COMPETITIVE EATING: A SPORT IN POOR TASTE
THE LATEST FOOD TREND TO HIT THE UK IS HARD TO SWALLOW
There’s nothing quite like watching people force food down their throats, is there? Nothing to compare to that thrill of seeing someone cram in dozens of chicken nuggets, chewing each one just a couple of times and swilling it all down with water. Or how about that buzz you get from observing a chap picking up fried eggs with his bare hands, slurping them up into his mouth and dribbling the yoke into his beard? I am speaking in jest, of course. (In-gest… did you catch that one?) The latest trend in the UK for competitive eating may make one’s jaw drop, but I’m not sure it’s something we can admire.
If you’re not familiar with the sport, competitive eating takes various forms, nearly all of which avoid cutlery. There are things like hotdog eating contests in which you have to eat as many hotdogs as you can within a given time against dozens of competitors; and then there are more personal events where it’s just you against a mighty challenge set by a restaurant. It might be to eat a cooked breakfast that’s treble the normal size in thirty minutes, or to take down a twenty-six inch pizza single-handed. You typically get the meal free if you’re successful, along with a winner’s t-shirt. You might even get your photo on the restaurant’s wall of fame. And, as with all sports, you’ll find both amateurs and professionals.
Yes, there are now professional eaters! People like Leah Shutkever of the West Midlands, who studied architecture but ditched it all to become Europe’s No.1 female competitive eater and now holds 27 Guinness world records; or there’s Yorkshireman Adam Moran, better known as “Beard Meats Food”, who is ranked 15th in the world and left his corporate job to wolf down food professionally. Much of the income of professionals like these is not from competition winnings but from YouTube and social media. They roam the country taking on challenges in eateries large and small, filming every moment of their gastronomic exploits. And it seems that spectators will tune in by the million to watch their antics. Leah Shutkever even appeared on ITV’s “This Morning” last year, demolishing chicken nuggets while the nation ate its Weetabix.
It’s a thriving scene alright, with restaurants and cafes all over the UK now starting their own eating challenges. You can see the appeal from the business side – an eating challenge is an easy marketing tool. Just combine a few ordinary dishes from your menu into one mega dish and challenge people to finish it and get it for free. Most won’t finish so you won’t lose money. The ones that do finish become social media fodder – easily providing enough promotional value through Instagram snaps, videos, tweets and so on to make up for the cost of the dish. America did it first and we are now following suit. Programmes like “Man versus Food” planted the seed here about a decade ago, opening our eyes to new possibilities and new levels of greed. And now it’s a trend that’s beginning to feel fairly normal here.
But should it be normal? I know it’s all supposed to be a bit of fun, but it strikes me that there’s something incredibly crass about eating in this way. This isn’t the same as being a gourmet. It’s a far cry from being a connoisseur. In fact, it’s the antithesis of all that because the idea with competitive eating is not to appreciate food at all but merely to consume it. I’m not claiming for a moment that I’m never greedy. I certainly am. Once I had a dream about a doughnut and woke up to find my pillow covered in drool. And as a student I used to pride myself on how many plates I could polish off at Chinese all-you-can-eat buffets. On one occasion, I took so long over my meal that my friends got bored and left me alone in the restaurant to finish eating. Another time I ate so much that I burst the moment I stepped out of the restaurant – vomiting all over the street like some sort of lairy lad at the end of a night on the town. A most shameful chapter it was too; but even back then, I did at least appreciate what I was eating.
Competitive eating does not call for discernment. You’re not supposed to savour dishes or take note of the craft of the chef. You’re supposed to behave like a human dustbin. The problem isn’t so much that there are people starving in the world, although that thought isn’t easily suppressed; rather, it’s the sheer mindlessness of it all. Whether on the amateur or professional level, there’s just something so dim and vulgar about it. It’s that same exploitative, brain-dead side of our nature that saw us bring elephants near to extinction just so we could make jewellery and billiard balls out of their tusks. And it’s that same shameful part of human beings that sees us carve up and cement over vast swathes of greenery to build motorways and airports just so we can get around faster.
When an athlete breaks a record, it fills you with respect for the human race. When Eliud Kipchoge completed a marathon last year in just two hours, one minute and nine seconds, it was a moment of amazement, but also of pride. When Eddie Hall became the first human to ever lift half a tonne in 2016, it was a ground-breaking feat that fired the imagination and brought to mind that quote from Pliny the Elder – “How many things are looked upon as quite impossible until they have been achieved?” But when a competitive eater consumes a week’s worth of food in twenty minutes, looking like a pig at a trough and emerging dripping in sweat and gravy, it doesn’t do anything of the sort. It makes you feel ashamed to be human.
I’m not saying that competitive eating is like committing a war crime; or that it holds a candle to sports like bullfighting in the controversy stakes. Of course it doesn’t. But the nature of it does seem a bit off to me. If we are becoming a gawping nation that applauds this stuff, it just feels like we are taking a backwards step. Didn’t Adam Richman have to stop presenting “Man versus Food” for health reasons? This alone should be a warning that we’re not on the right track here. Once again, we seem to be rather too eager to dispense with our own traditions and attitudes and jump on the American bandwagon. Bigger is not always better!