Eat This Book: A Year of Gorging and Glory on the Competitive Eating Circuit

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Macmillan, Apr 4, 2006 - Biography & Autobiography - 308 pages
3 Reviews
Journalist Ryan Nerz spent a year penetrating the highest echelons of international competitive eating and Eat This Book is the fascinating and gut-bustingly hilarious account of his journey.
Nerz gives us all the facts about the history of the IFOCE (Independent Federation of Competitive Eating)--from the story of a clever Nathan's promotion that began in 1916 on the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island to the intricacies of individual international competitions, the controversial Belt of Fat Theory and the corporate wars to control this exploding sport. He keeps the reader turning the pages as we are swept up in the lives of Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, "Cookie" Jarvis, "Hungry" Charles Hardy, and many other top gurgitators whose egos and secret agendas, hopes and dreams are revealed in dramatic detail. As Nerz goes on his own quest to become a top gurgitator, we become obsessed with him as he lies awake at night in physical pain from downing dozens of burgers and learning to chug gallons of water to expand his increasingly abused stomach.
Sparing no one's appetite, Nerz reveals the training, game-day strategies and after-effects of competition in this delectably shocking banquet of gluttony and glory on the competitive eating circuit.


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User Review  - bonathanjarrett - LibraryThing

We've all felt that gut busting feeling after consuming a huge meal. There are guys and gals out there who welcome that feeling; they train for that feeling. They are the athletes on the International ... Read full review

Eat this book: a year of gorging and glory on the competitive eating circuit

User Review  - Not Available - Book Verdict

Freelance journalist Nerz, who serves as a part-time announcer for the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), the governing body for sanctioned eating contests, explores the history ... Read full review


Bedlam in Philly
A Carnival Barker in Training
The Gentle Gigantic Warrior
Meat Pies in Natchitoches
The Eruption of Dale Boone
A NotSoBrief History of Competitive Eating
The Mardi Gras Maneuver
Ed Krachie and the Belt of Fat Theory
The Secessionists
Noodles and the Roman Incident
The First Couple of Competitive Eating
On the Wing Tour with the Black Widow
Nathans Famous on the Fourth of luly
Lunch with the Greatest Eater Alive
Soaring on the Wings of a Buffalo
The Godfather

Corned Beef Cabbage and Characters
Moses of the Alimentary Canal
The Emperor of Ice Cream
Downing DeepFried Asparagus
For and Against Competitive Eating as a Sport
Escape from the Popcorn Sarcophagus
Training for Gurgitory Greatness
Downing Sliders on the Krystal Circuit
Wing Bowl XIII The End of the Line
IFOCE Competitive Eating Records

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About the author (2006)

EAT THIS BOOK (Chapter 1)A Carnival Barker in Training

Observe the Shea brothers, press agents by trade, carnival barkers in spirit, as they do, in tandem, the most exquisite deadpan in both businesses.

--Joyce Wadler, The New York Times

George Shea (right) chuckles at a comment made by his brother, Rich Shea, during the introduction of the September 2003 Cannoli Eating Contest, part of the Feast of San Gennaro in New York''s Little Italy. (Courtesy of Matt Roberts/IFOCE)

Ever since I was a young boy, I''ve wanted to be a competitive-eating emcee. Okay, that''s a lie, but it''s not as far-fetched as it sounds. When I moved to New York after graduating from an Ivy League college in 1997, I wanted to become a writer. My first job was as an editor of children''s books, but I grew tired of editing other people''s material and quit. I began writing whatever the world would pay me to write--pseudonymous contributions to the Sweet Valley High series, unauthorized biographies of teen stars, restaurant and music reviews. I used my friends'' names for characters in steamy teen-romance novels, which amused them greatly. As the author of a character guide to Digimon, a popular Japanimation TV show on the Fox Kids network, I found myself almost disturbingly excited to sit around watching cartoons each afternoon. The pay wasn''t overwhelming, but I was having a blast in New York and my job provided priceless conversation at parties and on dates.

To pay the bills, I took odd jobs. I waited tables, conducted exit polls, edited personal essays for college applicants, and even modeled for the covers of young-adult novels. On the side, I wrote short stories and screenplays, all the while filling notebooks with ideas for my big breakthrough in the glamorous world of media--but it never came. In the fall of 2001, I fled New York for Berlin to improve my German and write a "real" novel.

Upon my return to the Big Apple in 2002, I decided that "entertainer" was a more apt description of what I wanted to be. I took acting classes and got headshots made. While acting in a dreadful off-off-Broadway play, I found myself reading a novel backstage instead of focusing on my lines. For reasons that eluded everyone but me, I charged a $700 wolf mascot costume to my credit card. It arrived in a giant box, and I immediately began planning my debut as a performance artist.

After e-mailing dozens of friends, I showed up in the costume on the corner of Prince and Broadway, in Manhattan''s chic SoHo district. I placed my cassette player on the ground and pushed play. The idea was to do a sort of live music video that would turn heads and shake up all those dead-serious downtown fashionistas. Despite a particularly moving flute solo, the Wolf garnered a total of $5 for his efforts. Sadly, this performance felt more on-point than anything else I''d done to date. It was at the very least original and felt like a step toward one of my major life goals--getting paid to play.

In June of 2003, I met for drinks with an old buddy, Dave Baer, who shares my interest in all things absurd. He was working for a company called the International Federation of Competitive Eating. I was aware of his offbeat job, having accompanied him back in 1997 to a hot-dog-eating contest in the food court of a mall in upstate New York. My only memory was that Dave, in an attempt to recruit competitors, had played a song from the Boogie Nights sound track. The song was "You Sexy Thing," by Hot Chocolate, and the chorus began as follows: "I believe in miracles / Where you from? / You sexy thing." When it came around to the chorus, Dave crooned his own falsetto version into the microphone: "I believe dogs!" The mallgoers stared up from their food trays, confused, while I doubled over with laughter.

Over drinks, Dave explained that the IFOCE, or the "circuit," as he called it, was growing at an improbably fast rate. He described one of his favorite "gurgitators," Eric "Badlands" Booker, an affable subway conductor on New York''s 7 line, who trained by meditating and eating huge portions of cabbage. I was intrigued. The next day, I pitched the idea of chronicling a "training meal" for the Nathan''s Famous Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest to an editor at the Village Voice. Within a few hours, they offered to pay me fifty cents a word for the piece.

A few months later, I received an e-mail from Dave that changed my life. Would I be interested in hosting a Meat Pie Eating Competition in Natchitoches, Louisiana? They would pick up my travel expenses and pay me fairly handsomely for a few hours of work. It was a no-brainer. Frankly, I would have considered such an undertaking pro bono. My only questions were, What in the Sam Hill is a meat pie? And how do you pronounce Natchitoches?

Of course, I had no conception that this strange gig would turn into hundreds of gigs. I had no clue that "competitive eating emcee" would become my job title, that I would befriend dozens of pro eaters and write a book on the subject. I couldn''t have imagined announcing an onion-eating contest in Maui, or witnessing the circuit''s first-ever Heimlich maneuver at a jambalaya-eating contest. I couldn''t have known that I would emcee the Nathan''s Famous contest on the Fourth of July after appearing on the Today show, and later compete against the great Kobayashi in a burger-eating contest. At the time, it just seemed like an amusing adventure, some quick cash, and a funny story to tell my friends.

I was told to report to IFOCE headquarters for a brief tutorial. The office is in Chelsea, a trendy section of Manhattan, on the fourth floor. I na´vely expected the International Federation of Competitive Eating''s office space to have an odd carnival feel to it. I imagined a training room in the back where one watched through observation windows huge men shove food down their gullets. There would be rows of cubicles with employees'' feet kicked up on their desks, laughing hysterically into their phones. Perhaps a few eaters would be in cages, fed on occasion and released only before big contests.

In reality the vibe at IFOCE HQ is serious and diligent. (This is not to say it''s normal. On one visit, I found the office filled with giant metal boxes that held corporate mascots like Charlie Tuna, the Michelin Man, Crash Test Dummy, and the California Raisin.) The office looks like your standard Manhattan corporate loft space, with five partially enclosed offices around the perimeter, four desks in an airy middle section, and a conference room with an oval table and a television.

I met with Dave Baer, along with George and Rich Shea, the brother duo who founded the IFOCE, in the conference room. My instructions were straightforward. All eaters had to be over the age of eighteen, the reasoning being that if you''re old enough to vote, you''re old enough to gorge responsibly. Each contestant had to sign a waiver that I would later return to the office. Under no circumstances would I allow eaters to compete who were underaged, under the influence of alcohol or drugs, or otherwise mentally or emotionally incapacitated.

I was given a checklist for hosting the contest. It included such details as food prep, quantity, and delivery, table space, sponsor signage, sufficient water for eaters, contest judges, eater relations, and sound system prep. There would be an emergency medical technician (EMT) at the event in case of, well, an emergency. I was not to start the competition until I had confirmed that an EMT was present.

As for the presentation, I was told to "provide maximum pageantry." I would start the show with a broad introduction to the sport of competitive eating. Such background info as speed-eating records and the history of the Nathan''s Famous contest would help distinguish the event as a sport, as opposed to a local pie-eating contest. Then I would narrow the scope of my monologue to the event of the day, which in this case would be meat pies.

As a host, my job was to let a story unravel before the spectators'' eyes. I had to strike a delicate balance between the facts--that we were witnessing history in the form of a first-ever meat-pie-eating record on the professional speed-eating circuit--and the inherent absurdity of the affair. George and Rich stressed that I should capture the depth of the sport, explaining that some eaters were rookies with natural capacity but mediocre jaw strength, while others were sprinters who might not have the endurance to go the distance. I would bring a stopwatch and keep track of the time for the audience and eaters.

To establish drama, I would announce eaters in order of their experience or perceived abilities. Local eaters hungry for victory were introduced first, and then any IFOCE-ranked eaters, whose eating exploits should be memorized and duly embellished. To help get the crowd emotionally invested in the contest, I would stress that the local eaters were going up against professionals--"ringers" brought in from out of town. Using melodramatic background music and straight-faced commentary, I would capture at once a humorous spectacle and a dramatic sporting event.

My uniform would be that of a turn-of-the-century carnival barker. Regardless of weather or inclination, I would wear a blue blazer and a tie. George Shea handed me an Italian-made straw boater laced with a blue-and-red ribbon. I must confess that I experienced a visceral surge of pride upon receiving the hat. It was circular with a stiff brim, a style rarely seen since the 1930s. I got the sense that it could transform me into an almost fictional character, allowing me to say things I normally wouldn''t. As I was leaving the office, hat in hand, it occurred to me that this whole IFOCE thing treaded a fine line between fiction and reality, and I was deeply curious t

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