America has long been fascinated by eating contests, memorialized in our cultural memory as long tables of men and women diving face-first into a cherry pie at the county fair. And we have seen it change, watching in disgust and curiosity as the superhuman scarf down several pounds of chicken wings and inhale dozens of hot dogs, seemingly defying everything we know about the limits of human digestion. But as with all things American, the best way to kick up an old tradition is to add a little ethnic flavor.
Saturday’s fifth annual Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship, part of the 71st annual Los Angeles Nisei Week Japanese Festival in Little Tokyo, will sprinkle some Japanese flavor onto the all-American gastronomic tradition by featuring gyoza, the Japanese pot sticker. Twenty “gurgitators,” as eating competitors are known, will have 10 minutes to wolf down as many chicken-filled dumplings as they can stomach in a chance to win part of a $5,000 cash purse. Major League Eating, the NBA of professional eating, is organizing and refereeing the showdown.
“The event is very culturally based,” said Cory Hayashi, Nisei Week event chairman, about the nine-day festival that promotes Japanese and Japanese American heritage. The celebration features customary festivities such as a grand parade and a beauty pageant, but also includes the annual eating contest to attract a more diverse demographic “from Japanese grandmothers to frat boys,” Hayashi said. “People love gyoza. They’re fun to eat.”
But it’s not just fun that will bring spectators to Little Tokyo’s Japanese American Cultural and Community Center: top draw will be Major League Eating sensation Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas. Weighing a mere 100 pounds, the 44-year-old Virginia resident has participated in 150 eating contests since 2003 and holds 24 records, downing items such as oysters, hard-boiled eggs, cheesecake and jalapeño peppers. Thomas competed in the Gyoza Eating Championship in 2007 but lost to top-ranked Joey Chestnut by two pot stickers.
Chestnut ate a record 231 gyozas last year but isn’t entered this year, possibly opening the door for the South Korean-born Thomas, who has beaten men three times her size. “Every competition, I get nervous,” Thomas admitted, but she is confident about her abilities, quipping that she prefers buffets over restaurants to satisfy her hunger. “My body is tiny, but I can stretch my stomach.”
Thomas’ stiffest competition will come from Pat Bertoletti, a 25-year-old Chicago chef and Major League Eating’s second-ranked gurgitator, who is as known on the circuit for his signature mohawk and gulping gallons of red Kool-Aid during contests.
Angelenos will have someone to cheer in Damon Wells, Los Angeles’ top-ranked eater. Wells, a 33-year-old accountant, made his competitive eating debut in 2009’s Gyoza Championship where, despite his smaller stature and inexperience, he placed second with 128 dumplings.
Also entered is “Notorious B.O.B” Shoudt, a vegetarian who consumes meat only in sanctioned competition, and last year’s Gyoza Eating Championship runner-up Erik Denmark.
But as George Shea, one of Major League Eating’s founders, points out, novices are not to be underestimated. “Someone like Matt Stonie can upset the order,” he said, referring to the 19-year-old rookie who has wowed judges and spectators with how quickly he has become a ranked eater. “His talent is greater than anyone knows,” Shea said. “He is the future.”
Stonie, a 120-pound college student from San Jose who started competing in eating contests only last year, is a little more cautious about overstating his prospects, citing Thomas, Bertoletti and Shoudt as fierce competition. “Just being in this game for a long time is in itself a skill,” he said, paying respect to more experienced eaters. “I’m intimidated. I don’t expect to beat them at all.”
Competitive eating has grown into a multimillion-dollar industry in the last few years, and to Shea, its appeal is simple. “The raw spectacle translates well,” Shea said. “It’s about the drama. It’s funny but it’s real.”