Last month Daily Mail Online – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it – reported: ‘Supersize mum who dreams of becoming the world’s fattest woman reveals she’s marrying a CHEF.’ A 33-year old woman from Arizona had met a lovely chap over the internet and they hoped to achieve her ultimate goal of 115 stone. Romance indeed.
Often we hear about teenage girls eating next to nothing to shrink themselves down to unhealthy proportions. While Feederism and its variants are not exactly state secrets, it’s difficult to understand the sense of achievement someone can gain from reaching the kind of target weight one would associate more with Jabba the Hutt than Cheryl Cole.Challenges based around food and drink are hardly few and far between. Back in the day, whenever doughnuts were served at school we all tried to finish them without licking our lips to get the sugar off. Other favourites include the Mars bar challenge (5 in one sitting) and the Cream Cracker Contest (how many in 30 seconds – no water allowed). Then you enter the realms of teenagedom and it’s all about how many Jägerbombs you can handle. It is rare to turn on the television these days and not to be able to locate old episodes of Come Dine With Me. A recent discovery of yours truly is Man v. Food – a documentary about an American called Adam Richman who travels to different eateries, pushing his digestive tract to the limit. Richman’s quest to win against food as an enemy is entertaining enough. However, for some real food-based battles you need to get on t’internet and YouTube some competitive eating.
Competitive eating is a (dubious) sport. As to the contest itself, the clue is in the title – competitors have to eat one hell of a lot in a limited time frame. The kinds of status afforded by excessive eating is not a novelty confined to our times. The Romans felt that it was so important to eat their bodyweight’s worth of food during luxurious banquets that they threw up at regular intervals in order to maximise their intestinal capacity and ensure that they could sample every morsel placed before them. Please note that these tactics are not recommended or condoned for any lucky individuals to be facing the challenge of the Bohemia Tasting Menu. Flash forward to the 17th century, and Rubens’ artwork shows a contemporary appreciation for women with something to hang on to. But with competitive eating it’s not such a casual or enjoyable or artwork-inspiring experience.
Usually the individual contest will last about 15 minutes, and in the professional circuits, prize money can go as high as $10,000 and beyond. Obviously not as impressive as the cult-like status many attain as a result of Jägerbomb-related victories. But still. The most popular countries for competitive eating are the US and Japan, and the ‘sport’ now comprises events which are quite different from their humble origins of pie-eating contests at a local county fair. The fact that there is a sizeable community who take this seriously is evidenced by the nicknames given to the champion chompers: Arnie ‘Chowhound’ Chapman, ‘Munchin’ Mike Longo, Ian ‘The Invader’ Hickman, Todd ‘The Hungry Genius’ Greenwald, Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut (currently ranked numero uno by the IFOCE) and Takeru ‘The Tsunami’ Kobayashi, to name but a few.
Surprisingly, not all of these prizewinning eaters are fatty-boom-booms. No, honestly. Take Natsuko ‘Gal’ Sone, the Gobbler of Kyoto (not her actual nickname, but one she should perhaps consider) and member of catchily-titled girl group Gyaruru. ‘Gal’ combines her competitive eating and singing careers by cramming in sushi during instrumental interludes. Somehow I can’t imagine the likes of Beyonce (pre-baby obvs) taking the opportunity of an instrumental break to do anything apart from show us that she doesn’t think we’re ready for this jelly. But back to ‘Gal’. She’s a skinny minnie but still managed to come runner up in the world-famous Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, a fiercely fought competition which takes place every 4 July at Coney Island.
While obviously a great source (or sauce?) of delight to many, eating contests predictably have their problems. Only last September, an Ukrainian man was victorious in a dumpling eating contest, won a jar of sour cream, but promptly died before he had a chance to sample it. The following month, emergency services in Edinburgh were summoned to a restaurant when contestants in a curry-eating challenge started vomiting and fainting after sampling a dish which in the past had caused nose bleeds and hospitalisation. And there can be all sorts of side effects – not only the obvious obesity and high blood pressure but also water intoxication – which sounds like a contradiction in terms – and gastroparesis. And also, doesn’t it seem a bit wrong for people to be having all these eating competitions when there are lots of people in the world with barely enough food to get by?
Food is one of those things pretty much everyone has an opinion on. There are cake cravers and there are carrot crunchers, there are those who prefer pizza and others who survive on salad. As a general rule, a balanced diet with a little of everything is a good one to aim for. But one thing’s for sure: in this weird and wonderful world, people’s attitudes to food (attifood maybe? No, don’t think that’ll catch on…) never cease to amaze. Or in some cases, simply repulse.