I remember my first and last attempt at competitive eating. In Lafayette, Louisiana, there was a small, now-defunct pizza restaurant called, rather ambiguously, New York Pizza Deli. As for the food, it was really good, and as someone who has lived in New York, relatively authentic. One dish they served that is a produce of Italian-American cuisine (which is partly authentic, partly evolved), was a calzone. A calzone in the US is usually pizza dough folded over the ingredients, so that it is like a pizza turned inside out. This restaurant served enormous calzones — a whole one was two feet long. And they were absolutely stuffed beyond capacity with thick, rich sauce, and delicious meats and vegetables. They really were delicious, but four people could easily order one and be satisfied.
The owner of New York Pizza Deli was a good-natured guy, a bit plump so you know he loved food. He decided to try to promote the place with an eating challenge. If anyone could eat an entire calzone, within one hour, that diner would win a $100 gift certificate to the restaurant, $100 in cash, and the calzone would be free for that night. If you could not finish it, then you would pay the standard $25 for the calzone.
Being rather proud of my affection for food, I naturally accepted the challenge. All of my friends joined me on the appointed evening as I strode into the tiny dining room, confident that I would be he star of the night. I had fasted that day and most of the day before, and I am not a small man, so I thought I had it in the bag. I had already begun thinking about how I would use the $100. A few minutes later, a fresh, beautiful, piping-hot calzone was placed before me. The owner started the clock, and I started eating.
My strategy was to eat at a relatively fast but steady pace. For the first half of the calzone, which I finished in twenty minutes, everything was great. In fact, it was a really tasty. I smiled and continued. But somehow, somewhere into the second foot of that calzone, my body started sending me warning signals. Very quickly, I felt overstuffed, nauseated, and frankly horrible. It was as if my body sensed that something was very, very wrong, and it was shouting a clear message at me: “Stop eating!” There was nothing wrong with the food — it was just entirely too much for one human to finish, and my body quickly let me know that. With only ten minutes left in the challenge, and with a full quarter of the calzone left, I threw in the towel and admitted defeat.
Successful competitive eaters amaze me. They can somehow ignore their body’s dire warnings, and eat past the nausea stage, then even smile and pose for the cameras. One of my favorite TV shows is Man Versus Food with Adam Richman. That man can eat past the point of no return. But there are some other professional competitive eaters who could even put Richman to shame. For example, Joey Chestnut, currently ranked first by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, can put down an unbelievable amount of food. Some of his current world records include:
1. 70 bratwurst sausages in 10 minutes.
2. 22 gyros sandwiches in 10 minutes.
3. 69 hot dogs with buns in 10 minutes.
4. 141 boiled eggs in 8 minutes.
These seem like superhuman feats, especially since Mr. Chestnut is not overweight by any standard. In fact, some of the most successful competitive eaters are either normal in weight, or actually fit and trim (with exceptions, including Eric Booker, who weight 420 pounds). And probably the world’s most famous competitive eater, Takeru Kobayashi, is a short, tiny, Japanese man. A competitive eating contest is something to behold, and the reason that these people can stuff such enormous amounts of food into their stomachs so quickly is that they train for it, and some of the competitors have even stretched their stomachs beyond what was thought possible, as well as trained their digestive muscles to allow food in without restriction.
To me, the real issue of competitive eating, besides the potential health risks, is the moral issue behind it. Here in China, it was not that many years ago when much of the countryside was starving, and although this has changed greatly for the better, you still see the remnants of the lean times in Chinese people’s refusal to waste even a grain of rice. So to the Chinese, just the idea of competitive eating is repulsive and immoral.
Add to that the fact that in many countries today, people are still malnourished, undernourished, or starving, and it causes one to really consider the morality of it all. When there are people in the world who cannot find enough food to eat to stay alive, is it not a travesty and mockery for other people to stuff themselves with enormous amounts of food just for fun and for show?
On the other hand, I really, really love food, and I enjoy the abundance of living in societies where good food is easily available. And I do not believe that people with enough to eat should force themselves to starve or suffer. After all, if someone living in the US starves himself, how does that help anyone in Africa? The world’s hunger problem is not caused by certain people eating too much of a limited resource. Rather, it is caused by governments, economies, religions, and individuals not cooperating in order to feed the hungry. There is more than enough food in the world so that not a single person has to go without.
To me then, competitive eating is not inherently immoral. I can see how it is offensive, however, and so I tread lightly on the topic. I do enjoy watching the contests, and the one food challenge that I tried made for a great, fun night out. Moreover, shows like Man Versus Food initiate non-foodies into the world of food, so I can hardly fault them for that. I guess the issue proves something that I have long believed: the more you study something, the less you really know about it.