Major League Eating–in a league of its own
This is, apparently, the time of year when a young man’s fancy turns to food eating contests.
Earlier this week, Nathan’s Famous held their Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating event – what could be more American, except perhaps an apple pie, baseball, or Chevrolet eating contest. Timed to the Nathan’s event, there were a few articles out and about on competitive eating.
One I saw on Business Week started out talking about pork rinds, not hot dogs. Pink Slip, so often in the vanguard on things cultural, has already been all over the pork rind thang, having written about pork rind eating in January 2010 as part of a post on Pork Rind Protectionism. (Because in the blogosphere, one thing leads to another, and arguing about free pork rind trade quite naturally led to learning about the Harrod – not to be confused with Harrods of London and its food court - Pork Rind Heritage Festival.)
But I’m here in the now to neither bury pork rinds, nor to praise them. And it’s certainly not to eat them. Not that I’ve got anything against junk food, or the occasional overindulgence. (Sure, it’s been a while, but I’ve been known to sup on a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and a sleeve of Girl Scout chocolate mint cookies.)
But today we’re talking Major League Eating (MLE), the “brainchild”, or, perhaps, esophagus child, of George and Richard Shea:
…is proof that competitive eating is both a freakish spectacle during which mostly male competitors gorge themselves on grotesquely large amounts of food (without vomiting) and a big business. In addition to planning 90 eating events a year for corporate sponsors—from the Acme World Oyster Eating Championship in New Orleans to the World CheeseSteak Eating Championship at Dorney Park in Allentown, Pa.—the competitive eating moguls guide the careers of the world’s best gurgitators, and, in return, require them to compete exclusively in MLE-sanctioned events.
(The Sheas don’t stick to MLE knitting, however. They’re PR guys for NYC real estate developers – now there’s a noble undertaking – which has apparently led George Shea to a vertically integrated business: bed bug detection dogs.)
Anyway, Nathan’s Famous is one of the Sheas’ events, which are sponsored not just by food companies, resorts/amusement parks, and Pepto Bismol, but by Old Navy, Netflix, and ESPN. It’s not clear whether MLE is considered part of the E in ESPN (Entertainment) or the S (for Sports). Major League Eating makes it sound sort of sportish, and I’m not quite sure how entertaining it is to actually watch someone shoving a couple of dozen hot dogs down his
pie hot dog hole in 10 minutes. But the logo looks a bit more tongue in cheek than that of, say, MLB or MLS or NHL or NFL or NBA. So I want to be fair and balanced here. Sports or entertainment? You decide. (In terms of the money in it, it’s not quite in the same league as other professional sports. George Shea says that purse money last year (2010) for eating contests was $550,000, which is not a whole lot more than the minimum MLB salary ($414K in 2011). But you do have to start somewhere.)
Unless the hot dog record was broken last Monday (I’m obviously writing this in advance), the record of 68 dogs and buns set on July 4, 2009 still stands. But records, like rules, are meant to be broken, so there may be a new hot dog total to beat out there. Meanwhile, here are a few of the other records (in what MLE styles as “disciplines”).
Asparagus: 9 lbs 5.2 oz Deep Fried Asparagus Spears/ Stockton Asparagus Fest / 10 minutes/ Apr. 16, 2011
Nine pounds, 5.2 ounces of asparagus? How long did that pee smell for?
Funnel Cake: 5.9 lbs / Kings Dominion / 10 minutes / May 23, 2009
Grilled Cheese Sandwiches: 47 grilled cheese sandwiches / 10 Minutes/ June 10, 2006
This dwarfs my personal record of two grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes, but I’ve never been all that much of an athlete…
Horseshoe Sandwiches: 6 lbs, 5 oz horseshoe sandwiches / 12 minutes
I wasn’t familiar with this one, although it’s apparently a big deal in Springfield, Illinois. A horseshoe sandwich is a slab of hamburger or other meat, covered with French fries and smothered with cheese sauce. Never say never, but I think this is one more reason to heed my cousin Ellen’s warning to stay the hell out of Springfield, Illinois.
Jalapeno Poppers: 118 Jalapeno Poppers/University of Arizona / 10 minutes/April 8, 2006
In case anyone was wondering why Pepto Bismol is a sponsor.
Salt Potatoes: 13 lbs Salt Potatoes / Wild Carp Week / 10 minutes / May 14, 2011
Even though I’ve been to Syracuse plenty of times, I wasn’t familiar with this local dish, either. Unlike the horseshoe sandwich, however, this one – tiny potatoes boiled in salt water – sounds delish. Next time I’m in Syracuse, I will definitely seek this one out.
According to MLE, the world’s numero uno gurgitator is Joey Chestnut who, quite remarkably – to me at least – looks to be a relatively fit individual. They may all be airbrushed, but most of the elite eaters on the MLE site don’t appear to be gutty. Chestnut made over $200K last year by eating, including an endorsement for Pepto Bismol, but it certainly doesn’t strike me as a career that’s sustainable in the long run. It’s hard to believe that consuming 200 shrimp wontons or 182 chicken wings or 82 hamburgers in one sitting is something that you want to do very often. It just cannot be good for anyone’s system, so the longevity of the “athletes” has to be in some doubt.
And in a country where obesity is such a growing scourge, and where “eating disorders” in general are so prevalent, MLE seems like a rather dubious enterprise.
But, who knows, today’s young eating studs may, 60 years on, be making their living in Ensure Guzzling contests.