The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

The East Bay’s Premier Magazine of Culture & Commerce

Relishing the Competition

Relishing the Competition

Ryan Nerz defends America’s tradition of professional gorging.

This Fourth of July any true-blue American will be focused on only one thing: who will win the Nathan’s Famous hot dog–eating contest on Coney Island? Will Vallejo native Joey Chestnut break his world record of 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes or will dethroned Japanese eating champion Takeru Kobayashi regain his crown? Ryan Nerz, the spokesperson for Major League Eating, hosts eating competitions nationwide, such as the recent Nathan’s hot dog qualifier in Daly City and the deep-fried asparagus–gorging contest in Stockton. Nerz has written Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit (St. Martin’s Press 2006) about his experiences on tour with America’s foremost “gurgitators” (the term Major League Eating has coined for its athletes). I tracked Nerz down recently at his headquarters in Gotham for some trash talk about the sport that literally puts food in his belly.

Paul Kilduff: New York City and Japan are hot beds for competitive eating—what are the chances that the politically correct capital of the known world, Berkeley, will ever join this list?

Ryan Nerz: It’s funny one would even question whether there’s anything p.c. about competitive eating because we’ve always considered ourselves the United Nations of sport. We know no geographic or political boundaries. Everyone eats. It’s an equal opportunity sport—if you’re a tiny little woman or a large man. If you’re in shape or out of shape, you can always be in good eating shape.

PK: If Berkeley had a contest what would be masticated? Granola? Tofu? Fruits and nuts?

RN: Tofu is a great contest. It’s not much of a jaw strength contest. It’s so chewable. But it definitely tests your esophageal sphincters and your swallowing. I was always thinking, why not a farmers’ market contest where you just go and you pick one thing from each stall? Just sort of graze almost like a cow. Also you could do a kale-smoothie drinking contest. Patchouli oil-chugging contest.

PK: Do you do patchouli oil normally?

RN: We haven’t stopped at anything. We just had a pig-skin eating contest. We’ve done cow brains. I don’t see why not.

PK: On a serious note, how do you justify such conspicuous consumption when people are starving, even in America?

RN: It seems on the surface at least a perfectly logical sort of complaint and, obviously, we field it a lot. The problem people have is it’s food being used in a manner that doesn’t seem to be about nutrition. It’s more about some contest. But really, it’s a very slippery slope because you can critique this but you never hear people complaining about NASCAR being a waste of gas. Or the $20 million you pay Alex Rodriguez per year that he then goes and spends on 15 SUVs as being a waste of money. There’s so much gratuitous consumption that goes on in America and in all these sort of developed countries. In New York City alone on any given day there is a buffet at the Renaissance Hotel in midtown for a business conference where 10 percent of massive quantities of food goes untouched. But all that stuff sort of goes to the wayside because competitive eating is a little bit in your face about it. We try to focus the emphasis on positive things. We try to get our clients to be more charitable. Nathan’s Famous has offered to give 100,000 hot dogs this year to Food Bank For New York. And MLE [Major League Eating] has given to date about $35,000 to Food Bank For New York and other hunger organizations in New York. We just try to keep the emphasis positive and say that it’s about fun and it’s a time-honored tradition that goes back to American festivals and state fairs and the sort of standard pie-eating contest with the hands behind your back. And really when it comes down to it, compared to other professional sports and how much money is being spent and how much money is spent on concessions and contracts and what goes into the lavish lifestyles of the players and such, the amount of consumption that goes on in these contests is equivalent total to who knows? The contests are all very short and we try to make them shorter. I mean they’re speed-eating contests. So, it’s eight minutes, 10 minutes. The amount of money and resources that companies spend on advertising and other things is actually much more lavish and much more of sort of a waste of resources that could be spent towards providing for hunger across the country. And also, these guys, they clean their plate. You gotta give ’em that, right?

PK: Wow. That is literally a mouthful. We are one of the most overweight countries in the world. Does competitive eating encourage overeating?

RN: I don’t think so at all. What these guys do transcends gorging on the level of the Romans. Sitting down at the table for four or five hours, going to the Vomitorium, coming back, eating more. What they’re doing has a level of athletic discipline. A lot of these guys really are gourmets. People who are into food. Pat Bertoletti is a chef. Crazy Legs Conti is more knowledgeable about sort of esoteric New York eating habits than anyone I know. But in terms of competitive eating, it’s not really for enjoyment. It’s more about pushing your body to limits. And 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, which was Joey Chestnut’s record last year, almost barely resembles traditional eating in any way. It’s almost like a magic act. You watch it and you really can’t believe it. I mean you see six hot dogs and buns go down in one minute and I just don’t understand how he’s doing it.

PK: So, this doesn’t encourage obesity?

RN: You look at the top 10 [competitive eaters] and down to a man they’re all in good shape. They become very in-tune with their bodies. They become very in-tune with caloric intake. Calories in versus calories out. Kobayashi is a power lifter. Tim Janis is an obsessive workout-a-holic. Sonya “the black widow” Thomas weighs 105 pounds. Juliet Lee is a tiny little woman. She’s ranked 10th in the world and she’s in great shape.

PK: What’s going on in Japan? Why can relatively small Japanese people power down humungous amounts of food so quickly, dominate the sport and then not gain weight?

RN: It’s a good question. I think it’s really a mystery to us all. In terms of the training they’re very closed-lipped about what they do and I don’t really know but obviously it involves sort of treating your internal muscles, your esophagus, your swallowing mechanism, your tongue, your digestive track, as a muscle in the same way that Barry Bonds works out his biceps and his forearms. These guys really do learn how to stretch their stomach and I think that’s part of it. In terms of competitive eating in Japan they have these TV shows where they do a sushi challenge and they don’t even always do the speed eating. They’ll go for an hour and it’s about just how far can you push your body. And I think that’s the real tradition in Japan that works well with competitive eating.

PK: The Japanese influence has changed the sport, correct?

RN: It certainly has. If there’s a moment it was July 4, 2001 when Takeru Kobayashi came over. The previous record was 25 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes, HDBs as we say. And he doubled it. Fifty. It was just sort of staggering. It was this tiny man. And before that it had always been these traditional red-blooded American factory-worker type guys. Big guys from Queens.

PK: In your book you write about the belt of fat theory for why skinny people are top eaters—they don’t have belly fat constricting their stomachs from expanding. Do you have other theories on what makes a champion?

RN: There’s this sort of obscure theory with Type A blood. All the main competitive eaters as I understand it have Type A blood. Kobayashi. Joey Chestnut. Sonya Thomas. There’s a weird correlation with good competitive eaters and Type A. I have no idea what that means, but there it is.

PK: Vallejo native Joey Chestnut won the coveted yellow mustard belt last year—bringing it back to America. Leading up to this, was nationality injected into the contest with so many Japanese winners in recent years?

RN: There definitely were some moments where I think I heard the USA cheer on the Fourth of July. He [Joey Chestnut] is sort of guy X. He’s just sort of a guy you feel like you could go and have a beer with at the local sports bar.

PK: Let’s not let him run for President.

RN: That’s a good point. Can’t get much worse. It would definitely not be a down grade.

PK: The Japanese hot dog–eating technique of separating the bun from the dog, dipping the bun in water and breaking the dog in two and then swallowing them, has also forever changed the sport. Now everyone does it. Will your organization ever have a hot dog–eating contest where the contestants must eat the dogs as God intended, with the dog nestled inside bun? Maybe throw some condiments on there?

RN: You’re talking about picnic-style rules. We’ve had many a discussion about whether or not to institute “picnic-style” rules. I find it amusing that there’s this sort of outrage that they’re not eating a hot dog and bun in a traditional format. Obviously it was a shock when the Japanese—and it’s even called Japanesing—came over. And to them, a hot dog and a bun—they don’t eat that over there—so they just looked at it said, well, obviously the fastest way to eat it is not in that traditional format and they just started playing with it. It’s like getting the newest Nike sneakers or using those platform shoes to increase your vertical jump. It’s just an advantage that they got and once the advantage is there, everyone has to adapt.

PK: But isn’t swallowing hot dogs disgusting?

RN: You see disgust but we see a new athleticism and physical poetry and magic.

PK: I’ll bet you do. Any studies on the health risks of competing in these events?

RN: There has not been any funded medical research into the effects of competitive eating. I think it’s too young of a sport. I guess the grants aren’t there.

PK: Speaking of health risks, Oakland’s recently departed gourmand, Bozo Miller, once famously drank a lion under the table in a martini quaffing contest. Has your organization ever considered drinking contests? Is that off base?

RN: There’s been a lot of clamoring for drinking contests. There are a lot of people who feel like they have skills in that realm. But a major concern there is that the winner may or may not die. So, we would never go there. We just are always concerned about anyone taking this health-wise laxly. I mean if we do a 30-second TV fun eating contest at a news channel, we send an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician]. It’s just something where you can’t overestimate the possibility of anything happening like that. With drinking water you have to be really careful because of the hyponutremia [water poisoning] which happens sometimes.

PK: So, when you’re talking about people potentially dying, that’s where you draw the line?

RN: Yeah. It seems like a decent place to draw the line, don’t you think?


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Age: 34 |  Astrological sign: Capricorn

Birthplace: Minneapolis

First real job:
 Editor at a children’s book publishing company

Favorite pizza topping:
Eggplant (especially the eggplant slice at Garlic Bob’s in New York)

Favorite Team: 
Tottenham Hotspur of the English Premier League (soccer, for clueless Yankees)

Pastimes: Reading, cackling, rollerblading over the Brooklyn Bridge

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