I was robbed. Nobody told me that I could bring my own punch or Gatorade'or, for that matter, ketchup'to the World Sausage Eating Championship.
Technically speaking, I suppose you could call me a professional eater. After all, I get paid to eat. But, as I discovered last week at the Utah State Fair, there are those of us who get paid to eat, and then there are those who get paid to eat. No. 1-ranked American competitive eater Joey “Jaws” Chestnut falls firmly into the second camp. He’s the Tony Hawk of overeating, the Cal Ripken Jr. of calories. And he doesn’t look like he has an ounce of spare fat on him.
I can do this, I thought, upon hearing that the World Sausage Eating Championship was being held at the Utah State Fair. After all, I am a professional. The task at hand seemed simple: Eat as many Colosimo Italian sausages as possible in 10 minutes, and take home $1,500 in prize money. I could beat these young IFOCE punks.
According to the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the sport of competitive eating dates back to the earliest days of mankind. As it states on the ifoce.com Website, “If you have 30 hungry Neanderthals in a cave and rabbit walks in, that is a competitive-eating situation.” For centuries, the Japanese'home, I’d remind you, of sumo'have revered competitive eaters. Only more recently has the “sport” of dining in abundance really taken hold here in the USA, fueled in part by coverage on ESPN.
Make no mistake about it, competitive eaters consider themselves athletes. They train to be able to eat vast amounts of food in miniscule amounts of time. When I asked Chestnut'who holds many world eating records, including 47 grilled cheese sandwiches in 10 minutes'why he and his colleagues didn’t all weigh 400 pounds, he said, “We push ourselves really hard during an eating contest, and you can’t expect someone 400 pounds to push themselves that hard. During the competition, I’ll be sweating. My heart will be beating really hard. By the end, I’ll be physically fatigued.”
When I spoke to the 22-year-old Chestnut minutes before the World Italian Sausage Eating Championship, he told me he’d had nothing to eat in two days except a protein shake. Obviously, my strategy of enjoying a four-course dinner at a chef’s house the evening prior to the event and snarfing down a grilled cheese sandwich for lunch might have been flawed. I’d heard that these IFOCE guys and gals, as disgusting as it sounds, train their stomachs to be able to accept very large quantities of food in a short time. In that sense, the mouth, throat, esophagus, stomach, etc., are the tools of the IFOCE athlete’s trade, in much the way that conditioning and stamina are the tools of a Lance Armstrong. These folks aren’t gluttons. They’re gustatory gladiators.
Prior to the sausage contest, the IFOCE held a grilled-cheese eating competition for rookies. Ten Utah locals'first-timers all to the world of competitive eating'took the stage at the Utah State Fair in an attempt to win $100,000 by breaking Chestnut’s record of 47 sandwiches in 10 minutes. By the eighth minute, seven contestants had dropped out, leaving the scene in various stages of blue-green. The winner, an amateur eater named Wes, managed to eat 10 grilled cheese sandwiches'only 37 off of Chestnut’s world record pace'while a dainty-looking gal to Wes’s left downed “nine and a bite.” Lest you think competitive eating is just a man’s sport, think again. The third ranked competitive eater on the planet is 105-pound Sonya Thomas, who holds world records for eating baked beans (8.4 pounds in under three minutes), chicken wings (167 in 32 minutes), crab cakes (40 in 12 minutes) and cheesecake (11 pounds in nine minutes).
As the sausage-eating contest neared, I noticed a difference in the way the heavy hitters prepared backstage. World-ranked No. 4 Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti was squatting, head bowed, eyes closed, in the zone, listening to music through metallic blue earphones. Chestnut was doing deep-breathing exercises. Sixty-year-old Las Vegas eating champ Richard “The Locust” LeFevre was methodically arranging water glasses at the competition table, taking careful note of mouth-to-table distance ratios. Me, I was clowning around with City Weekly paparazzo John Taylor, while secretly wondering what I’d gotten myself into.
Much to my surprise, an IFOCE-sponsored eating competition is exciting. I’ll probably never again be introduced to the heavy beat of Eminem’s 8 Mile theme. The music swelled louder and louder until finally LeFevre, Bertoletti and Chestnut took their places center stage. On the way past, Bertoletti touched fists and wished me “good luck.” I’d need it.
It is incredible how slowly time passes when you’re eating Italian sausages competitively. Ten minutes seems like 10 weeks. I knew I was in trouble as I looked to my left and saw that Chestnut was on his second plate of sausages (five per plate) as I took the fourth bite of my first. By the time I’d finished my second sausage, I was certain the 10 minutes were about up. That’s when IFOCE emcee extraordinaire Michael Castellano announced that we were almost halfway, at the four-and-a-half-minute mark. I was sweating'not from hard work, but from the red peppers in the sausage. Bertoletti, I noticed, had brought glasses of ketchup for dipping the sausages, and some sort of fruit punch or energy drink. Why hadn’t I thought of that?
You can guess what happened. I finished dead last, having stuffed down two and 3/8 sausages in 10 minutes. LeFevre ate 21.5 sausages, placing third. Dead Kennedys fan Bertoletti ate 25.5 sausages and came in second. Chestnut and his rapidly expanding stomach won first prize, having consumed 29 Colosimo Italian sausages in 10 minutes, a new world record.
Asked about the amazing food feat he’d just accomplished, Chestnut’s mind was already elsewhere. “I’ve gotta start training for next week,” said a sweaty Chestnut minutes after the competition. “Pulled pork in Omaha.”