"Ladies and Gentlemen, in the three o'clock main event you're going to see a real horse race between gustatory gladiators as they're known in the business." A dapper emcee has begun his ballyhoo at the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey. "We've got Ed 'Cookie' Jarvis, who ate a six-pound steak in one sitting, with the baked potato. We've got Don 'Moses' Lerman, a matzo ball-eating champ. We've got 'Krazy' Kevin Lipsitz, he's on the circuit, he's been in the big dance twice!"
This battle of widths is one of 15 regional qualifiers for the "big dance"--- Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest (quite a mouthful). Though Jarvis, Lerman and Lipsitz may sound like a law firm, these guys are the Three Musketeers of the competitive-eating circuit, and I'm here to watch them in action.
Prior to this contest, Lipsitz (6 feet, 210 pounds, 42 years old) captured the pickle-eating crown by eating 2-1/2 pounds in five minutes, besting 14 other contestants including his fiancée, Lorraine Arroll (who refused to reveal her age or weight). Weeks before the contest, the couple invested in 100 pounds of pickles from the company that sells them to the Carnegie Deli and began practicing in earnest. Arroll is one of the few females I've met with the chutzpah to compete in eating contests, but she draws the line at hot dogs: "We're getting married in December and I want to fit into my size 8 wedding dress." Not to worry. Lipsitz also trains with his dogs. "They like the same foods that I do," he admits with a grin. "Except pickles. They spit them out."
Lerman (5 feet 8 inches, 155 pounds, 52) has been dining almost exclusively on hot dogs and buns since March. "My strong point is I'm very fast off the start," he says. "The other day at a promo I was able to eat five hot dogs in 50 seconds."
"You gotta be hungry, but not overhungry," advises Jarvis (6 feet 6 inches, 350 pounds, 35), who had eaten only an Oreo in the past 24 hours.
Eight minutes into the competition, these three outpace the 17 other contestants, including a few bystanders lured by the free lunch. The score is 10-9-9, with Lerman in the lead. But at the end, Jarvis pulls ahead and puts away 15, which is just enough to win him a towering trophy, a 60-pound case of franks and a slot in the Coney Island finals. Lerman and Lipsitz qualify at later regionals.
Competitive eaters don't just walk up with a big appetite and win. True culinary athletes prepare year-round. Consider 15 hot dogs (with the bun) piled on a plate. Now picture those 15 hot dogs crammed into your stomach. It takes serious conditioning to prepare you body for this kind of stress. I join international eating champ "Hungry" Charles Hardy for a training session. At an all-you-can-eat-sushi restaurant (name and location withheld at the request of the owner, who fears the patronage of competitive eaters), the proprietor lays down the rules: "You can order and re-order till you're full," she explains, "but if you leave a piece, we charge you $2.00."
Hardy, (5 feet 11 inches, 320 pounds, 37) is amused. Jarvis, Lerman and Lipsitz regard this New York City corrections officer as their toughest local competitor. At last January's matzo ball championship at Ben's Kosher Deli in New York, he wrested the title from Lerman after a one-and-a-half minute eat-off. Hardy triumphed with a final score of 15-1/2 softball-sized half-pounders in six minutes and 50 seconds. "It was like putting a cement truck up to your mouth," says Jarvis, who also competed in the match.
Hardy overcomes these challenges with a Zen approach: "It's mind over matter. Your body says you're full. You've got to convince yourself that you're not." Downing those sinkers was easy compared to some of the stunts he performed in Japan, where speed-eating contests are a television craze on the order of "Survivor."
The trend started in 1992 with TV Tokyo's "Ogui Senshuken" (literally "big eating title match"), a hilarious mix of endurance marathon, food fest and travelogue that airs four to five times a year. Its staff winnows through 500 applications before 50 sufficiently ravenous contestants come together for the sushi-eating qualifier. In a show that aired in the spring, the speediest eater polished off 120 pieces of sushi in just 10 minutes! The show inspired an entire genre of competitive eating TV shows.
A Japanese-American eating rivalry began back in the '80s when the Mustard Belt (as the hot dog-eating title is called) was held by the Japanese for seven years until Mike "the Scholar" DeVito beat Japanese eating champ Orio Ito in 1993. In 1996, Hirofumi Nakajima beat the '95 champ, Ed Krachie. Nakajima successfully defended his title until Steve Keiner won it back in 1999, only to have it wrested away in 2000 by Kazutoyo "the Rabbit" Arai.
At another training session at the Carnegie Deli in New York City, the challenge is irresistible for Jarvis, Lerman and Lipsitz: If you finish two sandwiches made of one pound each of turkey, corned beef and Swiss on pumpernickel, the second one is free. The only person to accomplish the feat was a female Japanese eating champ who put away the seven-pound meal in 40 minutes. Sanford Levine, the "man in charge" at the deli, tells me that she dipped each bite in a bowl of mayonnaise and swilled it down with 10 16-ounce glasses of iced tea.
But why do this to yourself, I ask Jarvis after he orders the notorious "No. 13" and the other guys follow suit. Turns out there's more to this than winning back the title from the Japanese.
"I always wanted to be in a movie or a TV show," Jarvis says. "You gotta start somewhere." Well, here we are "on the set" of the deli that made Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose famous, surrounded by photos of celebs on "The Wall of Fame." Ever since these guys went on the hot dog circuit, video crews from the Discovery Channel, the Food Network and Showtime have been trailing them. Competitive eating could become the next big spectator sport on American TV.
Our sandwiches arrive. They are 10 inches high, held together with a giant toothpick. The only way to approach a meal of this magnitude is to feast slice by slice by slice…
"This is not an eating contest. I'm here till 4 A.M.," says the restaurateur, pulling up a chair. But he isn't exactly a cheerleader. Levine is sticking around to make sure no one bags the sandwich and claims victory. His motto is: "If you finish everything on your plate, I made a mistake."
Forty minutes later, Lerman has licked up every morsel of the first sandwich. Levine rushes over to direct the crucial scene in our big lunch. Things could get messy if the guys start on the second sandwich, I have been forewarned. The Roman method (i.e. vomiting) gets you thrown out of the competition. "To finish one is remarkable eating, really!" gushes Levine. "So if you're finished, I'll bring you a piece of cheesecake!"
As much as these guys have prepared, they're no match for Japan's secret weapon at the July Fourth contest. On July 4, 2001, Japan's Takeru "the Prince" Kobayashi (5 feet 7 inches, 131 pounds, 23) made every major news wire by downing 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, doubling the record set by his compatriot Arai. Kobayashi jiggled his body to the rhythm of the music as he broke each hot dog in half and swallowed it whole.
Says Hardy, who was busy running his own race, "I wasn't paying any attention, but I heard someone say, 'Oh my God, we've run out of numbers.' Then I heard them call for the EMS because they really thought that kid was going to hurt himself." In terms of world records, ESPN compared the feat to running a mile in one minute, 51 seconds.
This isn't Kobayashi's first grand performance. TV Tokyo emcee Yuji Nakamura tells me that Kobayashi ate 60 hot dogs in an hour-long after-dinner practice session on July 2. He's put away 101 pieces of sushi in 12 minutes On the Tokyo Broadcasting Systems's "Food Fight Club," he won an unprecedented ten million yen (approximately $80,000) after a series of elimination matches with competitive eaters from around the world.
Mystery shrouds his method of preparation. There are rumors that he has two stomachs, that he's had an operation. After winning the Mustard Yellow Belt, Kobayashi tells reporters, "I don't know how I do it. I just know that I can. I think someday I can eat 20 more."
There's also the theory that the new hot dog champ has the esophagus of a sword swallower. A sword swallower trains by slowly increasing the width of his esophagus and suppressing his gag reflex by placing increasingly larger objects down his throat. "What he is doing is taking a deep breath and essentially placing the hot dogs in his stomach," says Nathan's contest honcho George Shea. "He's not eating in a traditional sense, but that does not answer the entire conundrum. How can he get that much in that quickly?"
But while the crowd was electrified by Kobayashi's performance, Hardy, a diabetic who managed an impressive 23-1/2 dogs downed, placed third after Arai (with 31). Though Hardy announced his retirement following the match, assuming that "there's no way in hell anyone can eat more than 50," he has put himself back in the game, and he's confident. "I think I'll be the next Cannoli King. Then I've got to go on to defend my matzo title."
As for the Prince, Hardy can only be hopeful. "He's gonna have a bad day. They always do eventually."