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8 Epic Eating Contests In American History

Pie eating contest in 1921.
Library of Congress
Pie eating contest in 1921.

As America enters the holiday season, chowing down at a crowded table can become a competitive experience. What was once confined to friendly wagers has blossomed into a full-blown industry.

Major League Eating, a U.S.-based group that oversees professional contests around the world, is preparing for a turkey-eating contest in Connecticut this month — a sold-out event with a $10,000 purse — and a shrimp cocktail-eating championship in Indiana in December, which is also sold out. EatFeatsmaintains an extensive database of eating competitions, along with news and a calendar.

"The overall popularity of eating contests really reigns supreme in the United States," says competitive eater Meredith Boxberger, a Canadian who finished fifth in the women's division — downing 18 hot dogs in 10 minutes — at Nathan's annual hot dog-eating contest on Coney Island last July 4. (In this video, you can watch Meredith become the first woman to eat a 7-pound Kookamonga hamburger in Memphis, Tenn.)

Putting The Eat In Defeat

Setting aside the tragic fact that many people do not have enough food, eating contests are as American as, well, as apple pie.

In fact, the Chicago Daily Tribune reported in the fall of 1900 that Otto Schulz humbled Louis Hayes by downing two whole apple — and a blueberry and more than two peach — pies in an epic "gastronomic struggle" at Kelly & O'Flaherty's lunchroom in Evanston, Ill. "Schulz could have eaten more," the reporter observed, "but decided to restrain himself, as he did not care to make Hayes pay too much money, the agreement being that the loser should pay for the pies eaten."

Americans have also traditionally competed in other contests of conspicuous consumption, wolfing down: watermelons, eggs, pasta, corn, crackers, cherries, smelt, perch and sauerkraut, among other comestibles. Here are 8 Notable Eating Contests in American History:

1) Welsh Rarebit, 1899. On a spring night in Nutley, the Welsh rarebit-eating champion of New Jersey was awarded the top trophy — a beer mug. The winner was Conrad H. Ray, described by the Chicago Daily Tribune as a man with "a large mouth and a hungry look." Each competitor provided a chafing dish containing a rarebit — a baked mélange of cheese, beer and other ingredients. "When the nine rarebits had been made," the paper reported, "the starter dropped a napkin and nine faces went down into as many plates. Some of the competitors ate with both hands, scooping the rarebit up with knife and fork, too." The winner downed three-quarters of a gallon.

2) The Manhattan Fat Men's Club, 1909. Three competitive gobblers gathered at the East Third Street establishment on a Sunday. Jack Gossman, who weighed 315 pounds, downed 210 oysters, 6 pounds of steak, nine rolls, 10 cups of coffee and three large pies. Jack Probst, a 320-pound fellow, ate 190 oysters, 12 pounds of steak, 10 rolls, six cups of coffee and four large pies. And the winner, former alderman Frank J. Dotzler, who tipped the scales at 380 pounds, put away 275 oysters, more than 8 pounds of steak, 12 rolls, 11 cups of coffee and three large pies. He won $50.

3) But For Three Stewed Prunes, 1911. Two clerks of the Southern Pacific Railroad — H. Wilkie and W.E. Green — engaged in a "gormandizing contest" in San Francisco, the Los Angeles Times reported. "According to the tally kept by two referees, Green, the winner, consumed one dozen oysters, three sirloin steaks, three orders of potatoes, three orders of rice pudding, one pot of tea, one piece of apple pie, and an order of stewed prunes. Wilkie ate four tenderloin steaks, four orders of French fried potatoes, four orders of rice pudding, one section of pie and all except three of an order of prunes." Following the match, both contestants were taken to the Harbor Emergency Hospital for medical attention.

4) Hotcakes And Sausages, 1929. "Little Woman Beats Husky Man in Eating Contest," was the headline in the Atlanta Constitution when 110-pound Olga Cinek surprised 190-pound Joe Hanley on Thanksgiving Day by eating 27 pancakes and 23 sausages, and drinking six cups of coffee. Hanley only put away 25 pancakes and 21 sausages and washed it all down with three cups of coffee.

5) Roast Chicken, 1936. Housewife Mrs. Claude Potter, wearing a mask, pummeled four male competitors in a poultry-eating contest, the Los Angeles Times reported. Participants signed a waiver that included the phrase: "Broken chicken bones, overstuffing or just plain drowning in chicken are our own responsibility."

6) Dates, 1940. Some 30 girls and boys competed in a date-eating contest at the New York World's Fair, the New York Times reported. Sponsored by an Iraqi restaurant, the competition among the teenagers was judged by stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, jungle explorer Frank Buck and Mr. Jiggs, a trained chimpanzee.

7) Blueberry Muffins, 1974. A 13-year-old boy from Hackensack won a blueberry muffin-snarfing contest at a New Jersey shopping mall. Sponsored by the North American Blueberry Council, the competition required each participant to hold each muffin on a paper plate with one hand and put the other hand behind the back. The winner ate three muffins in two minutes, the New York Times reported.

8) Ice Cream Sundaes, 1976. When the Doctor Jazz ice cream parlor held a sundae-eating contest, top-tier eaters came from as far away as New York to get in on the action. One competitor swabbed the inside of his mouth and throat with mineral oil to help the food go down, the Chicago Tribune reported in 1980. The winner was Hy Polansky. He consumed three gallons of vanilla ice cream, a pint of hot fudge, a quart of whipped cream and one single cherry.

Meredith Boxberger at the 2014 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island.
/ Courtesy of Meredith Boxberger
Courtesy of Meredith Boxberger
Meredith Boxberger at the 2014 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island.

Eats And Feats

A few years ago, a Time story traced eating contests back to a match between the god Loki and a servant — as told in Norse mythology. (The servant triumphs by eating the plate.) Guinness World Records keeps track of some eating feats, such as the man who ate 211 individual cold tinned peas in 3 minutes.

The pastime eventually made its way to America, and American foods, such as hot dogs and hamburgers, became popular fodder for feeding matches. Nathan's has been staging competitive frankfurter feasts for decades. Now the annual affair is one of the biggest eating contests in the world, and it airs on ESPN every year, Meredith Boxberger says.

"As a former athlete, it's a chance to get away from the sometimes monotonous daily grind and relive the adrenaline rush that I used to get from competitive sports," she says about competitive eating. "As for foods that I haven't had the opportunity to eat competitively yet, I would love to eat funnel cake. My inner child just might finally be satisfied."

(This post has been updated.)


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Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linton Weeks joined NPR in the summer of 2008, as its national correspondent for Digital News. He immediately hit the campaign trail, covering the Democratic and Republican National Conventions; fact-checking the debates; and exploring the candidates, the issues and the electorate.