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 Premise

The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) "title match" to determine the nation's No. 1 competitive eater between the two top-ranked contenders.

Hooters girls
The Hooters waitresses have the wings ready for the competition.
Chicken wings...
12 minutes...

But, wait, there's more...

The Plotline

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...

The Contestants

Name: Sonya Thomas
Nickname: "The Black Widow"
Ranking: No. 2 nationally
Sonya must be related to the hot dog champ from Coney Island.
Weight: 100 lbs.
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
Nickname: "Cookie"
Ranking: No. 1 nationally
Weight: 409 lbs.
Title: 2002 Rookie of the Year
Records held: Chinese and Russian dumplings, barbecued pork on the rib, chicken fried steak, pasta, pizza and ice cream
Command of English: Unknown. I was too scared to approach him
Outfit: Black IFOCE T-shirt; American-flag-style 'do rag; orange Hooter hat; black shorts; black Velcro shoes
Angioplasty potential: Ack.
Key eating strategy: Volume

The Atmosphere

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.

Cookie & Sonya
Cookie and Sonya are ready to do battle, wing-style.
The contestants wait for their introductions -- Sonya sitting quietly, Cookie standing, rocking side to side as gently as a four-bills giant can. Meanwhile, two emcees yammer on about the IFOCE, building the "tension" for the match.

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.

The Competition

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.

Cookie knows how to chomp down -- quantity over quality.
True to their pre-game hype, Cookie keys his strategy on volume alone. Often "double-fisting," he takes a break just long enough to sip from a glass of water. His face is glowing, but it ain't from happy feelings -- it's the combination of fat and oil from the wings that may (or may not) have made it into his mouth.

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 Result

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.

The debris
The "debris" -- ain't that nasty?
The two contenders were brought together. The winner would be the top-ranked eater in America. Both would continue on to eating comps coming up on the calendar -- matzoh balls in Midtown, low-carb burgers in California; apparently, their IFOCE schedules are as packed as their digestive tracts.

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.

Cookie & Sonya
It was a tight one -- shockingly -- but Cookie is the champ.
-- Ranking irregularities? Maybe in the BCS, but not in the IFOCE, where they can always "eat it out on the field."

-- 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.



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