Philadelphia’s infamous pre-Super Bowl wing eating contest has been taking place since 1993, and it is to Philly what Mardi Gras is to New Orleans. It’s a cultural tradition and an excuse for debauchery. It draws tens of thousands of spectators who revel in overeating, overdrinking, and scantily clad strippers.
Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel has written a compelling first hand account of it’s revolting and also redeeming qualities. But what he hasn’t touched on is how the Wing Bowl represents some of the things that America, for better or worse, excels at. Let’s take a look.
Disturbing food waste aside, competitive eating in America looks a lot like a chronically overweight and unhealthy society lionizing people who eat to their physical limit. The farther you can push it, the better, and taking it too far might be the best thing you can do. Perhaps the most famous contestant in the competition’s history is Matt “Sloth” Dutton, whose 2001 projectile hurling has become Wing Bowl legend. The feats that take place at these contests are incredible—the fact that the winner consumed 444 wings in 26 minutes is nothing short of amazing—but it does make you feel for the Surgeon General and anyone else responsible for the nation’s wellbeing.
And let’s not forget the impressive amounts of alcohol consumption that takes place off the field. Extreme sports call for extreme spectating, and Wing Bowl tailgating starts in the early hours of the freezing winter morning.
Warzel filed this report from the field, which sums up how deeply ingrained binge drinking is at the Wing Bowl:
No other country does live sports quite like the U.S.A. When you go to a sports fixture in most places, all you do is watch the game. That’s it. There are no kiss cams, no t-shirt cannons, no cheerleading towers, no halftime shows, no chances to win free cars and cash prizes—essentially no spectacle other than the sport itself.
The Wing Bowl is full of spectacle, its own website describes it as “part sport, part circus, and all entertainment.” Competitors qualify by performing food stunts on the radio, celebrity appearances are de rigeur (this year, former pro wrestler Mick Foley made headlines when he was caught stuffing wings into his fanny pack and subsequently booted from the competition), and there’s a Can Cam that’s dedicated to broadcasting women’s chests to the audience. (Unsurprisingly, there’s a lot of flashing that goes with it.)
According to the official Wing Bowl history, the event was founded in 1993 “when it became apparent the Philadelphia Eagles were not going to make the Super Bowl anytime soon.” You’ve got to love that anti-establishment spirit. By mainstream measures of success Philadelphia was sucking, so the city invented an alternative competition in which it could shine. America is a meritocracy that recognizes people who are good at something, almost regardless of what that thing is or whether there is value to it. The Wing Bowl epitomizes that by turning Everymen into alt-heroes for an ability that is useful to no-one and downright bad for the competitors.
It’s also, by all accounts, a pride parade for the lowbrow. Akin to the Gathering of the Juggalos, it’s an overtly sexist, predominantly white male bacchanal where political correctness goes to die. As offensive and problematic as it may be, one cannot deny that it is freedom of expression in action. And what could be more American that that?
Watch the last few seconds of the 2015 Wing Bowl competition below.