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Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream

Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream
by Jason Fagone
Crown Publishers, 302 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

In Gorging, Truth

If you sit in public and read Horsemen of the Esophagus : Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, Jason Fagone’s energetic account of competitive eating, strangers will talk to you. They will gawk at the cover—a photo of packaged hotdogs in a row—and ask what, exactly, it is that you’re reading. And when they hear it’s a book on people who compete nationally to eat as much food as possible as quickly as possible, these strangers will ask, “Really? This exists? Why on earth would anyone do that?”

At least that’s been my experience reading Fagone’s new book, in which he details his year or so spent covering the spectacle of competitive eating as a serious sport. By his own tally, Fagone attended 27 contests on two continents, and in addition to producing three engaging, extended profiles of eaters and their families, he tosses out an array of fun facts ranging from a footnote that Al Gore, as a young reporter, once covered an eating contest to a detailed account of the resilience of the human stomach ending with an anecdote about “a forty-five year old schizophrenic man with 206 firearm slugs in his gut [who] literally shat bullets, and survived.”

The Shea brothers, George and Richard, built the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) out of the Fourth of July Nathan’s Famous hotdog eating contest, mostly through public relations work, gaining sponsorship for contests, signing eaters to exclusive contracts, and a bit of luck. They have combined serious business practices with a showmanship to rival professional wrestling, complete with the federation’s motto, in voro veritas, in gorging, truth.

But rather than trace the rise of the institution of eating, Fagone focuses on the eaters themselves, and it is in extracting the details of eaters lives where he excels. In the middle third of his book, he examines Wing Bowl—a chicken wing contest imagined by a radio D.J. that now boasts an attendance of more than 20,000 fans—that overtook the city of Philadelphia.

Wing Bowl’s most famous champion is Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, who, it turns out, is more of a regular, Philly guy than a freakish lunatic. He is a three-hundred-plus-pound truck driving family man who loves food and happened to excel at eating insane amounts of chicken (more than 150 wings in thirty minutes.) For Simmons, the struggle has been to market his local fame as the five-time winner of Wing Bowl into the sort of money that can help him feed his family.

Simmons believes that WIP—the radio station that created and runs Wing Bowl—rigged the contest against him following his four straight wins to generate additional hype, and in an odd twist, Simmons is not the only eater with an axe to grind.

In Dave “Coondog” O’Karma, who was one of IFOCE’s earlier competitors, Fagone finds a middle-aged eater who grows frustrated with paying to travel to eating contests while the Shea brothers profit off of him and other eaters. In response, O’Karma becomes an “indie” eater who competes in contests sponsored by IFOCE’s rival, the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters.

Along the way, Coondog pals around with Fagone, taking him on an aborted effort to watch six-time hotdog champ Takeru Kobayashi train. In his darker moments, Coondog reflects on his youth and his failed efforts to become a writer, and imagines an eating circuit where contests are as much fun as business. All of these details seem at once serious and silly, and Fagone does a nice job of conveying their humor without making fun of his subjects.

Fagone’s style is breezy, and the stories alone make Horseman of the Esophagus one of those never-fails-to-amuse vacation-reading books.

Fagone sets out to do more than amuse, however, and hopes to actually find meaning and gain a greater understanding of American culture by studying the gurgitators. And at this second goal, he is less successful.

Fagone all but admits this toward the end of the book, attributing his difficulty in explaining competitive eating’s rise to “a vocabulary problem” that “is outpacing the culture’s ability to talk about what these spectacles mean.”

Perhaps his biggest reach, after recounting the history of eating contests, which stretches back to Ancient Greece, is to claim that competitive eating is distinctly representative of American culture. Leaving aside its long history (which, again, he points out at the beginning of his work), the world’s top eater is Japanese, and it is never quite clear from Fagone’s reporting, but it seems like Japan has at least as much of a competitive eating culture as the United States.

Fagone asks why people would be compelled to join an eating federation, and here, the eater profiles provide some useful clues. Coondog O’Karma gravitated toward eating as a way to become famous, special. El Wingador loves food. A third eater, Tim “Eater X” Janus, seems to view eating as an escape from the mid-twenties malaise of a perfectly middle-class day trading job.

There is no one answer to Fagone’s question, but I’m honestly not sure I want one. Competitive eating is fun to talk about because it is so bizarre, and in producing such a clearly detailed work, he has written that rare sort of book that is a pleasure to read and talk about.

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