Why I Hate Competitive Eating Contests

zhomeless.jpg
Farm Security Administration
"Nipomo, California, 1936," by Dorothea Lange

I was pedaling my bike past Tompkins Square on a weekday afternoon when I came upon a common sight. A long line of people started mid-block on the north side of the street, and twisted its way around the corner of Avenue A and 10th Street, making it halfway to 9th Street before giving out.

The line represented a rather diverse group of people. Some were dressed in rags and clearly homeless -- they tended to be at the front of the line, as if they'd queued up hours before -- while others were young and fairly well-dressed. Many were elderly, but a surprising number seemed to be recent Chinese immigrants, some of whom had half-filled bags of cans or other items scavenged from the streets.

It was like a scene from a Jacob Riis photo taken at the end of the 19th century, a kind of organized and visible poverty that you might have thought vanished in the prosperity of the late 20th century.

The folks, of course, were in a line for food handouts from a local church. On another weekday, the Hare Krishnas have run a similar program for years, and there seems to be a line of this sort somewhere in the East Village every day, made up of people too poor to buy their own food, who must wait hours for scraps.

I think of those lines every time I hear of competitive eating contests such as the one at Nathan's, and when I hear of professional competitive eaters. Wouldn't it make more sense to hand out the hot dogs to people on the streets who are starving? And doesn't it send an awful message about foodies in general that we take delight in people ramming as much food down their gullets as possible for sport, as the truly hungry form mute, accusatory lines?

Here's a modest proposal: Let's put a moratorium on eating contests for one year, and distribute the food to the truly hungry. And let's put a voluntary 10 percent tax on meals costing over $50, to be donated to soup kitchens and other feed-the-poor programs.

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14 comments
Crazy Legs Conti
Crazy Legs Conti

I am a big of Robert Sietsema’s writing; I salivate over it ever week. I believe that food investigation and exploration can exist in both casual dining and competitive eating. Food culture, both from writing to entertaining, makes the world a more enriched place. Both Major League Eating and Nathan’s realize that competitive eating needs an altruistic counterpart which is why Nathan’s donates 100,000 hot dogs each year to the Food Bank of NY. Major League Eating has teamed with the Food Bank of NY in the past and matched donations (one Thanksgiving Tim “Eater X” Janus ate a meal meant for 14 people, which raised $18,000 in the twelve minute speed eat). IFOCE Gives , the MLE charitable branch, raises money for many causes, most recently matching all donations from eaters for Japan aid, despite parting ways with Takeru Kobayashi in dramatic fashion. Pro-Eating often highlights local foods and festival, the Oyster Festival in New Orleans is anchored by the Acme Eating Contest and has weathered hurricanes and oil spills to celebrate the magnificent mollusk and bring attention to New Orleans seafood when it needed it most. The most important and enjoyable pro-eating occurred when MLE teamed with Navy Entertainment and myself and several eaters travelled to Naval bases to entertain the sailor-soldiers by eating hot dogs with them. I’ve been to Guantanamo Bay, Souda Bay in Greece, Sigonella in Italy, and three bases in Japan. Everyone we ate, the troops understood and enjoyed pro-eating – sure it is gross, but it’s also patriotic. I live in the East Village and see the food lines and realize collectively, we can do better to provide the needy with food. I donate my time and money to the Bowery Mission. I hope to qualify for Nathan’s this July 4th for my 10th consecutive time, but long after the dogs are digested, the fantastic food memories will remain. I invite Robert to join the 40,000 at Stillwell and Surf to see that a Major League Eating event celebrates more than gluttony – I’ll even buy him that first digestive beer at Ruby’s…I’ll be the one hunched over at the bar clutching my stomach, but still smiling.

Alltheway
Alltheway

Why not a voluntary 100% tax?

tripit
tripit

Why doesn't the author give up his job blogging about butternut squash pizza for The Village Voice and go work at a homeless shelter for a year? It seems like he hasn't actually stepped inside one in a while if he thinks a few thousand hot dogs donated on July 4th is going to do anything to service the daily needs of the truly hungry. In the shelters where I've recently worked, the problem usually isn't having enough food; the problem is engineering a system to distribute all the food that is donated in a meaningful way.

Not a huge fan of competitive eating myself, but this article seems tone-deaf and clueless to me.

Ross Bennett Brown
Ross Bennett Brown

But also let's have a ban on all those shows on TV about excessive eating, huge portions, etc. It's not challenging to eat to excess; it's simply wrong.

Ross Bennett Brown
Ross Bennett Brown

But also let's have a ban on all those shows on TV about excessive eating, huge portions, etc. It's not challenging to eat to excess; it's simply wrong.

Crazy Legs Conti
Crazy Legs Conti

I hastily wrote this over a trough of oatmeal - my apologies for the three typos including "everyone we ate."

rsietsema
rsietsema

Glad to hear you work amid such culinary opulence, tripit. Articles in the NY Times as well as testimony of friends is that food banks are running very short of food this year. And yes, a thousand franks could make a difference in its own small way. You didn't address what you thought about the idea of donating 10% of the cost of meals over $50 to food banks. Does that also seeming useless and lacking in meaning?

Rfiles3735
Rfiles3735

Lets ban everything that isn't some glorified hand out program! Cripe.

rsietsema
rsietsema

Sorry for name checking you in the piece. I'm removing your name. I think you are a good person. It was sloppy writing on my part, but that's the consequence of the blog format.

tripit
tripit

Donating 10% of the cost of fine dining meals to food banks might be tough for a lot of restaurants operating on tight margins, but if such a tax were theoretically implemented, it would have a more positive effect on reducing hunger than any one-time donation would. The restaurant Commonwealth in San Francisco has received a lot of praise for donating $10 of the cost of its $60 tasting menu--hopefully this is something that catches on.

However, speaking of donations, if you do a quick google search you'll see that Nathan's in fact donated 100,000 hot dogs to the Food Bank For New York City on the eve of its contest last year. Did you check that before you posted this article?

tripit
tripit

Donating 10% of the cost of fine dining meals to food banks is not terribly realistic and I don't know what kind of effect raising prices by 10% would have on the restaurant industry--people in California already chafe about a $1-per-diner Healthy SF fee to cover employee health care. It's sad and horrible, and I'm not saying that it's in any way justified, but it's true. However, if implemented, this fee would probably have more of a positive effect on relieving hunger than a one-time donation of the food that would go toward an eating contest.

Speaking of one-time donations, a five-second Google search revealed that Nathan's donated 100,000 hot dogs to The Food Bank of New York City last year on the eve of its hot dog eating contest.

http://nathansfamous.com/PageF...

tripit
tripit

Eating contests definitely aren't my thing, but in terms of celebrating abundance/excess while others are in need, I don't think they're any more gross than going to a trendy restaurant, posting a picture of your dinner on facebook, or reading a food blog--and calling for a moratorium on those cultural phenomena won't have any more of an impact on ending hunger than calling for a moratorium on eating contests. The scale is completely different. Eating contests and food blogs are a drop in the bucket.

You have the right idea with your 10 percent tax and Nathan's has the right idea with donating hot dogs (20 times as many as are consumed in its contest). Enjoy and be thankful for the food that you have and simultaneously do what you can to make sure that the less fortunate also have access to food.

rsietsema
rsietsema

I was actually thinking about having the consumers of over-$50 meals doate a 10% surcharge to food banks, I realize that restaurants are operating on slim profit margins and provide employments for tens of thousands of New Yorkers. Yes, nice that Nathan's donates hot dogs, but it's the spectacle of overeating as a cultural phenomenon that I find disturbing. You don't think it's at least a little gross?

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