|The battle of the bulge|
By Dan Shanoff
Page 2 columnist
NEW YORK -- It's my own fault. I live above a Hooters restaurant. I should have seen it coming. A simple stroll out my building's entrance last week, and I noticed "Eating Contest" on the restaurant's makeshift billboard. I wandered in.
The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) "title match" to determine the nation's No. 1 competitive eater between the two top-ranked contenders.
But, wait, there's more...
Beyond the rankings rivalry, the match was being billed as "the most hotly contested battle of the sexes since Billie Jean King took on Bobby Riggs." I think the gender-relations movement has been set back years -- no, decades. But that was before I even saw the contestants. Oh my goodness...
Name: Sonya Thomas
Title: 2003 Rookie of the Year
Records held: Hard-boiled eggs, pulled pork on a bun, tacos
Command of English: Sketchy
Outfit: Black IFOCE T-shirt; orange Hooter hat; red jacket
Angioplasty potential: Moderate
Key eating strategy: Hand speed
Name: Ed Jarvis
The Hooters is empty, save a few Hooters waitresses huddled in the corner. And it's cold, presumably part of the less-than-subtle marketing strategy of the restaurant chain. Loud rock music blares from a speaker next to the eating table. (Table? Arena? Trough?)
A handful of reporters are standing around, behind a row of a few local-news TV cameras. Apparently proving why hockey has gone so terribly wrong, Competitive Eating is quite a visual sport.
Besides a little dignity, the only thing missing is the irony. I've never been on an adult-film set, but I imagine this is what the vibe is like. That's it: This is hard-core gastro-porn.
Finally, like a glimmer of hope, I think I sense a little irony -- a smirk from the emcee, a look from a contestant. But when the countdown ends and the feeding begins? Turns out there's nothing ironic about that.
Two mouth-watering words say it all: "Debris food." As opposed to, say, hot dogs (where the entire dog is consumed), this category of competitive eating involves ... um ... leftovers. It is, perhaps, the foulest-sounding category in any competition in the world.
As the competitors' eating strategies indicated, you don't eat the whole wing; it's more of a strip-and-chuck situation. The whole wings come in on a cleanish-looking platter; afterward (do you really need the process details?), the bones -- in various state of ... yecch ... -- are tossed into a deep aluminum tray.
Sonya works the "hand speed" and strips the bones far cleaner. It's far more fascinating to watch 100-pound Sonya pack it down than Cookie, who looks like he eats competitively. Sonya looks like one of those anorexic women you see at New York restaurants. But instead of meekly picking at a salad, she's on wing No. 30 ... then 60 ... then 90 ... then 120 ... good lord.
Sonya's pile lays neatly, but it doesn't look nearly as impressive as Cookie, who clearly values quantity over quality. I value my appetite for the rest of the day, so I look away to take down some notes as the final seconds of the 12-minute engorgement tick off.
The frenzy was over. The trays of -- ugh -- debris were taken behind a curtain to be weighed. The formula for debris food isn't complex: Starting weight of the wings (valued at half-an-ounce per wing) minus the -- ugh -- remnant weight. Cookie seemed to do more, but Sonya definitely had the edge on quality of bone-cleaning.
With 132 wings (in 12 minutes, mind you) ... Sonya! With 134 wings (and apparently enough meat off each to win the weigh-out) ... Cookie! Cookie wins! There's no jumping up and down from Cookie, which is probably a good thing. He's only slightly smiling. I've seen this smile on Olympians, on NFL champions. Just a contented smile -- the contented smile of someone who knows he has mastered his craft, mastered the limitations of the human body. And then some.
What's next for competitive eating? Some of the same issues that plague quote-unquote "mainstream" sports?
-- The gender barrier has obviously been obliterated; no place for Hooties at Hooters.
-- Performance enhancers? Ah, there's the belly-rub. As the stakes -- and steaks -- get bigger, will the temptation to resort to illegal pharmaceutical enhancers increase also? As labs continue to churn out drugs to make athletes stronger and faster, all it takes is a market for the docs to include "bigger appetite" among the rundown of 'roids that might one day rock the sport of competitive eating.
Nevertheless, there were more than a few wings left over, and they were offered to the media as a snack. At the beginning of the morning, I thought perhaps I had a "George Plimpton-tribute," participatory-journalism story in me; now, my reaction is: Paper Lion? Get me a paper bag. I used to love wings, I really did.
But I'm off "debris food" right now.
Dan Shanoff is a columnist for Page 2. His "Daily Quickie" commentary appears every weekday morning.