I was supposed to be on a diet. But I've always had a weak spot for eating contests. When I learned that The Stranger was going to sponsor a spring-roll-eating contest to raise money for the Seattle Chinatown International District Preservation and Development Authority, and that we needed a staffer to compete, I was tempted. When I heard the competitors would include two-time Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi, I had to do it. Rossi is just the kind of smug macho GOP jus' folks millionaire fucker who makes my blood boil. I might not be able to do much, but I do know I can eat. So I was in.
It turned out to be one of the weirdest lineups of local "celebrities" imaginable. In addition to Rossi, competitors included King County Council member (and King County Executive candidate) Dow Constantine; James Sun, a former contestant from the TV show The Apprentice; Toby Crittenden, who does outreach for Washington Bus, an organization devoted to getting young people involved in politics; and former Seattle Seahawk and current sports-radio host Brock Huard. The contest would be two minutes long, the spring rolls would be vegetarian and deep-fried, and Geo from Blue Scholars would host. Because of the sheer gonzo fucknuttedness of the situation, I couldn't tell my friends about the competition without breaking into a giggle. It was weird, yes, but I was also thrilled: Eating competitively has always been a dream of mine, and that dream was about to come true.
W hen I was in my early 20s, living in Boston, and bored, and all my friends were young, bored men in their early 20s, four of us decided to go to the Old Country Buffet in Medford, Massachusetts. It was a kind of challenge between us, a joke: Try to get the most out of an all-you-can-eat restaurant by eating as much meat as possible. All I can really remember of the restaurant is that it was mostly brown, with a golden cast to the light. With the ratty institutional carpet and the enormous lonely men sitting alone in booths, the place reeked of a sad kind of desire. It was just the kind of desperate scene that young men love to flirt with, to see how close they can get to it without getting any of that desperate stench permanently on them.
By chance, we arrived on chicken-fried steak night, and so while my three friends branched out into the other meats, I ate three gigantic plates of these puck-shaped, uniformly tan steak patties, covered with clumpy white sauce. We were ironic in our consumption, but we were also young men, and so we were egging each other into eating as much as we possibly could—"Boy, I'm still hungry! This meat loaf must be made out of air!"—and as one of my friends went up for a fourth time, I pushed another plate of steaks down my gullet. And then we ate dessert. I had the soft-serve, and there was a watery chocolate pudding and cakes that seemed to be constructed from half-chewed cereal. Finally, the walls were closing in on us, and we could genuinely eat no more, and so we left the Old Country Buffet to begin the walk back to public transit.
We stood in front of the Meadow Glen Mall, looking out over the parking lot at the dusk—it was one of the first comfortable spring nights of the year, when you could leave the house without a parka. Nearby, a woman scolded her husband. She was too tired to walk to the car, and so she would stand at the mall entrance with her stroller and wait for him to bring the car around. My friends and I stood there, grinning, and then I said: "I can't believe how much we just ate." We all started laughing, like it was the funniest joke we'd ever heard. We laughed at each other's laughing, at how each others' distended bellies shook with the laughter, and we laughed at how tears leaked from our own eyes while our bellies shook. And the laughter got more and more raucous. And then it happened. One of us, Spencer, leaned over into a trash can and vomited. That was, of course, the funniest thing in the world, and we laughed harder, and that finally broke me, and I leaned over and vomited into the trash can. The woman grabbed her stroller and ran away from us. That was the funniest thing of all.
We realized that security might show up, and so we kind of stagger-ran around to the back of the mall, where the big trucks go to unload their merchandise, laughing and horking all the while, except for Dick, who prided himself on being tough. He tried to tell us how disgusting it all was, but once this sort of thing starts, it's impossible to stop. We must've gone for 20 minutes, taking turns, heaving our buffet back out onto the pavement and laughing at it.
Here's the thing: When you fill your stomach to bursting and then immediately empty it, the feeling is rather pleasant. It feels like the calm after a particularly tough bout of strenuous exercise, like the orgasmic rush of taking too many Percocets at once. Everything seemed to have a colorful aura around it. Everything glowed and hummed and felt hazy and sharp at once. My face hurt from laughing so hard. Finally, Dick couldn't take it anymore; he ran away from us and dove into a nearby shrub. We laughed at him, even as he disappeared. A minute or two later, he emerged from the bushes, wobbly, wiping his face. Just as we got control of our laughter, he looked right at us and said, "I just puked pure puddin'." We all laughed more, and then we went into the mall and walked around, touching things and staring way too long at textures and mirrors.
T ake one look at me, and you can tell that I've never been fond of physical exertion; I can't seem to ever take any pleasure in exercise. Long, rambling walks are the only kind of physical activity I enjoy. But stupid stunts are oxygen to a young man's mind, and after the Old Country Buffet incident, I frequently competed in eating contests with roommates. Possibly because my friends are smarter than I am, I won all of those contests. Years later, in 2002, I won an amateur no-hands pie-eating contest—two and a half cherry pies in two minutes—at a neighborhood festival in Pioneer Square. There is something incredibly satisfying about shoving your face directly into the center of a big mound of food. And there's something even more rewarding about eating your way to air. Because I had pie in my eyes, I couldn't see my competitors and didn't know how they were doing. But when the whistle blew, I had beaten my closest competitor by an entire pie. I have good instincts for it, clearly, but I wanted to take the spring-roll competition seriously, so I started doing research into the competitive-eating field. If you live in Seattle and you're interested in competitive eating, there's one man you have to talk to.
Erik "The Red" Denmark is the world-record holder in competitive spot-shrimp eating. He consumed nearly five pounds worth of the animal (fact: the largest shrimp in Puget Sound) in 12 minutes and competes in eating contests around the country. He'll tackle any type of food (9.75 Native American fry breads in 8 minutes, 6 pounds of king salmon in 8 minutes, 4.7 pounds of ribs in 12 minutes), but his specialty is hot and spicy dishes. He's known for his pepper eating (105 jalapeños in 8 minutes, 32 habanero peppers in 1 minute, both with no water during the competition or for five minutes after) and chicken wings ("I like 'em so covered with habeneros that they're black"). If you're picturing an overweight man, you're about a decade behind. Obese men like Ed "Cookie" Jarvis and rapper/ eater Eric "Badlands" Booker are no longer the standard in competitive eating. When a skinny five-foot-eight man named Takeru Kobayashi won the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2001 by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the previous record, the game changed forever. The new breed of eaters are more often built like Denmark—six-foot-four, lean, and athletic. It was Kobayashi who inspired Denmark: "It made me wonder how many hot dogs I could eat."
Denmark is a member of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), an organization founded by New York City publicists George and Richard Shea. The Shea brothers, through sheer P. T. Barnum–style hucksterism, have built the IFOCE into a brand and transformed the wilderness of the eating contest from ragtag events held at state fairs, those queasy celebrations of the community's bounty, into a regulated, televised industry. There are countless news stories about competitive eaters. Jason Fagone, in his stellar book on competitive eating and the IFOCE titled Horsemen of the Esophagus, refers to the endless parade of "half-serious, half-playful newspaper feature[s]" and "the puffy, sprawling alt-weekly profile[s] of the alt-weekly town's most prominent eater" that always "fail to capture the mad galumphing experience of an eating contest."
Denmark and I are sitting in Phnom Penh Noodle House, the Cambodian restaurant that will supply the spring rolls for the competition. He's ordered an extra-hot soup and has spiced up the bowl with about half of every bottle on the table: The soup is an angry red, and it seems to swirl of its own accord. As he eats, he's continually sniffling and wiping his nose on napkins, which sit in a huge mound to his left. He's surprisingly low-key—the field attracts enormous personalities—and he's very forthcoming with advice. He talks about competitive eating as a kind of athleticism. "It sucks sometimes because I have to think about everything I'm putting in my body." (He asked the waitress for fewer noodles in his soup, touching his belly and explaining, "Don't want too many carbs.") Eating, Denmark says, is "about knowing your body's limits and pushing those limits."
I ask him why there have been no IFOCE-sponsored spring-roll-eating contests. "They're a fatty food, and those are usually pretty tough. And they're crunchy, too, so they're kind of hard to eat. And, probably, it's a cultural thing. Most Chinese food places wouldn't think of an eating contest as a good advertisement for their food." We order three orders of spring rolls—they come six to an order—and Denmark stares them down. "I don't think dunking is going to help you," he says. Most eaters dunk their food in water or some sort of juice in order to get the food as close to digested as possible before they put it in their mouth. But the crunchy fried shell is going to resist any short-term soaking. "You'll need some sort of liquid, just to wash it down." Lemonade is a favorite on the circuit, because it can mask the flavor (to avoid "flavor overload," some eaters will line their nostrils with VapoRub to cover the taste of the food they're consuming). I explain that they'll provide a liter of water at the contest. "Make sure it's warmer than room temperature," Denmark says. "Cold water is refreshing, and it causes your throat to close for a second when you swallow it. You'll need to take a drink for every piece you put in your mouth." He demonstrates, holding a spring roll in one hand and a glass of water in the other. "You can probably do them two at a time. I think the winner of this contest is going to do 10 rolls in two minutes."
He looks down at the spring rolls. "Are we gonna do this?" I need to try speed-eating these rolls. There are 13 left. Demark offers to eat eight to my four, with an extra bonus roll for the person who finishes his first. My stomach is actually fluttering. I excuse myself, walk to the bathroom, and try to breathe. I never get nervous in this kind of dramatic, panic-attack fashion. I return and sit back down.
"I don't know what's going on," I say. "I feel like I'm gonna hork."
"What's the worst thing that can happen?" Denmark says. "So you throw up in a restaurant."
My heart is pounding. We order warm water, and Denmark sets up his phone's stopwatch. And then I take a breath—and we start.
I put one spring roll in my mouth and chew. It's kind of tough; Denmark was right. I drink a sip of water and it goes down easily. I grab two and push them in with my left hand, then sip with my right hand. It's easy! I take the fourth, which goes down smoothly, and I notice that Denmark still hasn't grabbed the bonus roll, which I do away with and we both finish at the same time. Five to eight, in 45 seconds. Denmark gives me a high five. "That was pretty good," he says. "I think you'll be able to do 12." My nausea went away the moment I started eating, and, post-eating, I feel this strange glow, a feeling of accomplishment. I kind of want to order three more trays and try to beat Denmark. I ask him if this sort of rush is common. He explains that after the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, he and the other eaters will go to Hooter's and order tray after tray of chicken wings and wash them down with pitchers of beer. Usually after a competition with other serious eaters, they'll stay out until two or three in the morning, pouring massive amounts of booze and food down their throats. "We kind of egg each other on," Denmark says.
When he started eating, Denmark would go to the store, buy seven or eight cabbages, and then boil and eat them "not at competitive speed, but, you know, pretty fast" to stretch his stomach. He drinks water constantly to keep his stomach loose. He suggests chewing gum "three or four sticks at a time, all the time" to work up my jaw strength for the competition. (In an e-mail, another competitive eater, Crazy Legs Conti, suggests I eat frozen Tootsie Rolls, but Denmark demurs: "That sounds like a good idea, but I'm diabetic, so it wouldn't work for me." His type 1 diabetes is what drove him as a child from sweet foods to spicy foods, presumably setting his whole eating life in motion. Before he does the sweet contests, such as elephant ears, he has to "take a lot of insulin.") Because the spring-roll-eating contest is at 7:00 p.m. ("I hate night contests"), Denmark suggests that I eat a small bowl of cereal that morning, drink water continually all day long, and then don't ingest anything at all for three hours before the contest.
W hich is exactly what I do on April 29, the day of the competition. Showbox Sodo is alive with dancers and performers, and the air smells like fried food and perfume. Denmark has come out to watch me compete. I make my way back to the greenroom and meet the other competitors. It's weird hanging around with them. People like Huard, Rossi, and Constantine act like famous people, but they really could go just about anywhere outside of Washington State and nobody would have a blessed clue who they were. But here, they're celebrities. They banter. Huard, a tall, blond action figure of a man, keeps joking about how nervous he is, but in that sort of jock way that suggests he's being preemptively humble in the face of his impending victory. Rossi, with the bland, crinkly looks of a past-his-prime TV newscaster, joins Constantine in keeping an ironic distance and downplaying their involvement by not taking it too seriously.
Eating contests are serious business, though: There are any number of things that can go wrong. The biggest and most visible problem is what the IFOCE refers to as a "reversal of fortune" or a "Roman incident," also known as vomiting, which will get you immediately disqualified from any competition. But there are other issues, including "the meat sweats," which is an intense, odorous sweat that plagues some eaters. If the temperature is too hot or too cold, that can throw off your game and slow you down or cause cramps. Long-term, you can suffer from type 2 diabetes or acid reflux. A couple of eaters have suffered strokes while competing. The IFOCE heavily promotes safety in all its events and on its website. When I contacted George Shea by e-mail to ask if he had any advice, his only response was: "I would urge you not to participate unless there is an emergency medical technician on hand for safety. Good luck."
Even if you're functioning at champion levels, something is going on in your system that shouldn't be happening. An eater in Horsemen of the Esophagus hints that the fastest eaters share a secret to eating that goes beyond expanding one's stomach. Competitive eaters presumably use every inch of their digestive space by deluging their colons and intestines to the point where they can no longer process the food and instead release it in a flood. To be blunt, some eaters are basically one false move away from shitting themselves.
But there's no need for that tonight. Two minutes isn't anywhere near the marathon of a professional eating contest. It's a sprint, pure and simple. I stay quiet in the greenroom, jogging my leg up and down and keeping focused on what I'm going to do.
And then I do it. After a little backstage banter, Geo introduces all of us, one after another, and the contestants sit at a long table in front of roasting pans filled with 25 spring rolls each. I'm second to last, and there is a space for me at the table right next to Rossi. I've been planning for this moment for two months. I come out screaming like a pro wrestler: "There are no recounts this time, Dino Rossi! No recounts!" My friends in the audience tell me that Rossi's face soured at the mention of his 2004 hairbreadth loss to Governor Christine Gregoire, but I have already moved on. Denmark suggested that I eat standing up, so I pick up my chair and drop-kick it away from the table. Geo explains the rules: two minutes, or the first one to clean their pan automatically wins.
The clock starts, and we all dig in. I take it just as Denmark suggested: Two at a time, washed down with plenty of water. Unexpectedly, I realize I'm dancing to the music—a remixed version of Smash Mouth's "All Star"—as I'm chowing down. This is not unprecedented. The competitive-eating world was rocked when the "Kobayashi shimmy" was introduced to the sport. The theory: Wiggling in place helps food rush through the system faster. Around rolls 9 and 10, I start to get a little too confident in my ability, and I overstuff my mouth; I almost cough out some spring roll, simply because it's too much food for me to hold. Denmark makes eye contact with me, and I slow down a bit.
When you are in the competitive-eating zone, there is a rhythm and nothing else. The roar of the crowd and the announcer all sound like they're underwater. You're aware of sensations singly (you're aware of the way grease spreads across your face as you jam food into it, or you're aware of the burnt-plastic smell of too much fried food directly under your nose), but you can't cohere them into one single experience. All that you are is two hands and a mouth—and that mouth doesn't feel attached to anything, it's the opening to a bottomless chasm. It is perhaps as close to infancy as I have felt in my adult life.
Denmark notices that we've been eating for more than two minutes and that Geo isn't keeping time. He walks over and suggests that they start the countdown, at what he estimates to be the two-and-a-half-minute mark. As the countdown begins, I scan both sides of the table. I can't manage to count, but I can see that Huard, over on the side, has very few spring rolls left in his tray.
I decide to chipmunk.
"Chipmunking" is a common practice in eating contests: As the event draws to a close, you stuff as much food in your mouth as possible and swallow it while the judges are doing the official tally, after the buzzer sounds. Some contests allow it, some don't. I grab a spring roll and jam it in my mouth as the crowd shouts "one!" and it's over.
My chipmunking was for naught. Constantine ate 6 spring rolls, Rossi ate 8, Crittenden ate 12, Huard ate 21. And I ate 23.
On the video of the event—on The Stranger's website—you can watch Huard's face turn cold and nasty when he realizes he's not going to win. I think it's the same face that appeared under his football helmet when a game suddenly went south. He looks like someone took something valuable from him. Huard might have shaken my hand, I honestly don't remember, but someone says "Brock is pissed" as I walk over to claim my three-foot-tall golf trophy adorned with spring rolls made out of felt. I eat my remaining two spring rolls as a kind of end-zone spike, and I grab my trophy and shout at the audience in my best Don King: "I am a force of nature! I am the eve of destruction! I am Katrina with a wiener! I'm eating dinner at your house! I'm eating dinner at your house!" I hear that Huard left the building within five minutes of the contest ending. Rossi hangs around, but he doesn't talk to me for the rest of the evening. The other contestants are sweet and polite, and they happily shake my greasy hand.
When you're holding a large trophy covered with felt spring rolls, lots of people want to take pictures with you: the Verizon salesmen, the event's organizers, random women in the crowd, the man with the giant papier-mâché baby head who's part of the dancing entertainment. And here's the other thing with winning a spring-roll-eating contest: Afterward, you feel nauseated. Really nauseated. It's like getting punched in the face. You don't feel it until the adrenaline is gone and the moment has passed. The nausea spreads through me like a poison, and for a while, I can't stand up straight; I have to walk bent over like an old man. After a few burps—burps that don't taste like food so much as raw, tepid fry grease—I can bear the pain again, and I pose for more pictures and find myself unable to answer any of the very nice people who come over to me and ask, "How did you do that?"
The next morning, I uncharacteristically wake up at 5:00 a.m. with a strange, gluey feeling, like someone has filled my torso with wet cement. Not an ache so much as a heaviness. But even worse is what's going on in my head. You know when you come home tipsy from the bar and you eat an entire pint of Ben & Jerry's and you wake up in the morning with that particular feeling of self-loathing? Imagine that, except with 10 pints of Ben & Jerry's. The voices in my head are loud and clear: You stupid fat fuck. You stupid fucking fat fuck. What the fuck did you do that for? Oh you fat fucking disgusting piece of shit. I've developed a certain amount of Catholic guilt in my life, but this was worse than almost any other attack of shame I've ever felt. The voices chased me out of bed and followed me to work, two hours early.
I halfway thought, when I started this competitive-eating track, that I'd wind up wanting to pursue eating as a sport. But this is one of the worst mornings of my life; I can't imagine going through this again. All I have to show for it is a hilarious trophy and conclusive evidence that Brock Huard is a giant fucking pussy. In the 48 hours since the competition, I haven't eaten a thing, but I'm starting to think about food again. People have asked me if I'm going to start my diet back up, but I think a diet might be the wrong way to go. All my life, I've been unable to find the right balance between eating too much and eating too little. I think it might be time to finally grow up. You know, just eat when I'm hungry, and stop eating when I'm full.