Competitive Eating: Zach Fowle's Adventures in Man vs. Food
Read: all of Zach Fowle's battles in "Feasts of Fury."
We begin with a burger.
A foot tall it stands, each of its nine third-pound patties thick and glistening with gristle, cheese spilling out from every layer like molten gold. Hefty slices of tomato, pickles, onions, and lettuce sit softy underneath a toasted, poppy seed-peppered crown. Held in place by a wooden skewer, the beefy meal looks almost stately — a steamy, juicy Leaning Tower of Meat.
I might consider it beautiful if I had time to admire it. But the man with the timer has other ideas.
"Go!" he yells, starting the countdown on the 10-minute time limit I'm allowed to eat the entire three-pound burger.
All appreciation for the regal nature of this giant burger gone, I slap the behemoth on its side and begin devouring. At first, I try to go caveman on it, using just the hands and face to attack the burger like a meaty corn on the cob. This quickly proves reckless — resulting in a burned mouth, no opportunity for the addition of ketchup (a necessity), and juicy overflow. Grease is everywhere.
I switch to a more calculated (and dignified) method of sliding each patty off the stick and attacking it individually with a plastic fork. But about five minutes in: Crisis! My fork snaps.
With the clock ticking, time is of the essence, so instead of leaving the table for another utensil, I return to my caveman ways, picking up each patty barehanded.
A minute later, I feel confident that I can finish. Only four third-pound patties and the bun remain — just one patty per minute! Easy.
But, oh, how quickly things change. With just over two minutes left on the clock, my stomach spasms as if I've been punched. The medium-rare monster in my belly is fighting back, and he's pissed. Feelings of nausea and exhaustion wash over me. I can't go on.
Valiantly, I attempt a final push, but a pound of meat still remains and my pace has slowed to that of a camel lazily chewing its cud. I struggle through just another half a patty before time expires.
If this were an ordinary meal, I would have savored the bounty of this giant burger, taking my time and enjoying each bite. But this was no ordinary meal. This was a food challenge.
The average person's stomach can hold about a liter of food, or close to two pounds' worth. But who wants to be average? All over town, restaurants are offering up contests of confection, defying brave eaters to ingest more food than they should eat in a week — recommended daily values be damned!
Armed with a big mouth and an empty stomach, I've dared to become one of these food fighters — traveling metro Phoenix to face new challenges to prove to the animal kingdom that man belongs at the top of the food chain.
Seventeen times, I've started posts on Chow Bella, New Times' food blog, with those two paragraphs — the accounts of each food challenge I've undertaken in the past five months, part of a series we named "Feasts of Fury." It's been a long, strange, greasy trip.
Though American restaurants have offered food challenges to their bravest and hungriest customers for decades, the popularity of such meals has exploded in recent years — thanks, in most part, to a little show called Man v. Food.
It's a simple concept: Adam Richman — the eager host with a wealth of food experience from years of working in restaurants — travels across the United States, finding local spots serving up giant, tasty portions. At the climax of each episode, Richman faces the area's signature eating challenge in an attempt to tally another victory in the immortal struggle between man and food.
Man v. Food premièred in December 2008, garnering the highest rating a Travel Channel show has ever received for a debut. Currently taping episodes for his fourth season, Richman's been just about everywhere: He confronted a 72-ounce steak in Amarillo, Texas; an 11-pound pizza in Atlanta; giant pancakes in Hawaii; 180 oysters in New Orleans; a gallon of milkshake in St. Louis.
But these are American cities with established cultures and deep culinary backgrounds. When I started this quest for outrageous restaurant-offered tests of intestinal fortitude in Phoenix, I thought I'd find only a few, try my hand, and back out gracefully. No such luck. I'm constantly surprised by the sheer number of tasty challenges available at Valley restaurants. This trend is far more popular than I thought.
I've eaten sandwiches that pack about five times the amount of fat a person should eat in a day. I ate a five-pound burrito with more than 3,000 calories and 400 percent of the recommended daily amounts for sodium and cholesterol. On one day, I consumed more than 2,500 calories' worth of a 24-inch pizza, taking in more than 100 grams of fat (half of them the obscenely unhealthy saturated variety) and 250 percent of my daily recommended values for sodium. My mouth and innards have been singed by more than 4 million Scoville units' worth of hot chili peppers. I've eaten an 8,000-calorie cheeseburger cooked with pure lard.
I've eaten nine pounds of hot dogs, two 24-inch pizzas, 76 chicken wings, three pounds of steak, 11 pounds of burgers, five pounds of Jewish sliders, 12 pounds of burritos, and five cupcakes. All told, in the course of five months and 17 separate challenges, I've ingested more than 55 pounds of food. Through it all, I've managed to maintain a winning record (10-7). I've won two T-shirts, $150, and a grinder for my weed. I have my name or picture on seven separate walls of fame.
Through it all, I've managed to keep my girlish figure (6 feet, 6 inches, and 220 pounds of awesome) through a strict exercise regimen and a relatively low-fat diet, competitions excluded.
And I've only just begun.
Eating a metric ass-ton of food once a week isn't an easy habit to keep up, but I've had practice. As a swimmer in high school, my meals after training were no joke: a glass or two of milk, two loaded sandwiches, a Costco muffin the size of a beanbag chair, tortilla chips with salsa, and an apple (to keep things healthy). The quality of the food I ate meant far less to me than the quantity; as long as I met meals that kept me full, I stayed satisfied. Plates full of food at restaurants were always picked clean — mine and everyone else's. It was an understanding among family members that leftovers would be sent my direction to be disposed of without mercy.
With this pedigree, I agreed to become New Times' resident food fighter. I apparently chose the right time to do it; eating's never been more fashionable. While Man v. Food fills the TV screens of thousands each night, the sport of competitive eating is spreading across the country.
Now, a distinction must be made between people who take on food challenges and those who eat competitively. A food challenge pits man against food: a one-on-one battle for T-shirts, notoriety, or a free meal. Competitive eaters take on vast amounts of food while racing against other eaters, often for cash prizes. While confronting food challenges is a purely recreational activity, competitive eating is nearing legitimacy as a professional sport.
I've faced off against competitive eaters and gotten my ass thoroughly handed to me, which is to be expected. Competitive eaters train with the dedication of world-class athletes and have the corresponding intestinal fortitude of a grizzly bear — far beyond that of the average human.
A snapshot of four of the world's top eaters in September: Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas ate 181 chicken wings — 4.86 pounds of meat — in 12 minutes on September 5 at the National Buffalo Wing Festival in Buffalo, New York. She's 5 feet tall and weighs 105 pounds. A week later, Thomas was edged out by Pat Bertoletti, who ate nearly six pounds of pickles in six minutes at the Isle Casino Racing Pickle Eating World Championship. On September 25, Joey Chestnut won $2,500 by eating 39 slices of pizza in 10 minutes at the Upper Crust World Pizza Eating Championship in Boston, while across the country in Lewisville, Texas, Tim "Eater X" Janus was busy consuming 59 tamales in 12 minutes at the World Tamale Eating Championship. He holds the current world record of 71.
All these events were sanctioned by Major League Eating, the international body that oversees professional eating contests. The MLE conducts about 80 events annually, allowing eaters to compete in virtually any discipline — from asparagus to turducken, Spam to Philly cheesesteaks; pig's feet, waffles, oysters, and matzo balls to ice cream, grits, funnel cake, and butter.
Though it's taken years for competitive eating to earn legitimacy in the sporting world, spectator interest has never been a problem. ESPN began broadcasting the Nathan's International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest — the largest spectacle in competitive eating — in 2003. This year, the live broadcast of the contest drew 1.67 million viewers, and an estimated 50,000 people witnessed the event in person.
The fringe sport's popularity has reached such levels that an eater can actually make a decent living off his or her meals. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the top earner in eating, Joey Chestnut, took home more than $40,000 in prize money for 2.3 hours of work in 2009 — an hourly wage of more than $17,000.
Though their eating abilities are miles above my own, that isn't to say that we don't face the same challenges. Our eating exploits bring us together on a basic level: the struggles of dealing with the aftermath of a food contest.
To properly understand the trials undertaken by an eater, you must first know that most food challenges come in two parts. Part one — the actual act of eating — is easy. Part two is a pain in the ass.
Heartburn. Stomachaches. Violent vomiting. The novel sensation of being drunk on food. Constant and painful trips to the bathroom. The meat sweats. The human body was not made to process this amount of food in one sitting, and the downsides to overloading your system are numerous and foul.
The most deadly assassin of the intestinal tract I've encountered is the ghost chili. Foods made with this vegetable are the most volatile, dangerous, and painful I've ever had. Some background: About a century ago, the chemist Wilbur Scoville, filling a very specific scientific void, developed a system for measuring the spicy heat of a chili pepper. Your average jalapeño is rated between 2,500-8,000 Scoville units. The bhut jolokia, or ghost chili, has rating of over 1 million. It's a pepper so hot the Indian military recently approved its use in hand grenades. Seriously.
In last month's Hot Chili Pepper Eating Contest, at the Arizona Taco Festival, I ate two of them. Whole.
All was well until about four hours after, as the peppers began to break down in my stomach.
There's a reason the men who farm the ghost chili like to say, "When you eat it, it's like dying." It was a night of agony and an equally arduous morning that led me to rush out and invest in some extra-soft toilet paper.
But not every food challenge feels like hot, smelly death. In fact, some are downright delicious.
The best-tasting challenge in metropolitan Phoenix is one that Adam Richman also enjoyed when he visited here in March: the Ultimate Sliders Challenge at Chompie's.
"It's a challenge for us to keep things exciting on our menu. We're always trying to think of new things," says Wendy Borenstein-Tucker, part owner of Chompie's (her brother, Neil "Chomper" Borenstein, is the restaurant's namesake). "We thought about all the food challenges out there that other restaurants are doing, and we thought we would get a great customer response from doing our own."
Their revelation came after they developed the Jewish Slider: a combination of brisket, jack cheese, a potato pancake, and gravy on a mini challah roll.
"It turned out to be quite a big sandwich. We were tasting it and loving it, and we wanted to do it big. With this slider, we thought, could this be the thing we've been looking for and become our challenge?"
The gargantuan platter consisting of 12 sliders and onion straws soon found a place on the menu as a challenge that had to be completed in half an hour. Before they knew it, the Borensteins were getting calls from the Travel Channel. The Man v. Food episode premièred in August.
Months later, well over 100 people have attempted the challenge, but only five have been able to complete it. Adam Richman was not one of them.
"We think Adam should come back and try it again," Borenstein says. "I think he was enjoying the sliders so much that he was actually taking his time savoring the taste and he didn't realize that time was ticking! I know he could do it, and I would give anything to watch him do it."
Of course, there are naysayers. Certain people are grossed out watching a friend eat enough food to choke a donkey; others simply can't stomach the thought of eating mounds of fatty, greasy meat and cheese.
Far worse, however, are those who cry gluttony. To them, indulging in an eating challenge is the ultimate in civil and moral irresponsibility. They equate intemperance to selfishness, asking how eaters can justify eating so much when others have so little. Eating more than you need to survive is gluttony — over-consumption to the point of waste — and is thus withholding food from the needy.
It's a popular viewpoint, even among those who work in food. In an interview with Zap2It earlier this year, Food Network host Alton Brown called Man v. Food's eating challenges "disgusting."
"That show is about gluttony, and gluttony is wrong," Brown said. "It's wasteful. Think about people that are starving to death and think about that show. I think it's an embarrassment."
Richman, an avid Twitter user, responded, "Alton Brown: MvF is about indulgence-NOT gluttony-&has brought loads of business to Mom-n-Pop places."
Chompie's Wendy Borenstein can attest to this. "There was a definite jump in business after the Man v. Food episode aired, especially at the Tempe location, where Adam actually took the challenge, and especially for that item," she says. "People write in to us a lot, they take pictures, they bring in their families — fathers and sons are coming in and attempting the challenge together. It's exceeded our expectations as far as the numbers of people who have actually wanted to do the challenge, but I'm just happy that we have this menu item that families can share."
For me, it's about connecting with places and people through the thrill of competition. My fellow food warriors and I eat for the same reason a person climbs Mt. Everest or swims the English Channel or tries to break the world record for most bounces on a pogo stick. There are perceived bounds of human capability everywhere, and it's in our nature to attempt to break them.
A food challenge is a dare, provocative and hard to resist. We attack a pounds-deep piles of food with voracity because the restaurant that makes it thinks we won't. We try our best to deal with the pain of spicy hot wings because they believe we can't.
Everybody eats. Try as you might, it's an unavoidable habit; the great equalizer. Not every person has the physical ability to run a marathon, but nearly everybody has spent a night — after a Thanksgiving dinner, say — wondering in disbelief how all that food managed to fit in there. People who watch others take on a food challenge — strangers and friends — are brought together, if only for a brief, exhilarating time.
"You get people cheering you on; people who don't even know you," Borenstein says. "It's just so exciting! In this life that we're all living, we still need excitement."
We end, appropriately, with a burger. The same burger as before, in fact: the Lobby's Three-Pound Burger. It's just as gloriously giant and as dangerously decadent as I remember. But I've grown since last we met. Months' worth of vanquished challenges under my belt, I face my meaty opponent a wiser — if fatter — adversary.
Again the man with the timer counts me down; again, I steadily make my way through the nine greasy patties coated with cheese; again, I hit the wall around the eight-minute mark. But this time, I don't stop. I shake off my fullness, dive back into the burger, and take my last bite at exactly 10:00.
The manager congratulates me, takes my photo, shakes my hand. I sign my name underneath my new spot on the wall of fame and walk out into the sunlight — victorious, content, and very, very full.
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