Having just spackled his blood vessel walls with an off-white, viscous paste known scientifically as low density lipoproteins — contained in flaky, cinnamonny tubes by the 17 Palermno cannolis he had just stuffed down his digestive tract in six minutes — Crazy Legs Conte was in a hurry.
“I’m currently employed at the Penthouse Executive Club, and I’m still on the clock,” he said. “So I’ll head back to a swanky strip club. Now, it’s mostly natural digestion — it’s the anaconda diet.”
He had cannoli shrapnel, the bulk of which was white, ricotta-based cream, embedded in his goatee. Some fragments had even flown past his face and now clung to his brown dreadlocks, which seemed to be more a hairstyle chosen by sloth (hair will naturally dread when chronically unwashed) than aesthetics. And he was smiling.
When he did so, it was immediately clear that he had not quite chewed everything all the way through.
“A Palermo cannoli — very dense, rich food, tough shell — in a way they’re meant to be enjoyed perhaps one in six minutes,” Crazy Legs said, spitting a little. “Eating 17 in six minutes is a bit much. But at the same time they settle well. I had a little coffee, but as crowded as the San Gennaro Festival is, my lower intestines are that crowded.”
But in the 6th annual Cannoli Eating Contest, sanctioned by Major League Eating and a part of the 80th annual San Gennaro Street Festival in Little Italy, NYC, the only concrete thing he toted back to the strip club with him were the 6358 calories and 289 grams of fat. He’s won in the past. But today belonged to, for the second year in a row, a young man by the name of Eater X, who downed 21 — five shy of the record he tied in 2006 — to beat the six other contestants. Behind Conte finished Allen Goldstein and Nate Biller, with 16. (EatFeats.com has the final tally)
(On the right, comparing cannolis with the MC, who called himself Aquafresh)
X, at a pace of more than 249.3 calories per minute (.8 cannolis) faster than Conte, took home the trophy and, as the officials advertised, ‘Eternal Glory.’ At this point, you can start referring to the components in larger units; grams just won’t suffice. X, also known as Tim Janus, the fourth-rated eater in the world in the International Federation of Competitive Eating rankings, took in more than three-quarters of a pound of pure fat, a third of that saturated. At this point, calories aren’t convertible energy: they’re sandbags.
To burn off such intake requires, according to CalorieKing, 36.03 hours of walking. Eight-hundred, ninety-two minutes of straight jogging (Marathons, mind you, take trained runners around 240 minutes, on average). More than 350 minutes of swimming. Not even a great purge — which, if done within minutes of the competition disqualifies the contestant — could undo the damage levied on the human anatomy by this barrage of a delicacy that, even on the most generous food pyramid, is recommended to be eaten sparingly.
“I didn’t do anything [to train],” Janus, who started competitive eating three-and-a-half years ago, after coming to New York to work on Wall Street, said. “It’s tough to train for these things. I don’t think there’s much method to it. It’s just a chaotic food to eat, so you just go willy-nilly and shove it in and see what happens.”
But stats only extend so far in descriptiveness. Even these numbers, which seem to lop months off lives as they climb higher don’t tell the story. The scene, which transpires and passes with both the human destructiveness and pace of a tornado inverting a village, is both horrific and mesmerizing. And the sight wasn’t made any less absurd by the juxtaposition of “Don’tcha (Wish your Girlfriend Was Hot Like Me?)” in the background.
When the gun goes off, pairs of hands dive into a plate of brown pastry cylinders with white bulging from both ends. Specks fly into the air and drift gradually down to the stage, tossed into the air by the upward thrust of the non-eating hand on the cup. In the early stages, etiquette inexplicably reigns. It’s eating, just in fast-forward.
Eater Six had six, Crazy Legs, five. But around the turn, things grow sloppy. And slower. Cannolis aren’t hot dogs. Nor are they burgers, hot wings, jalapenos, cabbage, french fries, Polish sausages, Italian sausages, German sausages, sauerkraut, pizza, lasagna, ribs or any of the other more substantive matter consumed in these feats of feast.
They’re like nothing else, really. They’re vein-bombs of soft, sweet cheese stuffed inside crispy shells, seemingly harmless and benign. And that’s where the problems start.
“It’s very rich,” said Don Lerman, one of the pioneers of competitive eating and the head judge for the Cannoli competition. “It’s not made for speed.”
The pros worked on a pace, gorging to an imagined beat. They came equipped with water or coffee — the only two liquids banned on the stage in any event are alcohol and soup — and dunked, chased and/or primed each tube of lard.
“The dunk is a long-honored tradition in sports, from basketball to cannoli-eating,” Crazy Legs said. “So I do try to honor that. But at the same time, a lot of it is mind over stomach matter. Your stomach can fill up, but your mind can’t.”
But even the professionals — I’m not sure where one transitions from avid glutton to professional — were caught off-guard. The day’s weather, an overcast and crisp 74 degrees on the cusp of fall, was a positive for everyone but those on the stage.
“A lot of it has to do with the humidity,” Crazy Legs said. “Last year, it was very humid. A lot of times we’ll bring litmus paper and do a pH balance on the air just to gauge how tough the shells are gonna be. This year, slightly overcast, they stayed hard and firm, as if the cannolis were revolting against the fact that 70 of them were gonna be eaten in six minutes.”
“When this contest starts, you’re gonna see an eating frenzy like you never saw in your life,” Lerman said. “Except maybe in the shark tank at feeding time. I caution the general public, please don’t attempt this at home.”
The last four minutes differentiated the professional from the sane. Although Janus and Crazy Legs slowed, they maintained their technique: sip, stuff, chug. The less-trained resorted to picking apart the cannolis or dividing the cannolis (ala the Kobayashi hot-dog style) or smashing the cannolis and eating the bits or letting a cannoli sit in their water or coffee cup for 20 seconds before cramming it.
Biller, the man in the orange, employed all of the styles:
At the halfway mark, Janus was a cannoli off his record pace from a year prior. But by that time, everyone else was so far off his pace that he could have virtually skipped the last minute and won.
In an age of sweeping democratization, where anybody can be heard (like Chris Crocker, for one), one could be forgiven for assuming that this is another indication of everything’s extension to everyone: a ‘sport’ for the masses, if not the massive. A practice brought down to the lowest and fattest common denominator. A discipline for those without it.
The world of competitive eating has assembled an impressively bureaucratic structure, under the umbrella of the International Federation of Competitive Eating and its child, Major League Eating.
The Nathan’s Hot Dog-eating contest remains the highlight of the season’s schedule, the point when every major eater stands in front of the world and finds new pockets of his or herself into which they can cram food.
“It’s our Super Bowl,” Janus, Eater X, said.
But it’s more along the lines of a major horse race. All year long, contestants compete in lesser, more fringe events to make their stomachs more elastic and dispostions more masochistic and create stir for when the Fourth of July comes around. Each week offers a new competition in a different ‘discipline,’ some more important than others, all leading up to the main event on the Fourth.
There’s a small debate over whether competitive eating actually qualifies as a sport. It’s a small debate, one that occurs only in small pockets of daily American dialogue, because the overwhelming majority of the planet cannot imagine such a thing occurring.
A Tokyo reporter named Noriaka Takada competed, promptly eating only four cannolis and finishing dead last, a feat for which he was awarded a Luciana Pavarotti ‘box set.’ (It was a cardboard box with a picture of Pavarotti on it and a picture of a shirtless Hasselhoff on the beach inside)
“He doesn’t know why anyone would ever do this,” his translator told me.
But the practice is as much a freak show as it is a sport. The same vernacular — ‘push through,’ ‘prepare,’ ‘practice,’ ‘get mentally ready’ — that’s used in sports permeates competitive eating. And certainly, the words come with a bit of an ironic tint. But they don’t finish that way.
It requires some immense concentration and will to fight the impulses that have been native to humans for their lifetimes, namely the urge to stop. You can’t stop, just like sports, until the whistle blows. And where the body can be trained to run very fast and jump very high and run into other objects as hard as possible, so it can be trained to expand beyond its prior limitations to accept punishment in the form of food. The Romans in their orgiastic vomitoria had nothing on these guys (or girls).
So it is that human nature, basic physiology, becomes a nuisance. An unforgivable weakness.
Sonja “The Slender Sickle of Death” Thomas ate 11 pounds of cheesecake, which amounts to more than 10 percent of her body mass. One of the judges at the Cannoli contest once ate nine pounds of cabbage in five minutes — it wasn’t said whether it was in or out of competition.
“I love food so much, and the one thing I’ve found is I really hate to be full,” Eater X said. “Now more than ever.”
“You know, in most competitions, that’s all I eat in a 24-to-36 hour period,” Crazy Legs said. “But in the San Gennaro Feast, I consider this pressert. Now I can move onto maybe an Italian sausage.”
Such self-brutality invariably spawns characters. And so you have personalities like Crazy Legs, Eater X, Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and the currently retired Eric “Badlands” Booker, each a promotion in his self. Booker, who retired to work on a hip-hop album inspired by competitive eating (he told me to make sure to include the link: myspace.com/badlandsbooker), performed before the spectacle:
Bill Myers, 341 pounds of him, stayed a cannoli behind the leaders the whole time, eventually finishing fifth. The man, whose knees resemble uncooked, toppling dough, speaks to what’s happened to this discipline. He’s a relic from time gone by, when eating a great deal quickly was the preserve of those who did so for pleasure. But in recent years, sparked, of course, by Kobayashi, men with builds that belong to athletes have taken control.
So if it has the discipline, focus and pain-denial of a sport and competitors who look like athletes, competitive eating has evolved, indeed, into something that resembles a sport. And if we can call car racing a sport, can we not, this?
Eh, maybe not.