Larry Butler is losing his chops. That's bad.
It was really a matter of timing more than anything else. In the summer of 2001, Fox TV called Larry at his Morrison home, practically begging him to compete in a televised tournament. "I was still ranked quite high," he recalls. But then came September 11, and by the time the Fox event was rescheduled, Larry was out of vacation, and he had to pass.
The year before, even though he was the two-time defending Arizona state champ, Larry had to skip that competition, too. The insurance-underwriting business came first then, as well.
The last time Larry seriously competed was at the 2000 national championships in New York City. He jammed a respectable sixteen Nathan's Coney Island hot dogs into his mouth in under ten minutes. It was an awesome performance for Larry, a personal best.
He could've done more, too. But with his gut expanding and the buns going down harder and harder, Larry made a tough -- but gastronomically sound -- decision. "I could've done eighteen," he recalls. "But the Japanese guy was there, and as we got toward the end he was already at 24 or 25. I knew I never was going to get there. So I stopped with two minutes left."
It was a good time to bail. The 2000 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is now widely recognized as a turning point, the last year when sane numbers were still being eaten. Continuing a reign of Japanese dominance, the winner that year, Kazutoyo "the Rabbit" Arai, choked down 25 and one-eighth dogs. Impressive numbers, sure, but nothing compared with what was to come.
For the past two years, the frankfurter game has been dominated by Takeru Kobayashi, another in a long line of tiny Asian men with ungodly appetites and a seemingly bottomless capacity for wieners. In 2001, he pulled a Bob Beaman, taking the sport to levels never dreamed of by other competitors -- even those more than two times his size.
Only five minutes into the contest, Kobayashi had already broken the U.S. record. By the time the twelve minutes were up, the new benchmark was more than double the old: a Cool Hand Luke-ish fifty hot dogs. It was as if a runner had sprinted a two-minute mile. The 130-pound Kobayashi took the title again this year, although less spectacularly -- in fact, almost tauntingly -- eating fifty and one-half dogs.
Competitive eating has occured in some form or another for eons. As one Web site dedicated to its history notes, "If you have thirty hungry Neanderthals in a cave and a rabbit walks in, that's a competitive eating situation." The recent boom in the gut-bloating tournaments began about six years ago. It started as many great trends do: with a public-relations campaign.
A Coney Island institution, Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs had been holding wiener eat-offs since 1918. In 1991, a team of brothers in the PR business, George and William Shea, took over promotional duties for the event when the man who'd held the job for many years passed away. The brothers built aggressively on the tradition, coming up with more and more stunts that could bring in additional publicity; their ideas attracted larger numbers of contestants and spectators. In 1996, they invented their best act ever: the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE).
For reasons that defy digestion, the idea took off. Today, there is an entire competitive-eating circuit: chicken wings (Philadelphia) and matzo balls (New York) in January; bratwurst (Hanover, Germany) in February; jalapeño peppers (Texas) in March; and on through the year with oysters, Jell-O, bass, pickled quail eggs and so on. Still, gobbling hot dogs is considered the Super Bowl of the sport, and the annual July 4 Nathan's championship is the high point of the season.
Since its inception, the IFOCE has kept scrupulous records of gluttonous achievements, many of which are awe-inspiring, in a stomach-lurching sort of way. In addition to the hot-dog record, for example, Kobayashi also owns the high mark for cow brains -- 17.7 pounds (or 57 bovine cerebrums) in fifteen minutes. This spring, Don Lerman broke the record for butter -- seven quarter-pound sticks in five minutes -- on the same day that Dominic Cardo set a new standard for pickled beef tongue, 19 ounces in twelve minutes. Two months later, in New Orleans, Crazy Legs Conti managed to slide 268 oysters down his throat in ten minutes -- another history-making accomplishment.
Although its contribution to gastronomy may be questionable, the Sheas' federation has been a definite boon for their original client. "Nathan's has gotten more than thirty minutes on the Today Show in the past year, okay? That says it all," says George Shea. "There are two documentaries being made, on Discovery and the Food Channel. Each has ten full minutes -- ten full minutes! -- of Nathan's exposure. I mean, this has been huge."
He continues: "And we're always coming up with new things. We developed an idea a few years ago, a weigh-in for the event. It's held a day before the contest to get an extra day of publicity. The first year we invited Mayor Giuliani, and he had so much fun he came back. This year, Mayor Bloomberg was there. Every year they put on a Nathan's straw hat. How much is that worth in publicity? One hundred thousand dollars? Two hundred thousand dollars? A million? You tell me. You cannot buy publicity like that."
Of course, the IFOCE has worked out pretty well for the Shea brothers, too. "Without any doubt, the federation has attracted a ton of business," George admits. "The Nathan's account was the foundation of our business." The exposure has generated inquiries from admirers as diverse as Hostess Twinkies and the NBA's Minnesota Timberwolves. And that's not counting the money that someday could be generated by the federation itself. Shea Communications has trademark protection on the International Federation of Competitive Eating's name, images and competitive-eating circuit. The brothers also have management agreements with the most popular competitors.
There is plenty of room to grow, too. Competitive eating is a professional sport in Japan, George points out, with top noshers like Kobayashi earning a comfortable living from purses and endorsements.
George stresses that he strives to guide the sport in a responsible way. For example, "Safety is a real focus with us," he says. "This is not an event for children. We had a guy call us to ask if we would sanction a pizza-eating contest for ten-year-olds. I said, 'Are you nuts?' And we make sure an EMT is on-site for competitions."
Because he is so visible in the sport, George also has been the point man for the scattered complaints that arise from time to time concerning chow contests. Most commonly, critics have objected that the massive feats of mastication are sinful. George responds that big eating is not a sin, in the same way that sleeping late occasionally is not sloth.
"This is not gluttony," he argues. "We are not out to celebrate gluttony. This is a sport. These people don't eat gluttonously day-to-day."
In a recent BBC interview, George was asked how he could promote tournaments celebrating such extremely conspicuous consumption when people are starving all over the world. "How could you have a swimming pool when there's a drought in Africa?" he replied.
A big man, a hungry man, a man with natural capacity, Larry Butler had always had the physique to be a competitive eater. But it wasn't until college that he first showed an aptitude for consumption under pressure. He won a pizza-eating contest, pounding eighteen slices of pie in ten minutes. The prize: a half-keg of beer. "Luckily, you could pick up the keg anytime you wanted to," he recalls. "I didn't feel much like drinking beer that night."
After college, he moved around a bit, landing eventually in Arizona to attend graduate school. In June 1999, he and a friend were attending the opening of the latest Star Wars flick. Anticipating long lines, they had arrived a couple of hours early. While waiting, they happened by a Nathan's stand; a sign advertising a hot-dog-eating contest caught Larry's eye.
Larry decided to go. The food court was packed; there must have been 500 spectators. He and two dozen other contestants sat at long tables and waited for their wieners. "It was weird," he admits. "I didn't know much about the sport then."
Seven minutes into the competition, there were only five eaters left. With two minutes to go, it was down to Larry and one other contestant. At the thirty-second mark, the other guy just...stopped. He was fed up. His victory assured, Larry stopped chewing. "One thing about this kind of contest is you don't want to eat more than you have to," he explains. "You don't want to win by five."
Larry's total of just over eleven dogs and accompanying buns was enough to earn the title of Arizona state hot-dog-eating champ. It also bought him a trip to New York for the nationals, where he chowed down in front of about 3,000 spectators. "I also met [subway vigilante] Bernhard Goetz," he remembers. "He was one of the vegetarian protesters. I said, 'Hey, you're Bernhard Goetz!' I didn't want to piss him off; he's got a short temper."
Everything considered, Larry performed admirably, finishing in the middle of the pack. "Basically, I was a neophyte at that time," he says. Although most contestants were there to have fun, "a few were serious competitors. They'd been training, like you would for tennis. I'd never actually done the training part." (George Shea says that while the IFOCE endorses only water training, several top eaters have started using cabbage, which has few calories and expands in -- and thus stretches -- the stomach.)
In 2000, Larry retraced his path, winning the Arizona contest in his by-now familiar tortoise style. "I'm more of a steady eater throughout the contest," he says. "You have rabbits who after a couple of minutes have eaten eight hot dogs. But they fade."
This time around, Larry also saw the ugly side of competitive eating when the man next to him threw up on his own shoes (according to IFOCE rules, this disqualified him from the tournament). "That was kind of unnerving," Larry admits.
Back in New York for a second championship tournament, Larry again comported himself commendably, out-eating some, out-chowed by others. Later that evening, desirous of a snack, he tried to empty his stomach. "Couldn't do it," he says. "I don't know how those girls manage it."
He also observed one of the great mysteries of competitive eating. "The American competitors were largest -- I'd say averaging 300 to 400 pounds," he says. "But it was the Japanese who seemed to be doing all the winning. It's just amazing how these little guys pack it away." Imagine a Tokyo football team flying to Denver and knocking off the Broncos, and you can grasp the magnitude of the puzzle.
Why isn't bigger better? Some theorists have credited the Asians' technique. The Japanese have found great success using the water-dipping method, in which the hot dog is dunked into a glass of water. This compresses the bun and makes the whole package slide down the gullet more easily. Others have won with the "dogs first, buns later" gambit, in which the dog and bun are disjoined. The meat portion usually is consumed first, with the bread then mashed into a dense ball, masticated and swallowed. This year, Kobayashi pioneered the so-called "Solomon method," breaking each frankfurter in half and jamming both pieces into his mouth at once.
Still, most observers agree that technique alone does not offer a satisfactory explanation. A former American champ has also proposed the "belt of fat" theory. It suggests that Americans can't win because of their size -- that the adipose layer which looks so capacious actually prohibits the stomach from expanding.
One point on which everyone does agree is that top-level eating is absolutely a sport. "You keep score. So it's more of a sport than gymnastics or figure skating," Larry points out. "It's definitely competitive. And there's a point of pain that you have to work through." He notes that he typically puts on several pounds during a tournament, and his body temperature rises three or four degrees while meat processing.
Larry and I agree to meet at Coney Island Hot Dog in Aspen Park -- the giant wiener-shaped wiener stand in the foothills southwest of Denver. Larry orders a foot-long and garnishes it generously. The forty-year-old's technique remains elegant and effortless. The meat cylinder and its bread housing disappear from the paper boat almost as an afterthought. He doesn't break a sweat.
"The reason I haven't competed recently," he says between bites, "is that Colorado doesn't have anyplace sponsoring a contest." Properly appalled, I decided to take action. With a line snaking around the front of the giant stucco sausage, we walk around back and pound on the employee entrance and ask for the manager. A fiftyish woman with Texas hair and an exasperated expression pushes the door halfway open.
"What do you want?" she says.
"Do you know who this is?" I ask, nodding at Larry.
She looks his six-foot, 260-pound frame up and down. "No."
"He's the Arizona state hot dog-eating champ," I say proudly. "You really don't recognize him?"
She stares at us. I press on. "Well, anyway, there's no sanctioned hot-dog-eating contest in Colorado. So how about you take that on?"
She doesn't hesitate. "No."
"Never?" I persist.
She shakes her head. "I can't do that," she says, then adds, "I've got to go." The door slams behind her as she disappears back into the big dog.
"Oh, well," says Larry. "Maybe next year."
Get the Weekly Newsletter