The Native New Yorker Battle of the Bone

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 -- daily recommended values be damned!

Armed with a brand-new college degree and a big mouth, our intrepid writer Zach Fowle has dared to become one of these food fighters -- travelling metro Phoenix to face new challenges and prove to the animal kingdom that man belongs at the top of the food chain.

Vegetarians and animal rights bozos, look away. A lot of chickens died to make this particular Feast of Fury possible.

The time has come for my first battle against other eaters, and there's only one that will sate my hunger: the Third Annual Native New Yorker Battle of the Bone, an eleven-minute competition to see who can eat the most chicken wings.

Regional qualifiers are held at every Native New Yorker location for months. The winner from each of the 22 regional events earns his way into the August 28 finale at Chandler Harley Davidson, where the grand prize is a motorcycle. 

Tonight I'm at the chain's Bell Road location (2740 W. Bell Road, 602-863-1417), and I quickly realize that this event is a lot more serious than I thought. This place is packed, and a queue of giant men has formed in front of a table piled with sign-in forms and T-shirts. 

After paying the contest's $15 fee, I read through and initial no less than six full pages of rules and liability waivers that makes gratuitous use of the word "whereas" and absolve the restaurant of all responsibility should my stomach explode. 

The rules are equally intense. I'm forbidden from touching the food before the whistle starts, I can't use any utensils and I must drink only water. Also outlawed is the "Roman method," wherein a player eats until he's full, pukes it all up, then goes right back to eating. The Romans: shining examples of high culture.

Each player starts with a plate loaded with three pounds of wings. You eat the meat off the wings, throwing the remains onto a separate bone plate. When you're done with the first plate, you ask for a second; each additional plate weighs a pound. When the buzzer sounds, judges collect all plates, weighing the remains of your meal against the total amount you were given, and the difference between the two is how much total meat you ate. 

Tonight, there are 28 competitors broken up into three groups. I'm in the second group, which gives me a chance to scope out the competition and pick up some last-minute strategies. Some are dainty with their wings, taking tiny bites to pick the bone clean. Others just dive into the meat like buffalo sauce was a facial moisturizer. I swear I saw a guy swallow a few wings whole. 

The sight is entrancing and mildly disturbing, like watching nature show videos of hyenas tearing at dead animals. 

Eleven minutes later, it's my group's turn, and we introduce ourselves to the crowd. Players come from all walks of life. On my right is a repo man; farther down is a pro yo-yo trickster. There's also a ringer here: The guy at the end of the table finished second overall in last year's competition. Second. 

Intros over, it's time to eat. The crowd screams "BATTLE!" and I dive in. 

The wings are delicious. They've been glazed with mild sauce, a classic tangy buffalo topping that has a muted spice and plays off the savory meat beautifully. The remnants stack up quickly, little pyramids of bone and torn meat. 

Around the six minute mark, things begin to slow down. I fall for this every time. Eleven minutes, while not a long time in the great span of things, certainly is a long time to spend chewing. I'm nowhere near full, but my jaw muscles are exhausted, and grinding the chunks of meats gets more and more difficult. 

I decide to multitask, ripping the meat from the bones of other wings as I chew. I keep my mouth constantly full and in constant motion. But the clock ticks faster than my jaw, and my time is running out. With a minute left and the guy next to me already on his third plate, my hope of winning tonight is looking grim. 

I can still save my dignity. With seconds left, I charge forward, determined to at least finish the three-pound plate before me. I shove the final wing into my mouth just before the buzzer sounds. 

In the end, I tied for 15th place, having eaten 1.688 pounds of wing meat -- the equivalent, the judges tell me, of 54 wings. The winner of the whole shebang, Chillen Peng, was in my group. He ate 107 wings -- well over three pounds of buffalo chicken. 

While my middling finish means I won't be driving a Harley home come August, it does mean that there are at least 13 fat dudes in Phoenix who I'm better than at eating. It's a small victory, but I'll take it.

Stay tuned for video of Zach's epic wing eating skills, which we'll post next week. 

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Zach Fowle
Contact: Zach Fowle