These days, even at the most esteemed restaurants, it can feel like eating is sport. The loosening of one’s belt at a steakhouse dinner is announced as a point of pride, and it’s not uncommon to hear celebrated chefs talking about trying to “kill” patrons—or one another—with onslaughts of duck fat, bacon, and foie gras. Meanwhile, the entertainment we consume takes this celebration of gluttony to the extreme: The stand-and-stir cooking shows of the Julia Child era have given way to programs like Man Versus Food, Epic Meal Time, and other dude food–fueled orgies of unbridled gluttony.
Legend has it that four immigrants competed in the first Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest in order to determine was was most patriotic.
But to suggest that this approach to eating is anything new would be disingenuous—America done been gluttonous, son, and the notorious Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest hosted by Nathan’s Famous dates all the way back to 1916. (Legend has it that four immigrants competed in order to determine was was most patriotic, and an Irishman took the crown.) Competitive eating has reared its head throughout modern American history, from fairground pie contests to Guinness World Record side-shows, like the time Eddie “Bozo” Miller ate 27 roast chickens in one sitting at Trader Vic’s in 1963. And who can forget that 2003 episode of FOX’s Man vs. Beast when competitive-eating legend Takeru Kobayashi went head to head with a Kodiak bear?
From attempts to eat the most hamburgers in three minutes (Kobayashi holds the current record with 10) to spicy-food hosted in bars and frat houses across the country, competitive eating is part of our national heritage, whether we like it or not. And while waste and gluttony are not really worthy of celebration, there’s no denying the visceral, car-crash joys of watching someone struggle through that 85th wing, or react to the first hit of capsaicin attacking his tongue like an electric shock. Here, we take a look at the struggle faces of competitive eating—whether you see them as a cautionary tale or a call-to-arms is up to you.