelmeni, a Russian meat dumpling. "I hear they're not that great. But it's not going to matter because I'm going to eat 250 of them."

Jarvis is the world champion ice cream eater (1 gallon, 9 ounces in 12 minutes) and cannoli eater (21 large cannoli in six minutes). He is also one of a new breed of food professional, the competitive eater.

In recent years, spurred in part by the success of Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot-dog eating contest in Coney Island, eating contests have popped up across the country, from reindeer-sausage events in Alaska to conch fritter matches in Florida. There is now an organization, the International Federation of Competitive Eating, that sponsors many events.

A group of substantial members of that federation gathered for the pelmeni challenge. Out of Atlanta was Dale (the Mouth From the South) Boone, dressed in snug denim overalls and a coonskin hat. Two men came from Ukraine, and a Boeing mechanic from Seattle named Ray (the Bison) Meduna also made the trip. In all, there were 20 contestants and some 250 spectators, who had paid $50 to $100 and were piling plates with pickled herring, eggplant salad, meat pies and pickles - light dining before the visual feast.

It was a small crowd for a competitive eating event. Last year's Wing Bowl in Philadelphia drew more than 15,000 spectators, and the hot-dog event in Coney Island receives television and print coverage around the world. The competitive eating federation and the eaters themselves insist that competitive eating be recognized as an athletic event. George Shea, who founded the federation with Richard Shea, his brother, said: "Sport is about the refinement of a skill, like throwing a basketball. And eating is a skill that has been refined by these athletes, so the components that make up a good competitive eater are capacity, the speed with which you can eat and the speed of your hands."

For the people who attend these events or watch them on television, there is a strong sideshow element, said James Taylor, the publisher of Shocked and Amazed, a newsletter devoted to sideshows. "The operative philosophy for a carnival show," he added, "is that there are only three ways to get people to come: with sex, with morbid curiosity or by getting the living heck scared out of you. And I think eating disorders disguised as eating contests would certainly qualify for satisfying morbid curiosities."

For the pelmeni-eating contest, the setting itself satisfied the carnival aspect. Smoke from dry ice spilled over the stairs of a tiered stage. Dancers dressed in thigh-high leather boots and thongs sprang out from behind a glittery curtain, putting on an S-and-M-theme show.

Dale Boone was one of the stalwart
competitors eating his way through
the spicy meat dumplings in the
world pelmeni-eating championship
last Sunday in Brighton Beach,
Brooklyn.
Then the Shea brothers dashed onto the stage in tuxedos. "We will see these beautiful, seductive pelmeni go down the throats of our competitive eaters by the hundreds," George barked like a carnival showman. "Ladies and gentlemen, we are in the midst of competitive eating's best."

One by one, the competitors were welcomed. Some just pounded down the steps from the top of the stage and found their places at a big U-shape table. Others hammed it up, fists punching the air. Eric (Badlands) Booker splashed water over his ample skull and practiced shifting his arms from his plate to mouth in a rapid blur. The competitors stood for the national anthem. Soon after, a countdown from 10 began, and the first round was under way: three minutes in which they tried to eat enough pelmeni to qualify for the second round.

Because the federation's only strict rule is that you cannot vomit during the competition, there is a great deal of personal style involved in competitive eating. Boone took an early lead by gathering pelmeni between both palms and squeezing them into his mouth like a sausage maker. Meanwhile, Booker worked rhythmically to the house music, bringing pelmeni to his mouth one by one, and Jarvis, like a boy made to eat his broccoli, looked grim as he chewed. Oleg Zhornitskiy, called Oleg Cassini, last year's champion, ate deftly with his right hand and drank water with his left. He was considered a clear favorite. He was this year's matzoh ball champion and mayonnaise eating champion (eight pounds in eight minutes) and, being Russian, grew up on pelmeni.

After Round 1, Boone was ahead. "Did you say 150 pelmeni in three minutes?" said David Baer, an announcer in a commentators' booth set up on the side of the stage. "How can he possibly eat more?"

For psychologists, sociologists and physicians, competitive eaters are troubling specimens. Kelly Brownell, a professor of psychology at Yale, called eating in such quantity merely an extension of America's toxic environment. "The environment that people are exposed to in terms of food is toxic," he said. "There is too much food available, too much of the time, at too low a cost, and it's pushed too heavily." Historically, eating contests and gorging were centered on harvest seasons, community gatherings and times of plenty between lean stretches. The modern eating contest, Brownell said, is "a freak show in a domain that's relevant to all of our lives."

Some of which may explain why the crowd at the Atlantic Oceana, which seemed timid and skeptical through the first round, closed in on the eating tables by Round 2. As the contest went on, the competitors got sloppy. Boone squished his dumplings into spaetzle. Slimy bits flew out of Booker's mouth as he ate. But the numbers climbed steadily. Zhornitskiy took the lead with 241 pelmeni under his belt.

The crowd pressed in closer. By the third and final minute-long round, the men ate sluggishly but dutifully. Boone mashed his pelmeni so much that the officials had to count his remaining dumplings by the number of meat nuggets left in the watery slop.

The Sheas bounded back onto the stage, and large sparklers went off as the top three finishers were announced. Zhornitskiy came in a disappointing third. Boone took the first prize by four dumplings, maxing out at 274 pelmeni, eaten in six minutes. He roared something incomprehensible into the microphone and held up his trophy. Booker, who came in second, posed for a picture with a child, while Zhornitskiy and Alex Zhornitskiy, his brother and translator, contested the results with George Shea. "They do this at every contest," Shea whispered into a bystander's ear.

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