Used with permission of The Weekly Standard
"Disgusting." "Obscene." "Gross." Those are just a few words people have used to describe "Glutton Bowl #1: The World's Greatest Eating Competition," which aired on Fox last week. Contestants were challenged to eat bowls of mayonnaise, sticks of butter, and "Rocky Mountain Oysters," and the only rule was "what goes down must stay down!" The winner, Takeru Kobayashi--weighing all of 130 pounds--received a whopping $25,000 after besting his opponents in the final round (cow brains).
Yes, the program is something along the lines of "Temptation Island," "Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire?" and "When Good Pets Go Bad," but don't think for a second that this was some ratings stunt put together at the last minute. Glutton Bowl is actually sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. In other words, this goes on all the time.
By now, everyone is familiar with the hotdog-eating contest sponsored by Nathan's in Coney Island (the current champion also happens to be Kobayashi, who ate 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes). But other competitions take place all over the world. At one contest last year, Bill Simmons, aka "El Wingador," consumed 137 chicken wings in half an hour. In October, Edward "Cookie" Jarvis finished off more than a gallon of vanilla ice cream in 12 minutes. Germany sponsors an annual bratwurst eating contest while England hosts the pommes frites competition.
All of which are sanctioned by the IFOCE. Really, it was only a matter of time before it hit the airwaves. And while some critics have deplored the gastronomic excesses, other viewers were probably glued to their screens, watching in amazement, or perhaps even in awe.
But sometimes it's the challenges that aren't sponsored by the IFOCE--the kind you hear about from restaurant managers and daredevils--that are the most intriguing. Herewith are just a few (WARNING: Some of the following descriptions may not be for the faint of heart):
Eagle's Deli, located on Beacon Street in Boston, is a favorite hangout for local college kids. You can get yourself a hearty breakfast of eggs, bacon, and sausage or an even heartier lunch featuring their famous 2-pound Cowabunga and 1-pound Godzilla burgers. If you finish either of these, you get your picture on the wall. But the real challenge, according to employee Billy Aruda, is taking on the Reilly Burger: six 8-ounce patties--that's 3 pounds of beef--12 slices of cheese, and a 5-pound bag of fries, for $25 (but free soda!). Your time limit is two and a half hours.
So what do you get if you finish the meal? "Heartburn for a week," jokes Aruda. "It's just a pride thing, really. But if you can do it, I'll pay for your meal," he adds. Only two people have ever finished the Reilly challenge: Shawn Reilly, whom they named the burger after (and who finished in a time of 2 hours and 7 minutes), and "some random kid who just showed up three weeks ago."
In eating circles, Jim Donohue is something of a legend. In 1993, the 6'2", 220 pound, former Georgetown football player took on a bet to see who could eat the entire McDonald's menu first. "This guy was bragging about how he could eat this and eat that, so I just had enough of it and challenged him," says Donohue, now a banker living in New York. There were ten witnesses, including two coaches. "My coach was very serious," recalls Donohue. "He would unwrap my sandwiches, open the ketchups, tell me not to drink too much." The menu consisted of the following: a cheeseburger, a hamburger, two Big Macs, a Quarter Pounder with cheese, a McChicken sandwich, a six-piece McNuggets, supersized fries, a small salad, two apple pies, and cookies.
"I started with the small burgers but my opponent went right for the Big Macs. Sixteen minutes later, about two-thirds done, he runs into the bathroom and vomits. He then returned and tried to eat a cheeseburger but couldn't." Donohue, on the other hand, finished the entire menu in 21 minutes. A stunned manager took their pictures and offered the contestants hot fudge sundaes. "I ate mine on the walk back," says the champ.
And finally, there's the Chicago Chop House, one of America's leading steakhouses. My friend Jose--who takes all challenges seriously--recently asked me if I thought he could eat the steakhouse's signature 64-ounce porterhouse. Why not? He's a thick, solid guy and mentally he's got an almost psychotic focus. But I wasn't sure if this 64-ouncer was part of a restaurant-sponsored challenge or just a menu item that taunted customers. Jean Baumgarten, an assistant to the owner, says it's no contest. "People come in here all the time and polish off the 64-ouncer." I asked if there was a prize, a photo, or a plaque involved. "Nope," she says, "Just a pat on the back." Have any women taken down the 64-ounce behemoth? Baumgarten pauses: "Umm, yeah. There's been a few."
John Pontarelli, a partner for 15 years at the Chop House, doesn't mince words. When I call him, he's in the restaurant's kitchen, fixing himself a ham and cheese sandwich. "Shall I just get right to it? You want to know the all-time record?" Pontarelli asks. "Eight years ago, a group of men walk in and explain to me their wager. They put up $900 and we threw in $100 for this one guy, about 6'2" and 240 pounds, to eat a set menu: It starts with a bowl of Caesar salad. Then the 64-ounce bone-in porterhouse steak. Then the 48-ounce lobster tail in its entirety. And then another 48-ounce porterhouse. And finally, three scoops of chocolate ice cream. In no more than 2 and half hours."
To Pontarelli's amazement, the man did it--and just under the time limit. "I will never see it duplicated in my lifetime," he swears. "I served as judge, making sure what he refused to eat as grizzle was in fact grizzle. And to be honest, we cheated a little: Because the bone itself weighs at least 14 ounces, we made sure he got 64 ounces of pure beef. So the 48-ouncer was in fact 60 ounces. And the 64-ouncer was 72." That's more than 8 pounds. Pontarelli says "he was a sight to behold. His shirt buttons were stretched to the max!" The man reportedly went home and sat in a rocking chair for hours.
Why would a human being put himself through this? Certainly not for health reasons. "My honor was on the line," explains Donohue. As George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE, told the Washington Times, "This is a sport of the everyman, because every man can understand it. A good eater is a good athlete." Indeed, you don't have to be Lardass (the pie eating champion from "Stand By Me") to be a champion. "The key to an eating contest is that it is all mental," says Donohue. "Will you have the confidence to get that next bit of food down? Will your body fail you or will you step up?"