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The State | COLUMN ONE

Enjoying the Fill of Victory

Joey Chestnut is a top `gurgitator' on the power-eating circuit. Binging on asparagus, pork ribs and waffles? It's a gig he can stomach.

September 04, 2006|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

As the curious crowd counted down -- "four, three, two, one!" -- Joey Chestnut hovered over a plate of lukewarm Japanese gyoza dumplings. Flanked by a dozen other "gurgitators" in Los Angeles' Little Tokyo, he gritted his teeth and readied himself.

Months of voracious training -- gorging on food and guzzling up to three gallons of water a day to keep his innards stretched -- have turned the stocky 22-year-old San Jose State engineering student into a red-hot newcomer on the competitive-eating circuit. It's a regular feeding frenzy that's part circus sideshow, World Wrestling Entertainment farce and novelty endurance sport.

Proponents, who make their pitch with the fervor of carnival barkers, say eating events are as American as the hot dog, which, not coincidentally, is consumed at the tour's premier event on Coney Island each July 4.

Critics say the eat-offs are crass and risky spectacles that mock efforts to instill healthy nutritional habits by promoting eating disorders such as gluttony and bulimia. "Signs of a societal decline," Ralph Nader once called such competitions.

Sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, the tour features scores of regular competitors and some 100 events each year -- many staged as adjuncts of fairs and other cultural happenings, such as mid-August's Nisei Week Festival in Little Tokyo.

Chestnut is a binge-eating anomaly. While many power eaters wear garish face paint, hide behind masks or grease their hair into grotesque sculptures, Chestnut is a soft-spoken guy who avoids such cliches.

"I don't go for ski masks or mohawks," he said. "I just like to go out and win. That's my gimmick."

Since joining the tour two years ago, fitting weekend events between college classes and full-time work at a Bay Area construction company, Chestnut has trained with the seriousness of any semi-pro athlete. He's constantly readying his body for that 10-minute onslaught of massive quantities of tiramisu, hot dogs, crab cakes, meatballs, seafood jambalaya, sausages, pizza, baked beans, mayonnaise, raw butter or beef burritos.

The 225-pound Chestnut has set world consumption records for deep-fried asparagus spears (6.25 pounds in 10 minutes), grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes), pork ribs (8.4 pounds in 12 minutes), waffles (18.5 half-pound waffles in 10 minutes) and horseshoe sandwiches, a concoction that includes ham, French fries and a cheesy sauce (6.3 pounds in 12 minutes).

On this Saturday, his goal was to eat the most gyozas in 10 minutes without throwing up -- the gustatory gaffe that tour aficionados euphemistically refer to as a "reversal of fortune."

At the bell, the gorging began. Chestnut violently crammed handfuls of mushy dumplings into his mouth. Competitors call this "the frenzy."

Facing the crowd, standing behind a row of tables, the southpaw used a two-fisted technique, moving the food to his mouth in a blur of motion. Hips swaying, he sipped water, took a few cursory chews and then swallowed.

Chestnut didn't think much of the frozen gyozas he trained on. But these fresh dumplings tasted good. Boiled and then lightly fried, the chicken-and-vegetable snacks weren't greasy, and their rubbery casing didn't stick in his throat. Within two minutes, Chestnut had devoured the first plate of 25 dumplings.

Still, he kept a wary eye on the petite 100-pound woman beside him. No average eater, this was Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas. One of only a handful of female competitors, she is one of the most dominant eaters on the circuit.

The Korean-born Thomas, from Alexandria, Va., holds two dozen records -- including 552 oysters in 10 minutes and 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine. Like a black widow spider, she says she wants to eliminate the men.

So far, Chestnut and Thomas have split a dozen showdowns. He recently overtook her for the No. 2 spot in the federation rankings, behind Takeru "the Tsunami" Kobayashi of Nagano, Japan. Power eating's greatest legend, Kobayashi holds the record for cow brains (17.7 pounds in 15 minutes) and once challenged a Kodiak bear to a two-minute eat-off. (He lost.)

Chestnut felt the Black Widow's presence, a woman who takes eating passionately and studies videotapes of opponents.

As the pair attacked their second plate of dumplings, Thomas resembled trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, her puffed-up cheeks full of gyoza.

Chestnut's face turned beet-red. He had started what's known on the circuit as the "meat sweat."


Joey Chestnut's training in food shoveling came early: at the dinner table as the fourth of five kids in an Irish-Italian family.

"To get second helpings, you had to eat fast and finish your first plate quickly," said Chestnut, who grew up in the Bay Area city of Vallejo. "I was pretty fast."

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