To the Glutton, the Gold


While most think Memorial Day marks the beginning of summer, it’s also the start of The Season. The competitive eating season. Time for a man like Ed “Cookie” Jarvis to learn what he’s made of--and how many hot dogs he can eat in 12 minutes.

If he’s lucky, the 335-pound Long Island real estate agent may win a berth in the world’s most famous hot dog eating contest on July 4 at Coney Island. But first he’ll have to win at least one of several all-you-can-eat qualifiers to be held across the nation in the next few weeks. He’ll have to come home a champion--and victory on this grueling circuit is by no means assured.

“I’m hitting the road. I’ll be heading for Las Vegas, Phoenix and other towns, trying to win somewhere,” says Jarvis, a brash rookie. “It used to be you could win these regional things by eating 12 to 13 dogs, but now you have to put away 16 to 18. The competition is getting tougher every year.”


We’re not just talking hot dogs. When it comes to eating contests, America’s appetite is insatiable: There are battles over crawfish in Louisiana, artichokes in Castroville, smelt in Washington state, ribs in Texas, oysters in Connecticut, hamburgers in New Jersey, chicken wings in Ohio, curd in Wisconsin and pancakes in Pennsylvania. Even matzo balls in New York.

The rules vary--in Chicago, gyros gobblers cannot use their hands, and participants in a Rayne, La., frog-eating contest must display good table manners--yet one bottom line unites them all: If you heave, you leave.

Long a fixture at picnics and charity events, eating contests have gone big-time. A hot dog competition in Boston this month drew thousands; more than 20,000 people turned out for a recent jalapeno face-off in Laredo, Texas. In Philadelphia, the chicken “Wing Bowl” competition that began as a publicity stunt at a radio station now fills a basketball arena each January with 20,000 screaming fans.

Las Vegas bookmakers have begun offering odds on major tournaments, and the Coney Island clash draws media coverage from around the world. Recent victories by “thin” contestants from Japan have sparked anxiety at the New York-based International Federation of Competitive Eating, says President George Shea: “They raise questions of national honor for many people. These stunning defeats have been a blow to the big men of competitive eating.”

How is it that America, a nation long obsessed with dieting and weight loss, could be fascinated by such displays of overconsumption?

“We are the fattest, most overweight country in the world,” says Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation.” “So it’s logical that we’d be home to contests where people brag about who can eat the most.”


Rebelling Against Puritan Roots

Some believe the growing popularity of competitive eating reveals the eternal struggle over America’s puritanical streak. “There’s a dimension of rebellion in such public eating,” says Chuck Kleinhans, professor of media studies at Northwestern University. “But this consumption is followed by physical discomfort, so in the end the puritanical order is satisfied.”

Those who have tasted victory say it’s worth the physical pain. But not everyone can compete. Several years ago, a college student entered “The Grand Cluckoff,” a chicken wing competition in Cincinnati. He kept a Web site diary and, as the eating began, Mike Haberman recalled, “I tried to keep my spirits up and the food down. I heard cries of pain and shouts for more chicken.” By the end, he had eaten 130 greasy wings in 30 minutes--finishing a distant 35th.

The world of competitive eating is filled with tales like these, and Jarvis often wonders whether he has what it takes. He’s tried his luck in matzo ball eating contests, eaten large pizzas in five minutes and polished off 78-ounce steaks in a warmup with friends. He watches videotapes of competitions, stays in shape at buffets and--in his darkest hours--fights off waves of nausea.

He also keeps his eyes on the map. Besides Las Vegas and Phoenix, this year’s hot dog regionals are scheduled for Los Angeles, Vancouver, Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Boston, Philadelphia and several sites in New Jersey and New York.

This weekend’s big event takes place today at the Meadowlands in New Jersey. Qualifying events also will be held in England, Germany, Japan and Thailand. All those who enter will be taking aim at the current champion, Kazutoyo Arai, 32, of Japan. He weighs 101 pounds and holds the world record of 25 1/8 hot dogs in 12 minutes.

For all the training, traveling and physical distress, the competitions offer no cash rewards--only glory.


“I just want to make the big show; I want my 15 minutes of fame,” says Jarvis, 35. “People may think that this is silly, but at least I’m not getting my brains beaten out every week like a professional football player. I’m just a guy who wants to eat a lot of hot dogs.”

As he hits the summer circuit, Jarvis will be traveling with two buddies: “Crazy” Kevin Lipsitz and Don “Moses” Lerman, two veterans of competitive eating--both with poignant stories to tell.

Lipsitz, weighing in at 210 pounds, is America’s pickle-eating champion (2 1/2 pounds in five minutes). He’s eaten his way into the hot dog finals three times but has yet to win the big bun. As the competition gets tougher, the Staten Island businessman has pulled out all the stops.

“I train with my two dogs, a German shepherd and a greyhound,” he says. “I put whatever we’re eating on the floor for them--spaghetti, hot dogs, rice, you name it--and we see who can eat the most. They always beat me.”

In the heat of battle, Lipsitz experiences what he calls “hot dog delirium. . . . I black out, I have no recollection of where I am and I just hit the wall. Then, as the contest ends, I suddenly come back to reality.”

‘All It Takes Is Discipline’

Last year’s sweep by three Japanese entrants in the Nathan’s contest at Coney Island was galling, he says, especially since the third-place finisher was a woman. (Women are still unusual in the Brooklyn contest.) Lipsitz still marvels: Takako Akasaka, 5 feet, 2 inches and 104 pounds, had never entered an American hot dog contest before last summer. But she was her country’s meat-bun eating champion.


“There’s room in this sport for someone like me because it’s like bowling,” adds Lipsitz, 42. “You don’t have to be at your physical peak to do well, and you can excel in your 40s and 50s. All it takes is discipline.”

As they head for Vegas, Phoenix and other regionals, Jarvis and Lipsitz will swap war stories with Lerman. He’s in the twilight of his career, a 52-year-old champion who has lost 120 pounds in three years but none of his competitive edge. Although others might beat him, nobody laughs at him.

“I’m not a professional boxer and I’m not a golfer; I’m an eater,” says the retired businessman from Levittown, N.Y. “This is what I do.”

Once, Lerman set the world record for matzo ball eating in New York, wolfing down 12 half-pounders (“the size of baseballs”) in 2 minutes and 50 seconds. He can still eat five hot dogs in less than 34 seconds.

“But I can’t do it the way I used to,” he says quietly. “My body won’t allow it. I only wish I knew about this stuff when I was much younger.”

Jarvis, Lipsitz and Lerman begin their cross-country crusade with no illusions. They know some kid with a big stomach could show up in Las Vegas and break their hearts; they might be watching instead of eating on July 4.


“I’ll eat till I drop, that’s all I can do,” says Jarvis. “Competitive eating is just like anything else in life. There are no guarantees.”


Pass the Alka Seltzer

America has an insatiable appetite for food contests. Here are some U.S. food-eating records and where they were broken:

Selected Current Records

Smelts: 105 in 30 minutes, Kelso, Wash.

Hybrid “killer” onions: 4 ounces in 60 seconds, at Vacaville Onion and Music Festival

Jalapeno peppers: 141 in 15 minutes, Laredo, Tex.

Crawfish: 55 and 3/4 pounds in 45 minutes, Breaux Bridge, La.

Ribs (full size, not baby back): 93 in 20 minutes, Cleveland, Ohio

Chicken wings: 166 in 30 minutes, “Wing Bowl” in Philadelphia

Hot dogs: 25 1/8 in 12 minutes, Nathan’s Famous contest in Coney Island

Matzo balls: 16 5/8 in 6 minutes and 50 seconds, New York


Researched by JOSH GETLIN/Los Angeles Times