Horsemen of the Esophagus

Among the super-gluttons, on the front lines of competitive eating
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Ten years ago the image of the Virgin Mary appeared on a grilled-cheese sandwich in the frying pan of Diana Duyser, a Florida jewelry designer. Now She is here, in Venice Beach, to preside over the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship.

She has picked a fine day to grace southern California with Her presence. The sun is shining, the sky is blue. Gulls loop above the boardwalk in jazzy little arcs. The February air is warm, but She is packed inside a plastic box and surrounded by cotton balls, for protection.

In fifteen minutes the championship will be decided. It’s an eating contest. Whoever eats the most grilled-cheese sandwiches in ten minutes wins $3,500. The prize pot has attracted some of the world’s top competitors—people who eat under the banner of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, or IFOCE. They consider themselves professional athletes. Guys like Eric “Badlands” Booker, a 420-pound subway conductor, rapper, and world champion in the doughnut, corned-beef-hash, and cheesecake disciplines. “Hungry” Charles Hardy, who just half an hour ago had his right biceps tattooed with the initials IFOCE. Ed “Cookie” Jarvis, a Long Island real-estate agent who embroiders his numerous eating titles onto a gargantuan flowing robe with his portrait airbrushed on the front, flanked by a lighting bolt. Rich and Carlene LeFevre, the First Couple of competitive eating—a pair of sweetly manic retirees from the outskirts of Las Vegas. Carlene is a consistent top-five finisher, and Rich, nicknamed the Locust, holds records in Spam (six pounds in twelve minutes), chili (one and a half gallons in ten minutes), and corny dogs (eighteen and a half in ten minutes).

America’s greatest eater is also here. Sonya Thomas. Five foot five, 103 pounds. She calls herself the Black Widow, because she gleefully devours the males. Her eating titles are so numerous that promoters list them alphabetically: asparagus, baked beans, chicken nuggets, chicken wings, eggs, fruitcake, giant burger, hamburger, jambalaya, Maine lobster, meatballs, oysters, pulled pork, quesadilla, sweet-potato casserole, tacos, toasted ravioli, Turducken …

“BROTHERS AND SISTERS!”

It’s starting.

“There are moments in our days when we are suddenly LOST.”

Conversations stop. One hundred and fifty curious heads swivel toward a man onstage in a dark blazer and a straw boater hat. This is the contest emcee: George Shea, chairman of the IFOCE, which bills itself as “the governing body of all stomach-centric sport.” His hands, clasped together over his crotch, hold a microphone. He looks down and widens his stance dramatically as the opening lament of Moby’s “Natural Blues” emerges from the PA system.

“We hum along, doing the million things that Americans do, and then suddenly we are STRUCK—”

A woman, excited, screams.

“—and we wonder why. There is no trigger. There is no reason. And yet there it is. Sadness. Isolation. Loss. Why?”

Shea pauses, then answers his question.

“Because the PURSUITS of our lives have OBSCURED our lives, ladies and gentlemen. It is not only the hustle and bustle, the cars and the kids, the debts and the acquisitions—it is something more.”

At other times Shea has referred to competitive eating as the country’s “fastest-growing sport,” and he likes to say, tongue two-thirds in cheek, that eating has surpassed hockey and badminton and is now No. 5 in America’s heart, after baseball, basketball, football, and golf. Today’s contest is just one of a hundred scheduled for 2005, up from about seventy in 2004. Prize pots surge, TV deals dangle …

“We cannot SEE!” Shea is saying. “We cannot HEAR! We cannot THINK! And that is why … She has come! Amid no fanfare whatsoever! A woman! Grilling a cheese sandwich!”

The music shifts to a gentle adult-contemporary track. Shea bleeds all aggression from his voice.

“Ladies and gentlemen. It is said that pearls are the precipitate of sunlight, slowed and bent by the ocean until it forms a nugget of beauty inside the lowly mollusk. And likewise, this grilled-cheese sandwich is the precipitate of the divine spirit”—here the music shifts again, to a minor-key vamp, and Shea’s voice skews deep and dark—“captured here on earth in the most unlikely of places, delivered to us in the image of the Virgin Mary!”

Shea has sensitive features, an aristocratic nose, and neat black hair. He’s good-looking, compact. Perfect posture. His voice is melodious but powerful—precise, all syllables enunciated, with the pitch control of a cabaret singer and the gestural excess of a dinner-theater Hamlet.

“It is the bane of our species,” he says, “that we are warped most when we know it the least, ladies and gentlemen. It is time to put aside the pursuits that push us through our day, because this change is here today as an athletic and religious experience. TODAY WE HOLD THE GOLDEN PALACE-DOT-COM WORLD GRILLED CHEESE EATING CHAMPIONSHIP! An all-you-can-eat contest that will stand as an homage, as a recognition, a dramatic illustration of the message delivered [to] us by the Virgin Mary Grilled-Cheese Sandwich!”

The music softens. Shea ushers onstage the representative of GoldenPalace.com, Steve Baker. In November 2004, Baker bought the sandwich for $28,000 on eBay, hoping to use it for promotional stunts like this one. Wearing a grubby sweatshirt, jeans, and two-day stubble, Baker raises the Virgin Mary Grilled Cheese above his head and proclaims, “The Passion of the Toast lives!”

Baker steps down into the crowd, now a sea of limbs holding digital cameras and angling for a keepsake shot. He parades the sandwich, which Shea calls “the culinary version of the Shroud of Turin,” into the throng, and then places it on an easel at the side of the stage to make way for the eaters.

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