The rise of eating competitions

Felicity Cloake tries to devour 2.5kg of ice cream . . . and discovers that a hearty appetite isn't enough to succeed.

Competitive eating is big in America
Competitive eating is big in America. Photograph: Getty Images

On 6 October 2012, in Louisville, Kentucky, I attempted to eat a dessert as big as my head. I have no reason to be proud of myself here but, as a diehard fan of the TV show Man v Food (it does what it says on the tin), I couldn’t visit the homeland of obscene eating without taking on a culinary challenge.

There were several possibilities along our route but I chose to tackle a monstrous 2.5-kilo mountain of ice cream, smothered in a pound of whipped cream and garlanded by five jugs of fruit, nuts and sticky sauces. (A vast bowl of glacé cherries somehow made it on to the platter, too, but given the scale of the task ahead of me I was in no mood to quibble.)

A smirking waitress briefed me on the rules – one hour, no sharing, no vomiting. She started the stopwatch and in I dived. The first few minutes were, I admit, an orgy of gluttonous bliss but after 15, my faith in my abilities began to wobble. First, I felt cold, then sick. The fuller I became, the heavier the likely leftovers weighed on my mind. Every spoonful seemed laced with guilt. “What has western civilisation come to?” I moaned into my mint-choc-chip. Was this America’s version of the last days of Rome?

Competitive eating is nothing new. Fans of 13th-century Icelandic literature will recall the Norse god Loki’s attempt to eat his way into a bed for the night. Throwing down the last clean bone in triumph, he looks up to see his opponent, a fire giant, has not only finished the meat and the bones but also munched his way through the trencher. Loki, I feel your pain.

More successful was the New York Yankees player Ping Bodie, who in 1919 won a spaghetti-eating competition by default when his opponent, an ostrich by the name of Percy, passed out 11 plates in. The current pasta record, according to the Major League Eating and International Federation of Competitive Eating, is three kilos of linguine in ten minutes. These days, birds don’t compete (unless you count Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, the tiny American who can put away 65 hard-boiled eggs in under seven minutes).

Competitive eating has become a high-stakes sport, with $20,000 on offer to the winner of the 4 July Coney Island hot dog-eating contest. The record stands at 68, buns and all, in ten minutes.

Size matters

These big names train hard, stretching their stomachs with water in the run-up to an event and following a strict fitness regime: size matters when it comes to gluttony and a slim torso is believed to provide more room for the stomach to expand.
As I found to my cost, mere enthusiasm counts for little in this brutal, man-eat-dog world. A 2007 study of competitive eaters in the American Journal of Roentgenology suggested that champions may be able to relax their stomachs at will, meaning that they never feel full – a skill that it took 20 minutes of iced magic to realise I do not possess.

Soldiering on, keening quietly as I spooned increasingly meagre helpings into my freezing maw, I managed to vanquish only about three-fifths of my nemesis in the allotted hour. Yet, like childbirth, the pain quickly receded and a few hours later I was already rueing having given up so easily.

Two of my travelling companions managed to do even worse, seeing off just half of their 30-inch, double-topped meat feast pizza a few days later in Atlanta. The look of misery on their faces as they contemplated the doughy mess before them was enough to remind me why I’d found the whole experience so truly disgusting. Food is precious and deserves to be treated with respect. So, pass me the ice cream.

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