Horsemen of the Esophagus

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

One by one the grilled-cheese eaters take their places at a long table. The top eaters merit a sobriquet or a simple recitation of their feats: Carlene LeFevre becomes “the Martha Stewart of mastication”; the Spam record of husband Rich is heralded, to oohs and aahs; Jed “Jalapeño” Donahue is announced as having eaten 152 of his namesake peppers. The great Sonya Thomas is described as “a cross between Anna Kournikova, Billie Jean King, and a jackal wild on the Serengeti.” Other accomplished eaters include Long Island’s Don “Moses” Lerman, the Zen master of raw butter, matzo balls, and baked beans; and Frank Wach, a Chicagoan and “a rookie out of the toasted-ravioli circuit.” The best introductions accompany the least- accomplished eaters, because they are blank slates, allowing Shea to concoct mythic pasts. To the strains of “Gangsta’s Paradise,” Shea tells the story of a fresh-faced guy named Matt Simpson, who recently ate two rolls of unleavened bread. “It raised in his stomach,” Shea says, “and created an enormous amount of pressure. And he fell to the ground writhing in what appeared to be pain. But when his family came to his side and knelt over him, they realized it was ecstasy: I feel good, for the first time in my life. And his father … said, ‘Go, my son, and join the IFOCE. Join the eaters.’ And so he did, ladies and gentlemen. Twenty-eight years of age, Maaaaatt Simpsonnnnnnnnn!!!”

The swelling crowd—maybe 200 to 250 people now—applauds and cheers. They’re primed. So are the eaters. Minutes ago the GoldenPalace.com guy unloaded a giant tray of sandwiches from his truck. The eaters gathered around, inspecting the material.

“I hope they’re greasy,” Carlene LeFevre said. “They’ll just slide right down.”

Eating contests weren’t invented by the Shea brothers or their mentors, or even by Americans. Anthropological studies and old copies of scurrilous newspapers suggest that the will to gorge is universal. Speed and volume competitions pop up in Greek myth, in Norse epics, and even in what may be the first novel, The Golden Ass, written in Latin in the second century A.D.: “Last night at supper I was challenged to an eating race by some people at my table and tried to swallow too large a mouthful of polenta cheese.” (Choking ensued.) Ethnographies show that eating contests were regular events at lavish Native American potlatch feasts, and there’s historical evidence of rice contests in Japan, beefsteak contests in Britain, mango contests in India. Even today the French still gorge themselves on cheese at seasonal festivals.

But we’re different. We do it bigger. We have more contests, in more places, and we make no apologies. We unabashedly marry the public-gorging impulse to our most sacred American rituals: the catching of the greased pig followed by the pie-eating contest followed by the reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July.

I began phoning competitive eaters in September 2004, starting with veterans like Charles Hardy and Ed Jarvis and Don Lerman. They all said they were amazed by eating’s trajectory, its quick-rising legitimacy.

“We did all the footwork years ago,” Hardy told me. “Traveling here, traveling there. We didn’t really make no kinda money. We pretty much took it to where it is today.” But because of the uptick in prize pots, he said, “the life has been a lot better, eating on the circuit.”

Jarvis said, “Let’s face it: we’re on ESPN. If that’s not professional sports, I don’t know what is.”

Lerman said, “I think in three years it’ll be as big as PGA golf. In five years it may be in the Olympics.”

There were definite hints of pride and obsession in those early calls. Ed told me he maintained a trophy room. “It’s like a shrine,” he said. “I mean, people look in and they’re like: ‘God.”

Don has a trophy room too. And a weight problem. “Since I’m thirty I’ve been fighting obesity,” he said.

Ed, pushing 400 pounds, was also trying to lose weight. The day I talked to him, he was pondering an upcoming cannoli contest. He was the cannoli champ but was thinking about not defending his title. “It’s rough on the body,” he said. “One, you’re eating eleven thousand calories. Two, there’s no money. Three, all that said, the bottom line is: What am I doing this for? I’m basically putting eleven thousand calories into my body with the chance I could get hurt. What for? There’s gotta be a cause.”

Insecurity, rivalry, hubris, recklessness—that was half of the story, the exact half you’d expect to find in a group of pro gluttons. But the more eaters I called, and the more I pushed past their immediate need to impress upon me that they weren’t a bunch of freaks, the more I saw that, with a few conspicuous exceptions, they weren’t lifelong publicity hounds or career eccentrics. They had wives (or husbands) and kids. They had jobs as construction workers, social workers, bankers, engineers, lawyers. I would come to know them as genuinely sweet and generous, most of them. Except for their collective waist size, they were as averagely American as the Americans in campaign commercials. They had to know that competitive eating was a marketing ploy, and yet—out of some psychic contortion I could only guess at—they rarely spoke of it that way. Eating wasn’t a ploy to them. It was fun. It was a chance to compete, to travel the country and make a little money, or at least break even. It was a chance to be on ESPN.

How many people get to be on ESPN?

Here on the gluttony circuit, atop the same cultural terrain that made me feel, in my bitterest moments, ashamed to be an American, the eaters were planting their dearest desires—for fair and honest competition, for a pat on the back, for a chance to get noticed, to prove themselves, to make their kids and spouses proud.

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