Register Monday | June 24 | 2019

More Than a Mouthful

You've got to eat to compete

body { font-family: georgia, times new roman, serif; font-size: 0.9em; color: #404040; line-height: 1.5em; } P { font-size: 1em; line-height: 1.5em; margin: 8px 0 14px 0; } h1 { margin: 5px 0; font-size: 3.5em; line-height: 1.1em; } h2 { font-size: 1.2em; margin: 2px 0; } h3 { margin: 2px 0 10px 0; line-height: 1.1em; } P.text-align-right { text-align: right; } P.text-align-left { text-align: left; } P.text-align-center { text-align: center; } P.font-weight-bold { font-weight: bold; } P.font-style-italics { font-style: italic; } In 1984, the year a million Ethiopians died of starvation, my friend Booker Gillespie invited a handful of classmates over to his house to celebrate his ninth birthday. On our knees in the backyard, hands held tight behind our backs, we shoved our faces into Styrofoam plates heaped with Ragu tomato sauce and wet noodles. Booker’s mom leapt up and down, clapping her hands, and raced to pour more and more slop under our noses as we sucked it back, each pushing to be crowned the king of the party. I don’t remember who won, but I’ll never forget how Steve Cordani puked on the living room carpet. Young eaters today can take their  dreams of engorgement to unprecedented heights. In 1997, Richard Shea and his brother George formed the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), which is funded by several major food companies across the US—including French’s Foods and Nathan’s Famous—eager for a marketing gimmick that can push their products worldwide. Since then, the Shea brothers have engineered fast-eating competitions around the globe, turning the men and women who dominate the sport—such as Takeru Kobayashi of Japan, who holds the world record for hot dogs (fifty and a half, with buns, in twelve minutes)—into media-lauded celebrities. The camera, it seems, loves the sight of men and women stuffing massive amounts of cheap meat down their throats. (Three women rank among the world’s top fifty fast eaters.) Fast eating goes beyond hot dogs. Dominic Cardo holds the record for pounding down whole pickled beef tongue: three pounds three ounces in twelve minutes. Donald Lerman hogged down seven quarter-pound sticks of salted butter in five minutes. The legendary Kobayashi inhaled fifty-seven cow brains (17.7 pounds) in fifteen minutes. And no one can put down as many oysters as Boyd Bulot: 216 Acme oysters in ten minutes flat. “Welcome to Playland!” chirp a duo of bubbly teens manning the gates. “Have a great day, ’kay?” Playland is Vancouver’s urban oasis, a patch of paradise on the edge of suburbia, home to sugar cones, pogo sticks, the Pirate Ship and the Hellevator. Today, twelve pre-qualified eaters will square off here for the title of Canada’s fastest hot dog eater. Richard Shea is on hand, a svelte thirtysomething in a blue blazer and tie with the requisite country-fair straw hat. As a man working a barbeque the size of a small wading pool hands out free hot dogs (pushing four types of French’s mustard into each person’s hand, pointing out the bottles’ new no-mess caps), Shea strides back and forth across the competition stage, hollering incessantly into a mic, his voice rising above the herds of screaming kids.
Playland has dumped twenty thousand dollars into today’s event—which is also sponsored by French’s Mustard, Orbitz.com and BetWWTS.com—and the winner will be flown to Coney Island, New York, to compete in the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest. This event, first held in 1916, is the de facto Olympics of fast eating. Adam Carmichael, of Maple Ridge, British Columbia, will try to topple defending champ Chris Eyre, who’s held the Canadian hot dog eating title for four years running. Wide-eyed and bearlike (he weighs in at 280 pounds), Carmichael’s only in his first year of official competition, but the twenty-year-old has trained four years for his debut. “My personal [bests are] thirty pieces of pizza, five foot-long Subway sandwiches and two Whoppers in one minute thirty seconds,” he says. Following tradition, most competitive fast eaters bloat their stomachs the night before a race by eating raw rice and knocking back gallons of water. Carmichael, though, has tried prying his belly wider in a slightly different fashion. “I decided to eat constantly—every fifteen minutes, except for the last four hours,” he says. “I just went to the washroom and did my stuff, so I’m ready.” Other eaters, like Kobayashi, have secret techniques for stretching their guts. “If I knew what he does, I’d be doing it too,” says Chris Eyre. At twenty-nine, Eyre—soft-spoken, ginger-bearded and surprisingly lean—is ranked number one in Canada (and eighteenth internationally) for hot dogs. The native of  Surrey, British Columbia, rose to the top by using a gorging technique he dubbed “Canucking,” in which he wets dogs and wieners before shoving them down. Incredibly, Eyre doesn’t even like hot dogs. “I had a really small breakfast, and I’ve come in with the right mindset,” he says, adding that he’s only been sick once in a contest, and that was while pounding down pan-seared calf brains. He knows he’s good at what he does: “My daughter is pretty proud of me.” Ken Wong, fifty-three, of Vancouver, may be the defending champ’s fiercest competition. For thirty years, Wong’s been thrown out of all-you-can-eat restaurants for his unbreakable appetite. Only one local joint still lets him in. “I eat twelve mini-steaks, then I go for the pork,” he boasts. “They’re the most lenient restaurant. They never say a thing. Lunch costs me $6.99.” But before the big eaters step onto the stage, it’s time for the kiddies. Shea calls out the names of twelve children who’ll try to emulate their fast-eating icons. “In this race it’s about who can apply the French’s mustard without touching the bun,” he bellows. “The most accurate squeezer goes home with a case of French’s mustard: Classic Yellow, Napa Valley Dijon, Sweet Tangy Honey or Bold ’n Spicy Brown.” As the kids trample on stage, a sprightly PR woman in a golf T-shirt emblazoned with a sunny French’s Foods logo snaps Polaroids of each child standing next to French’s towering canary-coloured mascot (a mustard jar). Meanwhile, Shea attempts to pump up the spectators like a professional wrestling announcer, only he’s praising the virtues of French’s four new mustard flavours. “We view French’s mustard as the ultimate hot dog topping,” he says. “In New York, people even shun ketchup.” With classic prep-school good looks, Shea is a youthful Bob Barker, but he has none of Barker’s apple-pie charm. After calling an end to the race, Shea scans each competitor’s bun, pretending to look for what he calls “spreading technique.” He yells out the name of the winner to a tinkle of spectator applause. As the kids walk offstage holding their uneaten hot dogs, a father, eager as a lapdog, hovers over his daughter. “Did you get a hat, did you get a new hat?” he asks. She doesn’t utter a word; the French’s logo on her Dijon-coloured cap says it all. With the adult race about to kick off, the eaters take their seats—Eyre centre stage, flanked by Carmichael and Wong. Other contestants include reps from local hit-radio stations, their heavily logoed SUVs tactfully parked just a few feet away in full view of the crowd. Just before firing the gun to start the race, Shea cheekily cautions the eaters, “Pace yourselves, you’ve got a long way to go.” Shea remains on stage to provide colour commentary. “I never thought I’d see it!” he shouts, “but Ken Wong is eating his hot dogs backwards!” He doesn’t hesitate to point out that this new approach isn’t working in Wong’s favour. “Wong’s starting to show signs of strain under the pressure. He’s got the meat sweats.” And sure enough, Wong has kicked off a flowing cycle of getting up and sitting back down, trying to funnel the hot dogs more fluidly into his belly or, more likely, trying to keep the vomit from rising. One minute twenty seconds into the feast, Eyre takes an early lead: four dogs already snuffed. Carmichael tries fuelling his engines, rubbing his belly and raising his hands loftily over his head to the heavens. A man in the crowd hollers to one or all of the eaters, “Get it down!” Eyre turns it up a notch. Seven dogs down the trap. Thirty seconds later, three more have been demolished. Yet even Eyre shows signs of stress; he is cradling his belly, rocking it from side to side. With just a minute to go, the race is in the bag—unless Eyre starts chucking up wiener bits (grounds for immediate disqualification according to IFOCE rules). Shea takes advantage of a lull in the action to storm on about the virtues of French’s mustard: “French’s mustard is the official sponsor of today’s event. Be sure to check out these four new incredible flavours!” As the final seconds tick away, he returns to the action. “Will the defending champion Chris Eyre go home again with the bejewelled crown of fast eating and go to New York?” “Here is your champ, ladies and gentlemen!” roars Shea, heaving Eyre’s hand high in the air. With thirteen dogs devoured, Eyre has walloped the competition, defeating Carmichael, who finishes with eleven, and Wong, who has squeezed down ten. He hands the defending king of hot dog demolition a pint-sized trophy engraved with the words “The Big Wiener.” “Thanks for coming out,” says a proud red-faced Eyre, bits of hot dog still floating around in his mouth. “Maybe we’ll do it again next year, eh.” But offstage, in the thick of a press scrum, the victor admits that his years at the table may be numbered. “If I could do this for five more years, I would,” he says. “But there’s health reasons. I’m packing on five pounds each year I do this, although I can’t say if it’s the contest for sure.” But you can bet his love of the sport will push him back in the ring a few more times yet. “You sweat, you shake, your nerves are going crazy,” he says of the final moments before his sweet victory. He continues, half-kidding, “I don’t like hot dogs. I’m in it for the glory, the girls. But I feel good right now. Just another day at the park.”