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August 16th, 2006 Zach Dundas | News Stories
 

Scarf Face

Inside the stomachs, minds and—yes—even the hearts of the Northwest's best, craziest, hungriest competitive eaters.

     
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A blazing summer day. Hot wind off the Pacific cuts the smell of charred pig over the parking lot of Chinook Winds, Lincoln City's garish tribal casino. The annual Smokin' at the Ocean barbecue festival draws hundreds of people to an afternoon of sun, foamy Bud Light and meat—meat in all its marinated, sauced, grilled greatness.

Erik Denmark, a 28-year-old Portland native, stands in the crowd, tall, lanky, athletically built. Anonymous, but not for long.

Erik Denmark works for Boeing in its procurement department. "Pretty much an Office Space job," he says. "I have a cubicle. I send emails." But today, he sheds that mundane identity and becomes "Erik the Red." No, he does not have red hair. The nickname owes to his heroic exploits, which recall his distant Viking ancestors. Today, Erik the Red will kick ass at the banquet table of excellence.

Erik the Red is a beast. A Spartacus of scarfing. A mammoth of mastication. He's one of the fiercest young talents in a fast-growing sport, ranked No. 26 in the world and tops in the Northwest.

In a few minutes, Erik the Red will pit his mind, heart and digestive tract against a monstrous pile of pork ribs. His competition: Some of the most formidable human consumption engines on the planet. Under a merciless sun, in front of a screaming multitude, at a table lined with blue bunting, Erik the Red and 13 other competitive eaters will battle for the World Rib Eating Championship.

This is no county fair event. Duly sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eaters (IFOCE, or just "the Federation"), the rib championship enjoys as much legitimacy in its world as the British Open or Iditarod do in their realms. The rules are simple. Whoever puts down (and keeps down) the heaviest load of grilled ribs in 12 minutes wins. At stake: $2,500 in "cash and prizes" and coveted placement in the IFOCE ranking of the globe's 50 best "gurgitators." It's a chance for Erik the Red to inch closer to the elite: nearly unbeatable eaters like Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas and Joey "Jaws" Chestnut. In fact, he'll face Chestnut, a cocky 22-year-old from San Diego, today.

Winning means more than just money or a ranking. Victory comes with a generous helping of fame in the world of competitive eating, a small subculture getting bigger in every way. The "sport"—we will consider those quotation marks later—shows every sign of following Texas Hold 'Em, paintball, ultimate fighting and bass fishing into the weird and often lucrative pantheon of American cult pastimes. If and when it does, Erik the Red wants to be along for the ride. So far, after over a year of IFOCE competition, he estimates he's won just $1,500 total. But he's accumulated daunting experience doing something that would literally make most people puke. He knows he's good.

On July 4, with over 1 million ESPN viewers looking on, Erik the Red finished a respectable 11th in the Federation's version of Wimbledon, the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. "I competed in three qualifiers for Nathan's," he says. "They added a last-minute qualifier. So I flew to New York the day before, July 3, and ate 22 hot dogs just to get in. Then I turned around and ate 22 the next day."

It may sound extreme. OK, it sounds very extreme. But gastric self-abuse stokes these competitors'—for lack of a more lovely word—juices. And today, Erik the Red's sporting ambitions demand that he ingest more pork in 12 minutes than the average American eats in a month.

The Chinook Winds crowd would make any French cultural theorist think he'd died and ascended to a promised land of easy Ugly American targets. Auto-parts caps, overflowing beer guts, bristly goatees—this gang is pure red-state. Folks start jockeying for a view long before 3 pm, when casino employees begin heaping ribs on a long table lined with 14 folding chairs.

The official face of competitive eating this afternoon is Mike Castellano, a black-haired Bronx native, probably the only guy in the whole Pacific time zone right now wearing a four-button suit and a straw boater hat. Castellano is one of the Federation's four barnstorming MC/umpires, who work a circuit of more than 100 sanctioned events all over the country. The MCs act both as referees and live announcers. All mimic the signature microphone style developed by Federation founder George Shea: a demented blend of sports-action commentary and old-school vaudeville bullshit. Castellano kicks off festivities with a portentous announcement: "Ladies and gentlemen, we have approached the time to crown a champion!"

Then he brings out the eaters, one by one. Nicknames are as crucial to competitive eating culture as they are to Brazilian soccer, and every eater gets one. "The Big Rig." "The Hungarian Freight Train." James "The Beer Stein" Doheim. Tom "Bad to the Bone" Jones, a 41-year-old expediter for Portland's Cornell Pump, competes at Chinook Winds every year.

Center stage is reserved for the afternoon's four highest-ranked contenders. Scott "The Pork Slayer" Sayer, a Hewlett-Packard engineer from Albany, comes in as Oregon's only world-ranked eater. Rich "The Locust" LeFevre, a 60-year-old retiree from outside Vegas, holds the world Spam record (six pounds in 12 minutes, from the can) and the Federation's No. 5 world ranking. The Locust is ubiquitous, traveling the circuit nonstop with his wife, Carlene "The Madame of Etiquette" LeFevre. ("They say I'm really clean when I compete," the Madame explains. "Of course, that's a relative term.") They are the sport's only all-AARP husband-and-wife team.

The other two spots at center stage are taken by strapping Joey Chestnut and Erik the Red, who left Southwest Portland just before he would have started freshman year at Lincoln High School and now lives in Seattle.

The gurgitators hover like birds of prey. Castellano counts down from 10. When he hits zero, 28 bare hands plunge into meat, shredding pork flesh from bone, jamming fistfuls into mouths.

Chestnut rolls entire bones into his mouth as though feeding paper into a typewriter. The Locust displays a single-minded frenzy that hasn't been part of normal human behavior for, oh, 50,000 years. Slayer's style is more claw than tooth. He rips tiny pieces of meat free and flicks them into his mouth. He bobs in place, maybe trying to settle poorly chewed hog in his stomach. Erik the Red eats in what Castellano calls "a pugilistic stance."

"Remember, ladies and gentlemen!" Castellano cries. "Evacuating the bowels during the competition is grounds for immediate disqualification!"

The World Rib Eating Championship is under way. So...is it a sport or a freak show? Harmless goof or civilization's death knell? Why do they do it? How do they do it? What—for the love of God!—is about to befall their colons?

Can pork shrapnel maim?

For most of its long history, competitive eating was the province of the county fair, the sort of pie-eating contest that made the movie Stand by Me so memorable. Then, in 1997, two brothers named Richard and George Shea, who ran PR for Nathan's Famous, decided it would be hilarious (and a press magnet) if the the wiener chain's annual Coney Island dog-eating contest enjoyed "official" standing.

The Sheas intended the International Federation of Competitive Eating as a high-concept parody of organized sports. But as they branched out from Nathan's to "sanction" more events, their ironic conceit ran into an unexpected game-changer: the gurgitators themselves.

"The eaters sort of collectively decided that, actually, they'd prefer not to be a joke," says Jason Fagone, a Philadelphia journalist whose Horsemen of the Esophagus is one of two new books on competitive eating. "They decided to take it seriously. So now the Sheas have to sort of play along."

Today, eaters like Chestnut, Erik the Red and The Locust zip all over the country to compete, while gossip sites like Eatfeats.com and BeautifulBrian.com track the sport's intrigues. Gurgitation is all grown up. The age of the amateur pie-eating champ is gone.

SEVEN MINUTES LEFT:

All hands shimmer with gore. Black deposits of pulverized flesh collect beneath fingernails. I crouch just in front of the Big Four. A chiplet of pork hits me in the thigh.

The gurgitators have all settled into their rhythm. The local guys mostly eat with the grim determination of condemned men. The Pork Slayer, who started on his feet, sinks to his chair but keeps stuffing his face manfully. The Locust's insectoid fury is unabated, but Erik the Red actually seems to take down more meat with his colossal chipmunk mouthfuls.

And then there is Chestnut. Contest workers scramble to refresh his rib supply. Barbecue sauce smears from the point of his chin to the top of his left cheekbone. Kneeling next to me, Chestnut's girlfriend, a tiny, olive-skinned woman, urges him on: "C'mon, Joey, that's it baby, find your flow, Joey, find your flow, baby, you look good!"

As is often the case with sports on the rise, a single moment in gurgitation history stands out. On July 4, 2001, an unheralded 23-year-old Japanese kid named Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi devoured 50 garlicky Nathan's hot dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the previous record. People who witnessed the milestone talk about it as though they saw Roger Bannister break the four-minute mile, or watched the Colts-Giants 1958 NFL Championship Game from the 50-yard line.

Post-Tsunami, ESPN launched live coverage of the Nathan's championship in 2004. A few other televised "majors" emerged, such as the Alka-Seltzer U.S. Open of Competitive Eating, a knockout tournament in which a variety of foods are consumed. The money's still relatively paltry—Erik the Red estimates only five or six gurgitators win enough cash to cover travel expenses—but TV helps the Federation lure new blood. The competitive stakes continue to rise. This July 4, Chestnut sucked down 52 Nathan's dogs. Kobayashi, in an Alamo-like all-or-nothing stand against the Californian's frightening onslaught, set a new record of 53.75 to retain the Mustard Yellow Belt—for now.

With duels like that, elite eaters are pushing their bodies and gurgitation's popularity toward unknown frontiers. "How big could it get?" author Fagone says. "I guess it depends on the backlash. What could hurt it seriously is if someone dies. Which, of course, is a very real possibility."

FOUR MINUTES LEFT:

Chestnut is on his fifth plate of ribs. Right next to him, Erik the Red is visibly laboring to maintain his early, Hoover-like pace.

"The first two plates came out good," Erik says later. "I wasn't too far behind Joey at that point. In fact, I think I was dead even on the first plate. The third plate just killed me. My jaws were getting tired, and the third plate was considerably less lubricated—the ribs barely had any sauce on them at all. The first bite, I was like, oh, shit. I knew I just had to grind through."

Why does this crazed pursuit appeal to a young, athletic, ambitious guy like Erik Denmark? Deep in the competition—deep in the pork—Erik the Red says gurgitation stops feeling like the most obscene eating binge of all time and takes on a Zen-like, almost yogic quality.

"There's a barrier you can break through, when you're beyond the pain threshold," he says. "You're beyond 'full'—you push past that sensation. And when you do that, you can do some pretty amazing things with your body."

The key, he says, is being in good enough shape to get there. While serious competitive eaters tend to guard their training methods with Masonic secrecy, Erik the Red lets me in on some of his techniques.

"When I'm getting ready for a competition, I'll probably do a number of full runs," he says, meaning he will simulate an entire contest at home. "Maybe even two or three times a week. The value of a full run is that whatever you hit becomes a benchmark. You know you can do at least that.

"Water training is definitely big. You stretch the stomach out. Beyond that, a lot of people don't say what they do. And if they do tell you, they're probably lying."

According to Horsemen author Fagone, the top gurgitators are engaged in a gastric arms race. "They're doing some baroque things to their bodies," he says. "To put up Joey Chestnut's numbers, he must train as hard as Kobayashi. And Kobayashi trains almost to death."

And so gurgitation's face is literally changing. Some deluxe-sized humans, like 420-pound Eric "Badlands" Booker, still figure prominently. But the 160-pound Takeru Kobayashi, for one, is ripped, with xylophone abs and precision-cut biceps.

"The people who are in shape are the people posting big gains," says the 6-foot-4, 210-pound Erik the Red. "This is incredibly hard on your body. If you think you're going to be able to just go to the buffet every day and then perform well, you're wrong."

In Horsemen, Fagone goes into some detail about what occurs when an overloaded stomach bursts, a phenomenon usually associated with bulimia. Victims almost always die. So far, it hasn't happened to an IFOCE gurgitator, but Fagone fears it's only a matter of time. And even much less dramatic medical implications such as acid reflux are...unappetizing.

"The short-term risks probably aren't that great," says Dr. Robert Martindale, a professor of gastric surgery at Oregon Health & Science University. "But over the long term, what happens when you overfill the stomach consistently is what we call dysmotility of the esophagus. You dilate the esophagus so much, it may never go back to normal."

TWO MINUTES LEFT:

For every Erik the Red and Joey Chestnut—hardcores who dream of leveraging their skill to fame, groupies and Rolaids endorsements—there's a Tom "Bad to the Bone" Jones: a dark-horse outsider who sees competitive eating as a precious chance to measure himself against the best.

A foster dad to three kids who spends his days at a factory on Southeast 130th Avenue, Jones started competing at Chinook Winds four years ago. Even though he doesn't have the time or money to join the national circuit, he keeps coming back to the Oregon event.

"I get up every morning and go to work," Jones says. "Then I come home and take care of the kids. It's not like Michael Jordan is gonna come to town and play some one-on-one with you. You give me a chance to compete against a pro athlete, and I'm gonna be there."

But now something terrible is happening inside Tom Jones. He stops eating. He starts eating again. He stops eating. He turns from the table, doubles forward and unleashes a hydraulic eruption of yellow bile and undigested meat onto the asphalt.

"We've had a reversal of fortune!" Castellano screams. "Tom 'Bad to the Bone' Jones must leave the table!" Photographers swarm to capture Jones' undoing. Someone hands him a towel. Someone else decorously covers his vomit with another towel, like a crime-scene corpse.

THIRTY SECONDS LEFT:

Competitors rush the last mouthfuls, bathed in sweat. Erik the Red blows his cheeks out to ridiculous Louis Armstrong balloons—his mouth so full, he has to hold the load in with a hand over his mouth.

It's over.

Rib eating is judged strictly by weight consumed, so the results take a few minutes as the weight of the gnawed bones is subtracted from that of the original ribs. Pork Slayer, who stands a little unsteadily amid his own debris, seems disappointed. "I don't feel as full as I felt last year," Oregon's top-ranked eater says. "I had a couple of pieces that were really tough to chew. Once you break your stride, it's really hard to get back on your rhythm."

As it turns out, the Pork Slayer's total of about 3.5 pounds isn't good enough.

Erik the Red finishes a strong third, with just over 4 pounds, to win $500. The Locust takes second and $750 at 5.05 pounds. He looks mildly satisfied. "Wipe your glasses off, honey," calls the Madame of Etiquette.

The winner? Joey Chestnut, who has eaten 8.4 pounds of rib meat—a new IFOCE world record.

Just a few weeks later, gurgitation's best gather in Sheboygan, Wisc. The Johnsonville World Bratwurst Eating Championship is an exponentially bigger deal than the Chinook Winds rib contest—an almost-ludicrous prize purse totaling over $20,000 draws a blue-chip field, including Sonya Thomas and Kobayashi himself. ESPN 2 offers tape-delayed coverage. An estimated crowd of 3,500 turns out.

It's a rough day for Erik the Red. He knew brats—each one a little caloric hand grenade—would pose a significant challenge. He goes in hoping to cram down around 30 in 10 minutes. ("That's, what—750 grams of fat?" he says beforehand.) He finishes in 10th place, with 15.5 brats.

"Johnsonville sponsored the event, and you always try to be as kind as possible about the food," he says. "But they're just so heavy and greasy. It's daunting, to be honest."

Meanwhile, the Tsunami destroys the field: Kobayashi opens an unconquerable early lead over Chestnut, then practically saunters down the homestretch on his way to a 58-brat final score and an $8,000 check. The defeated Chestnut claims his training wasn't up to snuff—but vows revenge.

Disappointment in Sheboygan aside, Erik the Red's gurgitation prospects could hardly be better. On the strength of his Chinook Winds performance, he shot up to No. 12 in the latest Federation rankings. (The Pork Slayer, however, fell out of the rankings.) He's not in Chestnut's league—yet—but he's easily the best in his homeland, which gives him a certain novelty cachet within the Federation.

"I'm like the Seattle Mariners," Erik says proudly. "I travel farther than anyone else." He's now preparing for a gyoza contest in L.A. and a jalapeño battle in New Mexico in the coming weeks.

You could say that all this is sick and wrong—and in a horrifically obese nation and a world racked with hunger, you would have a point. But holding competitive eating up as a symptom of decadence seems like a pretty cheap way to score liberal-artsy genius points. Gurgitation is like Donald Trump's hairpiece (or simply like Donald Trump): so far beyond indefensible, it's pretty much invincible.

Is it a "real" sport? Good question. The better question for sports fans might be, what makes anything a sport? Football? Log-rolling? NASCAR? They're sports when and because we decide they are. In any case, serious gurgitators like Erik the Red are having way too much fun, winning too much money and getting too much air time in this strange cul-de-sac of our culture to be put off by critics.

"I love the competition and I love the travel," Erik the Red says. "On some level, it's just a hobby. On another level, it's what I've been thinking about all week. And when else would I get to go to Sheboygan, y'know?"

FAST TRACT TO GREATNESS

The IFOCE recognizes world records in dozens of "disciplines," including:

* Beef tongue, pickled (3 pounds, 3 ounces in 12 minutes)

* Burritos (15 in eight minutes)

* Chicken nuggets (80 in five minutes)

* Chicken-fried steak (66 ounces plus country gravy, 12 minutes)

* Conch fritters (45 in six minutes)

* Cow brains (17.7 pounds in 15 minutes)

* Mayonnaise (128 ounces in eight minutes)

* Oysters (46 dozen in 10 minutes—please think about that for a second)

* Posole (109.75 ounces in 12 minutes)

* Purim cookies (50 in six minutes, set by gargantua Eric "Badlands" Booker, who also holds the matzoh ball, cannoli and burrito marks.)

* Reindeer sausage (28 in 10 minutes)

* Tiramisu (4 pounds in six minutes)

For more—oh so much more—see www.ifoce.com.

EATING IN

Indie competitors scarf it, Stumptown-style.

By Shoshanna Cohen

The very same day the rib-eating gurgitators squared off for national honors in Lincoln City, a very different side of competitive eating went on display at Zach's Shack, a hot-dog house-cum-bar on Portland's Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard. How different? For starters, there's a vegetarian category.

As in most matters, hip Portlanders prefer to keep their competitive eating local, independent and none too serious. So Zach Zelinger, dog-slinging king of the Shack, may borrow most of his annual contest's rules (12 minutes! Most dogs wins! No puking!) from the Federation's famous July 4 hot-dog event, but actual IFOCE-ranked eaters are explicitly banned from festivities. (Not that the IFOCE would allow its gurgitators to compete in a non-sanctioned hot-dog showdown, anyway.)

That leaves the Zach's Shack shootout an accessible, light-hearted happening—and makes it part of a small, informal "circuit" of locally run competitive eating events (see below).

"It's the most absurd thing you can do," Zelinger says. "It's just fun. It's like our New Year's around here." The spectacle and silliness appear to be what draws the handful of hipsters, dudes and dads who pay $4 to stuff real and fake doggage in their respective faces. Most have no competitive eating experience and list ambitions such as "obesity," "beer" and "to become a hot dog and as such rule the world" on their entrance forms.

As the contest kicks off on Zach's back patio, 10 eaters in three categories—male, female, veggie—start gorging simultaneously. It's quickly apparent that an eater who gives his name only as "Doog Shit Comidador" owns this place. As his small crew of fans chants "Si, se puede!" and waves Mexican flags, Comidador molds moistened buns like Play-Doh and smooshes them into his mouth. Twelve minutes (and 12 dogs) later, the champion belt is his. He stands, soggy crumbs clinging to his rocker hairdo, and announces, "I'm going home and throwing up," before lurching offstage.

Meanwhile, in the vegetarian category, that's already been taken care of. A woman named TeeJay ralphs up the veggie dogs into a bucket; her adoption of what are euphemistically called "Roman methods" hands the only other vegetarian contender a victory by default.

Unlike popular Northwest sports like rock climbing and cycling, local competitive eating requires no expensive equipment or wilderness training—all you need is a couple bucks, decent hand-to-mouth coordination and zero regard for your digestive well-being. Not only will it bring you closer to Kobayashi for a short, nauseous moment, but you also might discover your new favorite neighborhood restaurant.

You'll have to wait 'til next July for a chance at Zach's, but in the meantime Portland offers other gurgitation opportunites.

Voodoo Doughnut First Friday Eating Contest

Be the first to polish off whatever's in your surprise box. Loot: a button, and maybe your picture on the wall. 22 SW 3rd Ave., 241-4704. Midnight, first Friday night of every month. Free.

Salvador Molly's Great Balls of Fire Tournament

Eating several pounds of starch and grease is one thing; shoveling down five-alarm jalapeño-cheese fritters is a whole other ballpark. Loot: benefits Oregon Heat. 3350 SE Morrison St. and other locations, 234-0896. February-March. $7 for qualifier, call for details.

Marinepolis Sushi Land Plate Championship

Anybody can walk in and attempt the 30-plate sushi challenge. Nobody (so far) can beat the 54-plate standing record. Loot: free sushi and a T-shirt. 1409 NE Weidler St. and other locations, 280-0300. Year-round. Cost of 30-plus plates of sushi.


For a slideshow of photos from the Smokin' at the Ocean Barbecue Festival, go to flickr.com/slideShow/index.gne?nsid=&set_id=72157594238623875.

The International Federation of Competitive Eating's Shea brothers are figures of some controversy in the gurgitation world. In particular, the Federation's practice of signing eaters to exclusive contracts, and slapping violators with cease-and-desist letters if they enter non-Federation events, is cause for some indigestion.

Scott "The Pork Slayer" Sayer came into the Chinook Winds event ranked No. 50 by the IFOCE.

Journalist Jason Fagone describes George Shea as "one part PT Barnum, one part Karl Rove." According to his Horsemen of the Esophagus, Shea tried to block Federation eaters from cooperating with Fagone as he researched the book. In contrast, a rival tome, Eat This Book, enjoys the Federation's official approval.

IFOCE faces competition from a much smaller rival circuit, the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters. The AICE often uses "picnic rules," which preclude such common IFOCE tactics as removing a hot dog or other sausage from its bun and dunking the bread in water before eating.

In addition to "a reversal of fortune," the euphemistic term "Roman methods" is sometimes used when gurgitators vomit.

After the Chinook Winds event, Scott Sayer lost his place in the IFOCE Top 50. A gurgitator from Vancouver, Wash., named Jason "The Erbivore" Erb made his debut in the rankings, breaking in at No. 35.

Erik the Red tracks his path to gurgitative glory on his blog, erikdenmark.blogspot.com.

The Portland super-blog UrbanHonking.com devotes serious coverage to competitive eating on its sports site, www.urbanhonking.com/truefan.

 
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