I was going to begin by observing that most books about sports are dreck, but after turning the thought over, I'll modify that statement to, most books about anything are dreck. Still, there is dreck and there is DRECK. So, when I was handed Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, by Jason Fagone (Crown Publishers, 2006; $24.00; 302 pages), with the suggestion that it would be a good book to review, my first thought was, "How can I get out of this?"
The book's jacket is simple and repulsive. The entire cover, from tippy-tippy-top to tail, from book's spine to fore-edge, depicts, in Photoshop-super-realistic-color-drenched-oversized-glory, Oscar Mayer clone hot dogs. The hot dogs are vacuum-packed in that familiar, thick, see-through plastic. The dogs appear sickly, actually look like they've recently died, laying there with a residue of clammy death-sweat still on their skin, so realistic that my stomach turns every time I look at the perverted rendering. There is the green, red, and yellow Oscar Mayer sash running down the middle of the gargantuan plastic hot dog package. The book's title is printed inside the same yellow, red, and white parallelogram you'll find on a package of Oscar's wieners. YUMMY!
The story begins at the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship held in Venice Beach, California. This is February, 2005. We have 15 professional eaters at table competing for $3500 in prize money. The money, championship belt, and title goes to the gurgitator who eats the most grilled cheese sandwiches within ten minutes.
Depending on your point of view, there is a thrilling or uncomfortably specific description of the food match. In the end, no surprise, the winner is 2004 rookie of the year, five-foot-five inch, 103-pound Sonya Thomas out of Alexandria, Virginia. Fagone tells us, "She calls herself 'The Black Widow' because she gleefully devours the males.... Her eating titles are so numerous that promoters list them alphabetically."
Regard the Black Widow's titles and weep. Asparagus (5.75 pounds in 10 minutes), baked beans (8.4 pounds in 2 minutes, 47 seconds), cheesecake (11 pounds in 9 minutes), chicken nuggets (80 in 5 minutes), chicken wings (161 in 12 minutes), hard-boiled eggs (65 in 6 minutes, 40 seconds), fruit cake, giant burger, hamburger, jambalaya, Maine lobster, meatballs, oysters, pulled pork, quesadilla, sweet potato casserole, tacos, toasted ravioli, and many more. These are athletic divisions, people.
Let me assure you that the World Grilled Cheese Eating Championship is sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). This fine supervising organization was founded in 1997 by George and Richard Shea, heretofore toiling in the sweatshop of corporate public relations. In less than ten years, the brothers have grown IFOCE to over 100 sanctioned events a year and appearances on the Discovery Channel, Travel Channel, TV Food Network, Fox Television, topped off, every July 4th, by ESPN's live telecast of the Super Bowl of competitive eating, Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island. This year, the weigh-in will be overseen by Mayor Bloomberg and conducted in Manhattan, at city hall.
What Fagone set out to do with this stomach-turning epic was to report on the competitive-eating circuit like a sports reporter would report on the Padres. "I wanted to cover eating as if it were important," Fagone writes. "Not mock-important. Truly important." In little more than one year, Fagone attended 27 eating contests on two continents and interviewed everybody. "[Other reporters] all fail to capture the mad galumphing experience of an eating contest, a really good one, when the crowd's into it, gawking, screaming, and the food's detonated on contact with a merciless line of teeth and jaws, and Shea's [the M.C.] on his game -- we cannot SEE, we cannot HEAR, we need something MORE! -- and when, scanning the crowd's faces, I can tell that we're all feeling something, something intense, maybe revulsion, maybe joy, maybe just a deep curiosity, but it's more than can be expected in a thirty-second bite, or a fifty-word brief. Whatever's happening doesn't feel shabby or small, but instead...broad and big and consequential...."
The lad can write. As far as I can tell from one long Internet search session, Fagone, late 20s, has only written for city magazines (Cincinnati and Philadelphia). There is, by the way, much, much more to his book, but I advise readers to march forward on an empty stomach. You will, how shall I put it, travel to unusual places and meet unusual people. Finally, there's a 6000-word excerpt of Horsemen of the Esophagus in this month's Atlantic Monthly, in case you'd like to sample before ordering the full plate.