Fear and Gorging at Wing Bowl: The Diary of a Competitive Eater
In an age of ballooning obesity, it’s hard to swallow the fact that gluttony is now an official sport. The professional “gladiators of the esophagus” are represented by The IFOCE (International Federation of Competitive Eating) and they train, compete and receive sponsorships (nearly $350,000 in prize money annually) for their Major League Eating.
Jason “Crazy Legs” Conti ranks 17th in the competitive eating circuit and holds one of the federation’s most stomach churning records: downing 168 oysters in 10 minutes. Conti’s long-term gastro-goal, however is much more lofty: “Competitive Eating as an exhibition sport in the Olympics.”
Conti began eating competitively nearly a decade ago, and has more on his plate than a preposterous amount of food: He graduated from John Hopkins, starred in a documentary, “Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating” and has worked a bevy of jobs from nude model to window washer to screenwriter. He’s also currently the beverage manager of two “upscale” strip clubs in Manhattan.
“Instead of being On the Road, I’m on the plate,” says the self-described “eatnik.” “I consider myself honoring the long tradition of Jack Kerouac and The Beats and Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters – This is my chance to see the country, one bite at a time.”
Conti recently chronicled 48 hours during his last cameo-competitive eating appearance, The Philadelphia Wingbowl, considered the Superbowl for competitive eaters.
Thursday: The Wing Bowl
Wing Bowl consists of tailgating, and then packing the Wachovia Center with 20,000 inebriated Philly meatheads. The parade features twenty-five amateur chicken wing eaters (who partake in 32-minute three-round eating contests — the winner gets a car), their entourages, crudely-constructed floats, and “Wingettes” – local strip club strippers and morally casual women. The sponsors determine Wing Bowl to be a success as long as no one dies. I have attended for the past five years. Each year, I pray I never have to return.
I am on the frigid corner of 34th and 8th about to board the Bolt Bus to Philly. The bus is about to pull out without my traveling companion, Eric “Badlands” Booker. Booker is a fellow competitive eater, and at over 400 pounds, he cuts an impressive swath. Despite his man mountain status, he is sweet on the world, like the universe’s largest Hershey kiss. His tragic flaw, however, is that he is notoriously late – sometimes by three days. As the bus is about to depart, Badlands boards huffing and puffing.
I brought sandwiches for Badlands and I from Salumeria Biellese, a hole-in-the-wall French and Italian charcuterie place that acts like a meat beacon to my stomach. I have a spicy sopresetta with provolone and a capicola with mozzarella. I also brought a dried fennel boar sausage as a gift for Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, another competitive eater and aspiring celebrity chef.
Badlands and I split the sandwiches and discuss Jay Z’s new album, movies, and the upcoming Catfish Eating World Championship. It is a pleasant ride.
We are dropped off along the highway of the Cherry Hill Mall and await a pick-up from US Male, the crawfish-eating champ of the world. He is also a NJ mail carrier, but chooses to spell his nickname referring to his Y chromosome and not his job.
But he’s late. Badlands and I take shelter across the highway at the Red Lobster. I have three Yuengling beers and call the manager over to discuss their “Ameripure” Oysters. He tells me that the pasteurization process allows them to serve the oysters safely. I tell him that it is a jingoistic practice pitting our American insecurities against the welcoming Gulf mollusk. Our voices keep rising, until a table of women recognizes Badlands from his “Wife Swap” appearance and then we all take photos together.
US Male finally arrives. I refuse to waver on my anti-Ameripure stance, so we leave.
Arrive at The Trappe Tavern. “The Trap,” as it is known to the locals, is the booze hole gathering spot for Rick the Manager’s entourage — he has moved latterly to being a manager of Wingettes (chicken-wing cheerleaders). Rick is a popular guy at this year’s Wing Bowl, and we are slated to enter the arena second to last, just before defending champ Jonathan “Super” Squibb, a mild-mannered accountant who as an unknown won last year’s contest in 32 minutes.
The team is assembled at a table off the main bar. Joey “Jaws” Chestnut (who set a world record at the Coney Island contest by downing 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes) is a three-time Wing Bowl champ who has flown in from California with his Hooters manager friend. Deep Dish Bertoletti, the Key Lime Pie eating champ of the world, has flown in from Chicago. Everyone else is relatively local – Wing Kong, Steakbellie, Yellowcake, and Jeff “The Natural” Olsen.
The waitress is beset with more food orders than drink orders, and “Deep Dish” has a two beer syringe that causes him to go from sober to drooling drunk in fourteen minutes. Instead of side dishes, everyone simply says, “and another order of wings!” I have three orders myself before switching to cheesesteaks.
We head to Pumptown, the only strip club within miles (No one seems to know the origins of the dubious name). Oddly enough, the DJ looks exactly like Notorious B.O.B, the chili spaghetti-eating champ. When Notorious B.O.B arrives we try to get a photo of the two doppelgangers by the 1985 television set, but despite allowing smoking, full nudity, and couch dances, Pumptown’s no photo policy is strictly enforced.
At Rick The Manager’s house to pick-up his float. Like the float in “Animal House,” this one is constructed from car parts, including a police light and siren. It also has a lot of glitter and a vague jailhouse theme. The temperature is dropping outside, so I switch to warm coffee and espresso vodka.
Everyone moves inside and congregates in two rooms. In the kitchen a giant tomato pie and a six foot sub is served. The food is gone in twenty minutes. Most people pass out on the carpet, but I decide to move outside. The sky is dark. I close my eyes. Rick shakes me awake with my team t-shirt, emblazoned with the slogan “Eat every meal like it’s your last.”
Head into downtown Philly with Yellowcake and a plump wingette who is wearing five inch stilettos, fishnet stockings, and legwarmers — and not much else.
We are walking in through the loading dock at the Wachovia Center. It’s drafty and dark outside, but the vinyl maroon jackets of the many security guards gleam brightly in the fluorescent hallways of the giant sports stadium. The light really brings out the cellulite on a drunken, teetering Wingette. I nod a greeting to Damaging Doug, who looks like a cross between Jabba the Hut and the Comic Book Guy on the Simpsons. He wears voluminous elastic pants.
Steakbellie moves me along as several security guards are scrutinizing the case of water in my hands. The 24 plastic water bottles under shrink wrap contain no water at all. Instead, I have substituted the water with every varietal of clear alcohol except moonshine (which I couldn’t find on short notice).
On the bottom of each bottle is a sharpie pen code. “V-pin” for instance, stands for Pineapple Vodka. Backstage, drinking is frowned upon and booze is always confiscated. However, like Kobayashi in “The Usual Suspects,” I am hiding in plain sight.
The water bottles clear the security station. Without mixers for our 26 bottles of booze (I also have two plastic bottles in my jacket pockets – Laphroig for Steakbellie and Absinthe for me), everyone hits the vending machine.
Joey is a drooling drunk, but is showing off his two Wing Bowl rings from previous years. He couldn’t find the third ring, but the gaudy Super Bowl-style rings are valued at $9,000 each by the Wing Bowl jewelry sponsor.
Everywhere you look are bleary-eyed strippers, drunken fat guys assembling floats with power tools. Steakbellie sees his old wrestling team – dressed as Jersey Shore characters with orange facepaint, fake plastic chests, and gelled hair.
Inside the Rick the Manager’s float, I can hear the crowd of 20,000 yelling and whooping and throwing stuff. I’ve switched to apple rum at this point, but my buzz is waning. I encourage Deep Dish to urinate on the inside of the float or the Wachovia ground. When else does someone get a chance to tinkle with 20,000 people cheering their bladder? Nothing seems to go right during out entrance, but perhaps that is the point.
The crowd is riled up, pressing against the Plexiglas, shouting profanity. The few women in the stands are encouraged to flash, but the camera crews aren’t allowed to show exposed breasts on the Jumbotron.
I realize this is as close to the Apocalypse as one can get without actually experiencing the Apocalypse. At some point Snookie from Jersey Shore is introduced and gets on a mechanical bull in the pit. The boos shake the rafters, beers are thrown, the radio host announces that this was not the reaction he was expecting. It seems that despite assembling a stadium of DNA-impaired drunken dolts, he is surprised that the crowd has taste.
Obi Wing, a mutton chopped Wing Bowl regular, tries to bring the energy back by spitting up a handful of wing meat, stripping off his shirt and diving under the table. Rick the Manager appears in the pit and we decide to exit.
The bright morning sun feels good. I light a cigar and watch someone’s limo roll by. Steakbellie appears with two trays of the leftover Wing Bowl wings. We open them up and steam erupts – they are still warm. Granted ,they are the color of jaundice. The giant steaming trays each hold hundreds of wings. We hand one to B.O.B who has donned sunglasses and sits in the back of Rick the Manager’s car. B.O.B. says nothing but begins eating the wings and flinging the bones out the window. The rest of us attack the other tray like vultures. The wings taste like they were made from chicken that died instead of chicken killed for the purpose, but we don’t slow until the tray is gone. The asphalt ground looks like a Santeria ritual has taken place.
A pageantry-filled, processional parade files into the pit. The parade features twenty-five amateur chicken wing eaters, their entourages, crudely constructed floats, and Wingettes. The winner gets a car, but the 32-minute, three-round eating contest takes a back-seat to the bacchanalia of drinking, tit-flashing, and fist-fighting.
Wing Bowl is the largest strip club day in Philly. All the clubs open at 8 am for afterparties featuring, “Legs and Eggs,” strippers and a free breakfast buffet. US Male and I wander past Rick the Manager’s parked car. B.O.B’s tray of leftover wings is 1/8 full and sits on the sidewalk. No one can move anywhere, it’s impossible to get a drink, and the only light provided via neon is headache inducing. It’s like being trapped in a psychedelic elevator.
When I exit the club, I am blinded by sunlight again. Seagulls have carried off the discarded chicken wings, except for one pile of four or five that looks like dog shit.
At Tony Luke’s, we find ourselves needing another round of cheesesteaks. I like a mushroom steak with provolone and hot peppers, but the hot peppers are overpowering my sandwich. Each is four or five inches long. I can’t handle the hot. Badlands has passed out in the corner and looks like Buddha – granted a Buddha with cheese whiz running down his shirt. I decide we need to head back to NYC. There is nothing more we can learn from Wing Bowl.
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