back to the Black Table
                   
  THE CHAMPIONS OF CONSUMPTION.  
  Larry Getlen            
   
  Hungry Charles Hardy, a large man with a passion for diamonds, stands behind a table littered with bowls of matzo ball scraps. Barely one minute earlier, Hardy was smashing the food into his face, hoping that some of it would land in his mouth. But there was no  
 

room in his mouth, because matzo balls stuffed it from teeth to throat, puffing out his cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie on a screaming high G. So the bits in his hand dripped from his lips, down his matzo ball-caked goatee, and back into his bowl.

The event is the Matzo Ball Eating Championship at the Friars Club in New York City on April 20 and despite a pervasive, whimsical mood in this high church of comedy, Hungry Charles is not laughing. Instead, he is angry. He is engaged in a heated debate with George Shea, chairman of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and a

     
 

master of ceremonies with considerable vaudevillian skills. For the past hour, George has been introducing contestants, plugging sponsors, cracking wise and serving as the match's color commentator. In the world of competitive eating, George Shea is P.T. Barnum meets Bill Veeck meets Billy Crystal, the pioneer (along with his younger brother, Richard) who has made this sport and its champions hot media fodder, and the man who, looking slick in a dark blue suit and red-and-black-striped straw hat, told the assembled crowd that competitive eating may have been "the battleground upon which God and Lucifer waged war for men's souls," then moments later chatted with an executive from co-sponsor Empire Chicken about the definition of schmaltz. (Yiddish for chicken fat, if you're wondering.)

At the moment, though, George is serving in his role as league

 
 

commissioner. He just announced to the crowd that Charles finished in second place in today's competition. Charles, the 2001 Matzo Ball Eating World Champion and currently the fifth-ranked eater in the world (according to the IFOCE), believes otherwise. A $1,000 prize and his former title hang in the balance.

In dispute is the remaining matzo ball mish-mash in the bowl belonging to reigning champion Eric "Badlands" Booker.

Two minutes into the five minute, twenty-five second match -- a time based on the length of Eric's

     
  current world record, which is 21 matzo balls devoured in five minutes, twenty-five seconds -- someone in the room noticed that Eric had disposed of most of his bowl. A female voice cried out, "more matzo balls," and a representative from one of the sponsors brought another full bowl to the table. The screamer and the sponsor apparently weren't aware that IFOCE rules require competitors to finish the pile of food in front of them before eating from a second, and Eric ate from the new bowl, not realizing that the first was still filled with crushed remains. Complicating matters further, a stray  
   

matzo ball of unknown origin suddenly appeared on the table mid-match, causing Charles to scream, "That's not mine!" When time ran out, George announced the results with his usual fanfare.

"Ladiiiiiiies aaaaaaaand GENNNNNNN-tlemen," he barked to the crowd. "From Brooklyn! The

   
 

home of competitive eating! The borough that served as the crucible, not only for inebration (sic) and the founding of a nation, but also for the creation of competitive eating, Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest! A resident of the borough of Brooklyn, and in second place here at the Matzo Ball Eating Championship with 24½ matzo balls…"

Charles cut him off.

"Are you sure?"

"We're gonna weigh it," George said without missing a beat. "Twenty-four matzo balls in five minutes and twenty-five seconds, Hungry Charles Hardy!"

Charles sighed and shook his head. He flashed a two-fingered victory sign. "That's bullshit," he said to no one in particular. George then announced that Eric had regained his title, setting a new world record with 30 matzo balls consumed in the allotted time.

Now, George and Charles argue over the scraps that Charles believes cost him a championship.

A veteran New York City corrections officer who spends his days processing Manhattan's drug dealers and violent offenders, Charles, 41, got his start in competitive eating in 1998 on the roof of one of the World Trade Center's twin towers. It was high noon on a scorching hot July day, not a good day for a 410-pound man in full uniform to stand a mile closer to the sun than the rest of the city. The occasion was the civil service qualifier for the annual Nathan's Hot Dog eating championship, the Super Bowl of competitive eating, and Charles was persuaded to enter by his union's sergeant at arms. With eaters from various unions and a media throng looking on, George Shea introduced Charles for the first time ever as "Hungry" Charles Hardy. The race began, and halfway through, the president of Charles' union saw that he had taken the lead, and began grabbing hot dogs and shoving them toward Charles' mouth. Policemen and court officers vomited all around them, and Charles, now with four hands trying to stuff hot dogs down his throat, wondered what the hell he had gotten himself into. By the end of the race he had eaten 16 hot dogs in 12 minutes; won a year's supply of hot dogs, a trophy, and a spot at the July 4th championship in Coney Island; got his picture on page two of the New York Daily News; and understood what it meant to feel both nauseous and triumphant at the same time. It was, he says, the greatest moment of his life.

But three years later, after becoming one of the IFOCE's dominant personalities, the eating career born at the World Trade Center was almost destroyed there. In the days immediately following 9/11, Charles would pass the remains of the tragedy on his way to work, then immerse himself in America's grief as part of the volunteer "bucket brigade," helping remove building debris and body parts from

 
 
 

the remains of the towers. His round-the-clock presence at the site exposed him to toxins that shredded his vocal cords. By the time of his next competition one month later, he was coughing up blood. His first attempt to compete brought him close to vomiting, unable to get the food down his throat, and the next few years saw his talent evaporate along with his

   
 

vocal volume. As victories dwindled, he thought his eating career was over, but he never quit. While his speaking voice is still strained and wavering, coarse as if filtered through gravel and sometimes dropping out if he's not at full energy, he has since returned to his previous carnivorous mastery due to the healing effects of time and, he says, to taking better care of himself, including losing 84 pounds in the past eight months.

So Charles, a silver cross adorned with six-and-a-half carat diamonds partially paid for with IFOCE winnings swinging from his neck, will not allow what he believes is his hard-earned victory to just slip away. His tone with George, a man he thinks of as a brother, makes it clear that this victory will not just slink into the shadows. At the moment, he is at full voice.

"I didn't touch it!" he screams, pointing to one of the bowls. "I didn't touch it for a reason!"

George, in an effort to right a wrong and despite his belief that the result is correct, offers to momentarily rescind Eric's victory.

"Let's do a run-off," he suggests.

But as Eric is interviewed just behind them by a zaftig Russian television correspondent in a constrictive peach blouse, Charles rejects the make-good offer.

"I don't wanna do it," he replies.

"I do. I do wanna do it," says George.

Charles has made his decision. He wasn't fighting for victory, after all. He was just blowing off steam. He and Eric are good friends, and

 
    they reside in a world where good sportsmanship still has meaning. Charles accepts his defeat gracefully, if grudgingly. The current holder of three world records -- in shrimp, sushi, and cabbage -- will be back to fight the matzo ball another day. Given the nature of the event, a casual observer might think that Hardy's anger    
 

was driven by the cash prize. But the more you learn about the world of competitive eating, the more you come to believe otherwise.

***

What makes an activity a sport? Different people have different answers. The people who decide these things at the Olympic level -- those who made curling an Olympic sport, for instance -- may have distinct disagreements with the average sports bar patron, who would hurl you onto the street head first if you replaced football with curling on the wide screen. Richard Shea, president of the IFOCE, says that it is partially its structure that makes competitive eating a sport, for it is a "physical activity governed by a set of rules," and that competitive eating is a sport for the experience of triumphs and setbacks, of good years and bad years and streaks and comebacks. The eaters talk of dedication and preparation, of pain and sacrifice, of skill and training and the mental acuity to give your all to an endeavor, commonly known as the will to win.

But not everyone agrees, of course. Seattle Mariners manager Lou Pinella, when asked his opinion of one hot-dog-eating record, said, "That's not sport. That's stupidity." But what does this mean coming from a guy whose job is to lead a bunch of grown men in matching outfits who get paid millions of dollars to hit a ball, run on dirt and land in a hurtling mass on the exact same spot at which they started? In the world of accepted sports, even the fiercest of competitions could be looked upon as frivolous, when thought of without a real world goal. Football? Grown men slapping each other on the ass while they chase each other down a field, then run back the other way. Soccer? Hockey? Bicycle racing? They all share one thing. A bunch of grown men or women running or skating or pedaling either back and forth or in a circle, with no destination or purpose other than to kick or slap or ride something across an arbitrary line. If we're going to compare the legitimacy of sporting endeavors, how about having one of the prized physical specimens who participates in these things run twenty-six miles with a stuffed turkey, cross a finish line and then feed a starving village. Say what you will about competitive eating, but it's the only sport in the world centered around an activity that just about everyone in the world does every day. So if your sport involves anything short of that, you should just shut up.

Don't tell Eric Booker that competitive eating isn't a sport. Two days before the 2005 Matzo Ball Eating Championship, Eric examines a matzo ball like a jeweler assessing a diamond. He sits at a table at Ben's Kosher Deli in Manhattan, one of the last of the dying breed of authentic Jewish delicatessens and a place where is sandwich is about meat, stacks of it, heaping piles of carnivorousness for people who do not believe that less is more. Eric is one of those people, and here at this shrine to fine luncheon meat, Eric is in training -- specifically, the research phase. He twirls a matzo ball gently in his hand, viewing it from all sides. He lifts it up and down, lightly, assessing its weight and contemplating its texture. He wants to know it, to understand it. It's easy to believe that if he could, he would shrink to its size and crawl inside it, the better to learn its secrets. At 6'5", 410 pounds, though, the chance of that happening is unlikely.

Eric, 36, grew up in Springfield Gardens, Queens, a skinny kid with a big appetite. He was the kid who followed the ice cream truck down the street, screaming "Hey, ice cream!" He knew all the jingles to the food-related commercials by heart and never failed to hit the dinner pot for seconds. He is a food lover, plain and simple. That he is now a food champion is almost destiny.

A conductor on the Number 7 line of the New York City Subway for the past 13 years, Eric speaks with pride about both his job and his athletic pursuit. He works five days a week, from 3:00 a.m. to noon, for the M.T.A. In addition to his joy at working on the line that takes you to Shea Stadium -- Eric is a Mets fan -- he talks of how the 7 train is called the International Express, because there's "all types of people, all races and creeds." It is "a beautiful line," he says. Eric is genuinely proud that in his job he moves several thousand people a day, just as how his reveling in the people he meets as a champion competitive eater is authentic and heartfelt.

"Just the fact that I go to a town and meet somebody, just a normal person like I am," Eric explains in a kind, jocular voice that seems too small for him. "He's seen me do something on TV, and just to shake the man's hand, talk to him, if his kids are there talk to the man's family, and just spend time with them. I just love what I'm doing."

In addition to the Matzo Ball title, Eric holds records in burritos, candy bars, corned beef hash, doughnuts, onions, peas, pumpkin pies and hamantashen. His numbers are intimidating. Forty-nine glazed donuts in eight minutes. Nine and a half pounds of peas in 12 minutes. Four pounds of corned beef hash in one minute, 58 seconds. Sitting over a plate of Ben's matzo balls -- no broth -- Eric explains that "there are four things you need for competitive eating greatness. Stomach capacity, stamina, strategy and a focused mind."

Competitive eaters stretch their stomachs the way runners stretch hamstrings. In the days before a match, some eaters engage in buffet-busting, causing seizures in owners of all-you-can-eat buffets as they approach their 10th plate. The Thursday before the matzo ball match, five eaters each downed a 76-ounce steak. Eating the entire thing made it free, and earned them a T-Shirt and their picture on the steakhouse wall. Hungry Charles finished his the quickest -- 27 1/2 minutes. But every eater has a different strategy, and many, including Eric and Charles, have generally left the buffets behind. Eric is now a vegetable man. He eats around 10 pounds at a sitting at least three times a week before a big match, increasing the volume each time. He'll often cook up a large pot of cabbage. If pressed for time, he'll chow down on watermelon.

To become a champion, the competitive eater must understand every aspect of the eating process. Mastication is a tool, digestion irrelevant, and urges contrary to swallowing -- one of the IFOCE euphemisms for vomiting -- equal death. How much can your stomach hold? How large a portion can you swallow? How fast can you chew? How quickly and accurately can you get the food from your plate to your mouth? Champions don't drop half a serving on the floor, or waste it on their shirt. Hand to mouth and down the gullet. That's what counts in the final score. Chewing, swallowing, and placing the food directly into your mouth as quickly as possible are essential and trainable skills. The champion eater must know his strengths and weaknesses in their totality and be able to make necessary improvements and adjustments at a swallow's notice. He or she must know which abilities need work and which will lead to glory. And when one has other commitments, one fits training into the everyday routine. Standing in the conductor's booth, Eric Booker chews 20 sticks of sugarless gum to build jaw strength. He'll chew 50 times on the left, 50 times on the right, then 50 in the front. Next time you take the 7 train, if "stand clear of the closing doors" sounds a bit mush-mouthed, Eric Booker might be your conductor.

Eric equates working his stomach and jaw with a body builder working his muscles. "It's like training your biceps. Your body is adapting to it. You put it under stress you're not used to, and then

 
 

you get used to it, and build more muscle."

Seasoned eaters eventually find the training methods that work for them. Don "Moses" Lerman, the Matzo Ball champ in 2000 who lost his title the next year to Hungry Charles, abuses a Chinese buffet two days before the match, but eats only a half gallon of ice cream the day before. He also trains with water, drinking a gallon in under three minutes. This

     
 

conditions not only his capacity, he says, but also the cardiac sphincter in the esophagus, "the epicenter of nausea," allowing him to process quantity, and thereby decreasing the chances of suffering a "reversal of fortune" -- another IFOCE substitute for the word "vomit."

Increased capacity is merely one goal of the training ritual. It's essential as well to prepare for the specific food with which you'll be competing. When playing a team sport, athletes size up their opponents, determining their strengths and weaknesses. In individual sports, your obstacle is the task itself -- in this case, the food. When Eric discusses the matzo ball, he refers not to the food he's fighting with, but the food he's fighting "against." When he inspects the matzo ball, he is actually sizing up his competitor, guessing at the density of the core, and determining how much jaw strength he'll need for the match. What stands between Eric and his third consecutive Matzo Ball World Championship will not be Hungry Charles Hardy, or day trader Tim "Eater X" Janus, or former champ Lerman, or dreadlocked documentary film subject Crazy Legs Conti, or any of the other competitors. It will be the ball itself, this dense concoction of matzo meal, oil, eggs, water, salt and pepper that can stick in your esophagus like cement if prepared to a certain thickness or consumed in above average quantity, just as it will be two days hence.

It can take years to find and finesse the right training ritual. Tim "Eater X" Janus, a 28-year-old day trader from Connecticut, competed for the first time in March 2004 and is considered one of the sport's rising stars. While he has yet to win a match, he finished second four times in nine bouts. This stellar performance brought him to the No. 10 slot in the IFOCE rankings. Good looking and soft-spoken, like Matthew McConaughey without the swagger, he is called "Eater X" because he paints a mask around his eyes for every match. The design was inspired by former WWF champion The Ultimate Warrior, and Tim changes the colors depending on the competition's nature, timing or sponsor. He began painting his face during his time at Southern Methodist University to enhance his heckling at school basketball games. He continued this tradition at his first eating match, and by his second time out, fans recognized him. He saw that his gimmick worked, so he kept it. At the Matzo Ball championship, his face will be red, white, and blue, as a salute to the following weekend's NFL draft. He had considered just blue and white for Israel, since the matzo ball is the food of the day, but thought two colors to be too bland, an apt analogy considering the common perception of Jewish food.

In conversation, it becomes clear that the "Eater X" moniker doesn't suit Janus. He's too nice for it. The face-paint guy is traditionally loud and obnoxious, a real asshole. Tim seems like the guy who quietly gets the girl while face-paint guy pukes on the bar. Expect Tim to ditch "Eater X" a year or two down the road and become the sport's first matinee idol. Despite his early accomplishments -- he will finish third in the Matzo Ball match, only a ball behind Hungry Charles,

 
  despite having never before competed in the food -- he is still struggling to find his training regimen and trying "a thousand things" in the process. For this match, he is working a variation of Lerman's strategy, eating giant meals and then chasing them with large quantities of water. He did this every other day or so for weeks to prepare. He also ran several sprints. Like runners, eaters use sprints to train for speed without wearing themselves out. Tim ate a one-and-half-      
 

minute sprint to find his rhythm, although that is not evolving as his preferred method. Without the adrenaline of a match, you don't get the sense of competitive fury that drives you to shove food down your esophagus at dangerous rates. But, as with any sport, different techniques work for different people. Veteran eater Conti used the sprint as well, but defined his by quantity, not time, speed-eating six matzo balls at a clip.

Training involves not only building strength and acclimating to the food in question, but also determining strategy. There are many ways to eat a matzo ball, and differences in technique can account for precious seconds added to, or subtracted from, your time. Eric considers this phase of the research as similar to a prizefight. Just as a boxer watches tapes to see how the other guy punches, an eater will talk to other eaters, watch what they do, and view tapes of old matches to see how many ways there are to obliterate the food in question. This, again, is a matter of individual preference. For matzo ball, Lerman uses a knife. While other eaters lurch over the table like Godzilla bearing down on a Volkswagen, Lerman will sit, dapper in his beige fedora and a matching blazer that is adorned on the back with two fists holding lighting bolts and the phrase, "Don Lerman, Fastest Hands in Competitive Eating." He will hold the ball in one hand, cut it into quarters with the knife, then eat the pieces. Most eaters use more of an apple approach for matzo ball. Some will palm the ball, then eliminate it in three or four random bites. Others hold both ends and twirl it as if on an axis, nibbling it to a core. Some will just shove the entire thing in their mouth. Tim plans to randomly chomp away, but to also mash up the next ball with his other hand while he does. Eric will take three bites per ball. He'll squish it in his mouth, gnash it with his teeth and swallow, taking care not to overstuff in case he needs to throw a whole one in his mouth at the whistle.

As with any sport, over-exertion can be dangerous. Conti is a record holder in pancakes and green beans and the subject of the documentary Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating, which will be broadcast on A&E in June. During a training exercise intended to enhance his "manual to oral dexterity," an overzealous grab for a matzo ball leads to hot broth splashback,

 
 

burning his left eye. He came to the match wearing an eye patch, adding a pirate's hat and fake parrot to complete the ensemble.

Veteran ballers were thrown a curve this year. Past Matzo Ball competitions took place at Ben's, using their matzo balls. This year's match had a new sponsor, Ruthie & Gussie's. Steve Gold, the company's president, says they modeled the 325 matzo balls provided for the competition on the balls from Ben's to ensure consistency, since both a championship and a world record hung in the balance. But the eaters couldn't be sure until the competition, and that uncertainly dragged through the air like thick

     
  fog as the eaters prepared for the match. Matzo balls are especially challenging, since they can be extremely dense. They "expand when they're in you," according to Eric, who expected eaters to hit the wall at the five-minute mark. The thickest among the matzo balls can leave eaters with what Conti calls a "dry-packing-material problem in your mouth, sort of a wet sawdust feel."

There are traditionally two types of matzo balls -- floaters and sinkers. The competitors always hope for floaters. As the name indicates, floaters, the traditional choice for American Jews, are softer and fluffier, light enough to float to the top of a soup bowl. Sinkers, by contrast, sink. Floaters are made lighter by the inclusion of more matzo meal, or crushed matzah, in the recipe, although the quantity of eggs in the mix plays a role as well. As with most cooking, it's more art than science. Ruthie & Gussies was founded in 1949 by two Holocaust survivor sisters who bought an egg farm in Sullivan County, New York, and began producing traditional Jewish food, such as latke batter. When the company branched into Matzo Balls just last year, Gold -- son of Ruthie, nephew of Gussie -- led a trial and error effort to replicate the taste of the matzo balls of his youth, since Ruthie and Gussie never wrote down recipes, relying more on the traditional Jewish grandmother system of "a little of this, a little of that." Gold said before the match that he would be providing floaters, not sinkers. After the match, several eaters had their doubts.

The eaters in the matzo ball match faced another surprise, one they learned about late in the game. Some eaters excel at sprints, or what they call the "short game." Others prefer the long game. The difference between short game and long game is the difference between six minutes and twelve, and this difference is crucial. The Matzo Ball competition was originally scheduled to be ten minutes long with seven competitors, according to Gold. But when five more competitors were added, event organizers found themselves short of matzo balls. It was therefore decided that the competition would be cut almost in half to five minutes and twenty-five seconds, the length of Eric Booker's record.

Janus, for one, was chagrined by the change, as he feels he excels in the long game. "My capacity is really ripe right now," he says, meaning that given enough time in a match, he can really put it away. But while his stomach is a deep cauldron, his "pipes," he says, are small. He categorizes himself as a slow swallower, a grave deficiency for a competitive eater. He believes that his height -- he's 5'10" -- means that his esophagus is smaller than someone like Eric Booker, who is 6'5", and that his swallowing ability would be proportionately more slight. He says he cannot swallow the big chunks other eaters can, and not for lack of trying. "It could just be a bad lot I was given in life," he says.

But the truth is that Janus has a better short game than he realizes. His third place finish in matzo ball proves that. His doubt may be the consequence of being a virtual rookie in a game of veterans. You learn your strengths and weaknesses as you go, and when you're surrounded by greatness, your accomplishments can seem slight. If he can continue to excel at the short game and the long game, at sweets and starches, at sprints and marathons, Tim Janus may become the best one day, because true champions are those that can cross boundaries. Just as a basketball or baseball player must excel at offense and defense to be considered one of the greats by aficionados of the sport, greatness in competitive eating requires wide versatility. Richard Shea says that in the early days of the organization -- the IFOCE was founded in 1997 -- it was possible to

 
 

have just the pickle title or the pizza title, and to "hang your hat on that." Now, it's the cross-discipline eaters who taste real glory. "You can't just be a sweets professional or something like that," says Shea. "You have to not only win a cannoli contest, you have to win a hot dog contest, and you have to show your skill in oysters, or French fries. Whatever it is."

So the true masters of the eating universe excel across the board. But there are specialists, of sorts. Sixty-year-old former CPA Rich LeFevre is the No. 3 eater in the world, and the top American. He is also one-half of the top-ranked couple; his wife, Carlene, is No. 7. Shea refers to them as "the Thurston and Lovey Howell of competitive eating." Despite his high ranking, LeFevre has been all about the long game for much of his eating career, although Shea says his short game is starting to come around. Currently, none of LeFevre's records are under 10 minutes, and he excels in

     
 

marathons, events that run 30, 45 minutes or more, even traveling to Japan, where they favor longer contests, for several marathon eating exhibitions.

And then there's Sonya Thomas. Thomas, 37, is the No. 2 ranked eater in the world, and by all accounts, she is a dynamo. When Eric is asked which eater worries him the most at the matzo ball competition, he talks about Thomas -- and she's not even scheduled to attend. Of Korean ancestry and hailing from Alexandra, Va., Sonya is a pretty woman with a wide smile and a slight build. On her latest ranking, her weight is cited as 105 pounds. She is a slip of a woman, and she can eat almost any man under the table. Only two years into the sport, the IFOCE website lists 22 records for her. Sonya is

 
  another eater who is said to excel in the long game. Of those 22 records, only three are under six minutes. But despite this, Sonya appears to be the quintessential multi-dimensional eater Richard Shea discusses. Most eaters operate on a sprint mentality during a match. Eat as much as you can, as quickly as you can. As such, there is a tendency to pound down, then suddenly bloat and stall, wavering like a bear that's been shot with a poisoned dart. The good eaters -- the Eric Bookers, the Charles Hardys -- can start fast and remain consistent, not losing much speed and capacity as a contest nears the 10 minute mark and beyond. Sonya Thomas, however, speeds up. She eats at a workable pace      
 

for the first few minutes, then gets even faster. "She can adapt," says Eric. "She's not a sprinter, but she keeps a pace and never relents. The first couple of minutes, she's trying to figure out the best strategy. People are passing her, but then she figures out what to do, and it's like, 'I have eight minutes to go. What's left?'"

But when you're at No. 2, there is only one thing left. If anyone is looked at as having a chance to defeat the current champion, Sonya Thomas is the one. But even her chances may be slight. For if Sonya is an astounding talent in the world of professional eating, leaving even the Eric Bookers and Charles Hardys of the sport with something resembling awe, the person at number one is nothing less than a miracle.

 

Go on to part II:
THE MIRACLE THAT IS KOBAYASHI.

 

Larry Getlen is a freelance writer based in New York City.