LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Linda Wertheimer.
Coming up, a free South Africa shapes that country's cop novel. But first, it's Memorial Day weekend, a good time to grill hot dogs and hamburgers. How many hot dogs do you plan to eat? How many could you eat? What if there was a cash prize?
Eating contests, a great American tradition, a feature at state fairs, fraternities, notably a regularly scheduled event at Nathan's on Coney Island in New York City. In the world of trash sports, where any kind of competition has a chance at a cable contract, eating is moving up the food chain.
Jason Fagone has written a book about competitive eating. It's called Horsemen of the Esophagus. Mr. Fagone, welcome to our show.
Mr. JASON FAGONE (Author, Horsemen of the Esophagus): Hey. Thank you for having me, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: You call this a stomach-centric sport. What does that mean?
Mr. FAGONE: I don't really call it a sport. I'm sort of ambivalent on that question. The promoters call it a sport. You know, in 1997 they started a league called the International Federation of Competitive Eating. And it was originally started as a joke. It was sort of a parody and a way to poke fun at, you know, overblown American sports, the NFL and Major League Baseball and sort of multimillionaire, whiny athletes like Terrell Owens and Barry Bonds.
FAGONE: And since then it's become serious.
WERTHEIMER: You visited 27 eating competitions in researching this book. Do you have a favorite?
Mr. FAGONE: Yeah, my favorite was the oyster contest in 2005 in New Orleans. Sonia Thomas, Sonia The Black Widow Thomas, who until a few months ago was considered the top American eater, she ate 46 dozen in 10 minutes.
WERTHEIMER: 46 dozen oysters, my gosh. I once ate two dozen oysters for breakfast and thought that I was incredibly greedy.
Mr. FAGONE: Yeah. 46 dozen is not really a human amount. It didn't look human when she was doing it. The contest, the reason it was my favorite is because it felt so joyful and it was surprisingly joyful. I mean it was about a local food and the entire community there in Metairie was celebrating the food and it wasn't just the eaters who were there.
You know, there was a federal district judge who was competing in the dignitaries portion. And there was a state senator. You know, there was a cover band playing a Guns and Roses song. It was just all kind of together there in the parking lot.
WERTHEIMER: Some foods are more bulky. They're more substantial. I mean what is the sort of largest amount of whatever it was that you've ever seen anybody eat?
Mr. FAGONE: There are Japanese eating shows that aired a couple of years ago and they featured a segment called Weight Crash. And the idea of Weight Crash is you put the eaters in front of a giant buffet. You weigh them before the buffet, then you give them a while to eat and then you weigh after. And there are eaters on Weight Crash who have gained more than 20 pounds just from a single sitting at a buffet.
WERTHEIMER: Do you have to have a stomach that can do that?
Mr. FAGONE: The eaters, they all train. They do stomach stretching, which means they drink large quantities of water to try to get their stomach to stretch and retain that elasticity during the contest. But also I think to just sensitize themselves to how it feels to eat that much food and then keep on going.
WERTHEIMER: Do you find that there's any kind of common personality traits among competitors which would explain why they think is something to do?
Mr. FAGONE: Sure. Well, I kind of expected that I would find a lot of eccentrics and there are certainly those types on circuit. What really surprised me is that most of the eaters are not so different from you or me. You know, they're doctors and lawyers, day traders, construction workers, social workers.
And you know, what they're looking to get out of competitive eating is some shared experience and in a very real way make their families and their kids proud of them.
WERTHEIMER: Basically I think this whole thing has a strong element of disgusting about it. And I wondered if that was the appeal. I mean just waiting for something awful to happen.
Mr. FAGONE: Yeah. There's definitely a car crash quality to it. Part of the appeal of an eating contest is that it's this fantasia of food. It's this fantasy world that is the bizarre world version of the world of food that we all live in. You know, we're all sort of neurotic about food in America. You know, a lot of us want to look different than we are and here's this table of people completely unembarrassed about gorging in public. And in a way, you hate to see all these very dear human desires being poured into something like an eating contest. But on the other hand, it's kind of inspiring that the eaters are creative enough, and resilient enough, to make it work. You know, it's both an American horror show and an American success story at the same time.
WERTHEIMER: Jason Fagone, speaking to us from WHYY in Philadelphia. His book is called Horseman of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating And The Big Fat American Dream.
Mr. Fagone, thank you so much.
Mr. FAGONE: Thank you, Linda.
WERTHEIMER: The Black Widow once ate more than eight pounds of baked beans in under three minutes. Check out a list of competitive eating accomplishments at our website, npr.org.
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