Where eating is a physiological necessity for most humans – and okay, maybe a hobby for some – there is a small group for which it is a competitive profession. Competitive eating has long existed as a fringe sport and somewhat of a grotesque curiosity. Although we find the exploits of champion eaters Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi to be both fascinating and rather remarkable, we don’t necessarily consider them to be elite athletes worthy of our admiration.
But it’s undeniable that the superstars of competitive eating boast a certain level of fame and fortune on account of their ability to do something that few other humans can. Just like top sports superstars, competitive eaters approach each competition with a focused frame of mind, plenty of training and a targeted, tactical approach. In other words, despite appearances to the contrary, there is a method to the madness of the wild, madcap nature of the binge-eating, consumption craziness on display. They are even part of an organized league, operating under the umbrella of the competition-regulating Major League Eating (MLE), which oversees professional eating contests nation-wide.
We may all be familiar with the popular Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest on Coney Island, but eating competitions can be a 12-month-a-year endeavor for some professionals. That leaves plenty of time for competitors to stuff their faces with a veritable array of culinary offerings. These contests aren’t without some level of controversy. The American Medical Association (AMA) has publicly derided the competitions as unhealthy, inadvisable eating practices, putting participants at risk of “vomiting, reflux, choking, stomach rupture, diabetes, and enamel erosion”. For their part, MLE discourages spectators from waging their own speed eating battles from home, but they also do deify their roster of eaters, calling them “warriors”.
These “warriors” typically have a calendar chockfull of eating events – and not every one can be as traditional as the Independence Day hot dog contest, which dates back to 1916. The competitions, which are held all across the country, bring eaters to various pockets of America to partake in local traditions that often involve region-specific food. Some of these contests feature more standard eating staples, including cupcakes, pizzas and ice cream to go along with hot dogs. However, as the popularity of these contests has increased and similar challenges have popped up all over the place, typical food fare has been extended to include some quirky, odd delicacies.
Operating on the fringes of competitive eating, some events have come to be deliberately strange in a bid to attract attention and curiosity. For some, that means adding a bizarre hook to get people engaged, as is the case with the “Wigs and Wings” drag queen wing bowl in Philadelphia and Clinton, Montana’s famous Testicle Festival. Weirder, still, is what some of the competitors have to stuff into their gullet at these competitions. This list chronicles the oddest of the odd, from chowing down on mayonnaise to munching on stuffed quahog. Here are some of the most extreme food eating contests and the people who are warped enough to compete in them.