The pile of hot dogs, snuggled in their buns, is daunting. Maybe, just maybe, I could force 13 or 14 of the Hatfield all-beef franks down my gullet, given enough time. A gun to my head might help. But all those fresh white buns, phew, that's the real challenge. Add in a 10-minute time limit and little reward besides a share of local gustatory glory and a tale for the water cooler, and I'm not so sure that I have it in me. Soon enough, I will dive in for a practice run.
The International Federation Of Competitive Eating (don't laugh until you see its intricate coat of arms), speed-eating's governing body, currently has more than 3,000 members. According to IFOCE director George Shea, "300 people are active, 50 of whom are very active." Very active? After 97 Krystal burgers, I'm not sure anyone qualifies as "very active."
Like any budding "sport," perception is key. Every successful and photogenic "gurgitator" is consumed by the competitive-eating media mill, given a nickname and plastered all over the sport's websites and forums. With a new TV contract through Spike and ESPN, as well as more corporate sponsorship, competitive eating seems poised to take a poker-like leap as the latest flash in the pseudo-sport pan.
And like poker, the appeal is that many normal people feel they can compete. "This is an equal opportunity sport," says Kate Westfall of the IFOCE. "Men, women and senior citizens can compete and succeed." What's the appeal for spectators? "Shock and awe," she says.
I'm sitting outside Dairy Inn in St. Pete, just two short months from its annual Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4. I'm ready to throw in the towel before I even get started. Who am I fooling? The record here is just under 14 dogs in 10 minutes. Think a hot dog every 44 seconds is tough? Try a dog every 13 seconds. At the storied Nathan's Famous annual event on Coney Island -- the crowning glory of competitive eating -- the superstars cram over 50 dogs into their elasto-gastro-intestinal tracts to take top prize.
Looking at the IFOCE record book is even more daunting. Seven sticks of butter in under five minutes? Was it a Paula Deen recipe? Sixty-five hard-boiled eggs in under seven minutes? Makes Cool Hand Luke look like a chump. One-hundred-and-twenty-eight ounces of mayonnaise in eight minutes? Mmmgbbbpphh, excuse me a moment, I need to find a bucket.
Actually, all of these absurd examples of human consumption make the Dairy Inn competition seem like a cakewalk. Fourteen dogs? That's a little more do-able. Maybe I should start training.
"Major League Eating actively discourages training and urges eaters only to eat for speed at a sanctioned event with proper safety controls in place," says George Shea (his marketing company is behind the IFOCE, MLE and most other competitive eating acronyms).
Safety controls? "Namely, an emergency medical technician." Oh.
As in any "sport," though, competitive eaters train. Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi -- the Japanese sensation who has won the Nathan's event six years straight -- has claimed that eating cabbage and drinking large quantities of water has helped expand the stomach lodged in his puny 145-pound frame. Kobayashi "is the only truly professional eater, making his living entirely from the sport -- via prizes and endorsements," says Shea, so I listen and learn. Hey, I do like cabbage.
Many of the competitive eaters consume just one large meal each day, to get the stomach used to large quantities. The best eaters also believe that a layer of fat across the abdomen impedes stomach elasticity; I guess my prodigious paunch will keep me out of the big leagues.
My one saving grace in the quest for the Dairy Inn championship? None of the pros will be there. Besides the fact that it's a local outing and the nearest pro is in Hollywood -- "Jammin'" Joe Larue -- the IFOCE doesn't allow its members to compete in non-sanctioned events.
Maybe I have a chance. Among amateurs, my semiprofessional experience eating for Creative Loafing -- as well as a lifetime commitment to mass consumption -- could give me an edge. Time for a training run. A quick meditation, a little regret about the giant diet Mountain Dew and hefty Cuban I had for lunch, and I pick up my first dog while hitting the button on a stopwatch.
Thoughts of speed-eating techniques -- "chipmunking" (storing food in the cheeks to be swallowed in the moments after the competition ends), "dunking" (dipping the bun in water for chew-free swallowing) and Kobayashi's patented "Solomon approach" (rip the dog in half and cram both pieces in at the same time) -- crowd my mind.
The first dog is easy. Tasty even. The second goes down even faster and by the third I know I'm hitting my stride. That momentum lasts until I'm almost halfway through number five. I glance at the stopwatch and realize that seven minutes have sped by. I'm way behind schedule.
Let it be known that regurgitation -- also referred to as "a Roman incident" and "reversal of fortune" -- is not, technically, against the rules; you just have to make sure that none of the semi-digested food leaves your mouth. This thought enters my head as I start on the sixth dog, a thought that veers dangerously close to becoming a reality.
(According to IFOCE's Westfall, the pros manage to keep it all in before and after a big event. Purging? "They are professionals and wouldn't do anything to mar their integrity," she claims. Wow, she's good.)
I've about reached the "eight-minute wall" and the "meat sweats." My body has started to reject the unnecessary punishment in immediate and unpleasant ways. I have to eat through the pain, but I decide not to. It's a bad sign when eating starts to feel like manual labor or a strenuous workout. I quit at nine minutes, having gobbled not quite seven dogs. I guess I just don't have the spirit of a true gurgitator. Mine may be the shortest competitive eating career ever.
According to Dairy Inn owner David Kornbluth, last year's winner Steve "Carolina Cougar" Turner (a regular at the ice cream shack) will be back to defend the "Mustard Relish Green Belt." Well, Cougar, you won't be getting any competition from me.
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