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

Don't want to read about 53 hot dogs being eaten in 12 minutes? You can watch it on ESPN.

A nickname is a must on the competitive eating circuit—e.g., Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas, and Ed "Cookie" Jarvis. At first this makes you think that this hobby, er, sport, chronicled by Jason Fagone is a big joke, something on par with beetle wrestling. Yet Horsemen soon convinces the reader how seriously these people take their craft, and how heartily the fans respond to it. Eating contests are now a big hit with that coveted Maxim demographic, men aged 18 to 34, especially on ESPN. At events like Philadelphia's Wing Bowl, it's strikingly obvious that we, the ever-expanding Americans, relish this supersized competition. Fagone is hungry to find deeper meaning in the trend. In the occasionally long-winded but likable Horsemen, he demonstrates that competitive eating has become a big business, with Vegas-style hype surrounding it. Training regimens, rumors, and statistics (like 57 burgers in eight minutes) are tossed around on blogs and Web sites. There's even an International Federation of Competitive Eating. And Fagone strains to make a connection between his year-long obsession with the eaters and American values: "Competitive eating wasn't apocalyptic, meaningful, vapid, funny, corn-pone, clever; it wasn't a sign of societal decay or the next great American sport, it wasn't a lark or a fatal indulgence, it wasn't any of those things alone or even all of those things fused together." If that tastes like fodder hoping to be labeled gourmet, you wouldn't be wrong. Fortunately Fagone's, ahem, athlete profiles are more savory. He trails three eaters, Bill "El Wingador" Simmons, Tim "Eater X" Janus, and Dave "Coondog" O'Karma, whose poetry he often quotes. He even travels with Coondog to Japan to meet the famed Takeru Kobayashi, the diminutive six-time winner of Nathan's hot-dog-eating contest, held annually at Coney Island on the Fourth of July. (This year's tally was a record-breaking 53.75 dogs and buns in 12 minutes, a spectacle as disgusting as it sounds.) Horsemen ultimately left me feeling a bit empty inside: I wanted more details about the various eaters and less of Fagone's philosophical rambling. Despite all his excellent bonding and reporting, he seems unwilling to concede that competitive eating may have no social significance whatsoever. Perhaps for his next book, he could tackle Fear Factor.

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