Horsemen of the Esophagus

Among the super-gluttons, on the front lines of competitive eating

There was a time—two years and fifteen pounds ago—when I didn’t watch people gorge themselves in public. Then, one day in the summer of 2004, I came across the IFOCE Web site.

The outer rim of the doughnut hole.

Across the top of the home page, a banner spelled out INTERNATIONAL FEDERATION OF COMPETITIVE EATING. The site’s design was unremarkable except for an illustration on the page’s upper left: a heraldic seal with two facing lions. Upon closer inspection, the lions turned out to be eating a single hot dog from different ends while pawing tubes of mustard and ketchup that crossed, like swords, to form an X. A Latin inscription read In Voro Veritas.

In Gorging, Truth.

I clicked on “Media Inquiries.”

Within a day or two I got a call back from Rich Shea, the younger brother of George Shea. Rich talked quickly and thought quickly. He explained that he and his brother maintained a public-relations firm in New York—Shea Communications—and that their bread-and-butter clients were legitimate types like detectives and commercial real-estate managers. The federation was a separate track of the business, run from the same loft office in Chelsea. The Sheas got into the eating game in the late 1980s, when George graduated from college and went to work in New York City for two old-school PR guys from the era when PR guys were called “press agents.” These two guys were the ones who invented the biggest eating contest in the world—the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest—back in the 1970s. Rich Shea joined George in New York, and the brothers eventually took over the Nathan’s account and formed the federation in 1997, with the goal of transforming that single hot-dog contest into an empire of gluttony.

And they were making progress. The federation claimed to have 300 active eater-members. Rich said that by the end of 2004 the federation would sanction anywhere from three to ten contests per month. This was in addition to a handful of non-federation contests that came in two flavors: indie and bootleg. The indie contests—one or two per month—were organized under the umbrella of an offshoot league called the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, or AICE. Because AICE was newer, its contests were far smaller than the IFOCE’s. As for the bootleg contests, they were harder to characterize: dozens, maybe hundreds, of minor spectacles at low-rent venues—crummy bars, small-town carnivals, drive-time radio stations.

Eaters had options, but there was a catch. They couldn’t mix and match. The federation required its top talent to sign exclusive eighteen-month management contracts, and it had not been reluctant to shoot off cease-and-desist letters to wayward eaters it suspected of breaching the contract. Ambitious eaters—those who desired the imprimatur of a league—were therefore forced to pick either AICE or the federation. Most eaters went with the federation, because it was bigger in every way: the stage, the money, the media. Federation contests were sponsored by food companies, mostly, but also by municipal festivals and casinos on Indian reservations. The Sheas earned a per-contest fee from each sponsor, usually in the mid four figures to low five figures. The sponsors also put up the prize money, which Rich described as “a thousand dollars here, a thousand dollars there.” In 2004 the total cash prize money was more than $60,000—of which the top American eater, Sonya Thomas, took home at least $17,000, plus a car—but the prizes, the number of contests, and the fan base were all growing; in 2005, sponsors would dole out more than $160,000, and Sonya would double her cash winnings. The Shea brothers had successfully targeted what Rich called “that guy demo,” landing the horny eighteen-to-thirty-four set that loves Maxim and FHM. Capturing the guy demographic allowed them to pitch eating specials to the Travel Channel, the Food Network, the Discovery Channel, and even bigger fish like Fox and ESPN. In 2004, ESPN scored 765,000 household viewers for its first live broadcast of the Nathan’s contest.

Eventually, said Rich, he and his brother hoped to convert eating from a hobby into a professional sport, like bass fishing. “That’s sort of the curve we’re looking at,” Rich said.

He didn’t mention it, but in 2001 the bass-fishing league was sold to ESPN for a purported $35 million.

Critics of the federation are easy to find, having left a trail of acerbic, disapproving quotes in thousands of wire stories about competitive eating. Food historians like Barbara Haber (“It’s the fall of Rome, my dear”) and physicians like Harvard Medical School’s George Blackburn (“This is sick, abnormal behavior”) have lined up to take a whack, as have foreign critics such as the English newspaper The Guardian, which, in the same 2002 article that quoted Blackburn, called competitive eating “a sport for our degraded times.” In 2003, Ralph Nader sounded the alarm about four “signs of societal decay”: three involved corporate greed and congressional gerrymandering, and the fourth was competitive eating. George Shea responded to Nader by talking up the federation’s “Turducken” contest, which he called “the first real advancement in Thanksgiving since the Indians sat down with the Pilgrims.” Shea’s counterattacks tend to mix deadpan charm and gentle mockery. “A lot of people have had trouble,” he told me when I asked if it was wise to promote gluttony in one of the fatter nations on earth, “separating this superficial visual of people stuffing their faces with large quantities of food with the stereotype of the Ugly American. That is not where I am. I see beauty. I see physical poetry.”

Poetry, exactly. Shea’s eating contests are poetic in their blatancy, their brazen mixture of every American trait that seems to terrify the rest of the planet: our hunger for natural resources that may melt the ice caps and flood Europe, our hunger for cheap thrills that turns Muslim swing voters into car bombers. If anti-American zealots anywhere in the world wanted to perform a minstrel show of our culture, this is what they’d come up with. Competitive eating is a symbolic hair ball coughed up by the American id. It is meaningful like a tumor is meaningful. It seems to have a purpose, a message, and its message is this: Look upon our gurgitators, ye Mighty, and despair. Behold these new super-gluttons, these ambassadors of the American appetite, these Horsemen of the Esophagus.

Presented by

Jason Fagone is a writer at large for Philadelphia. This article is drawn from his forthcoming Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream (Crown).

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