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Japanese Prometheus and Food
Competitively eating away at dignity
Where to begin. I guess a description of competitive eating to start with (although the name doesn’t leave much to imagination anyway). This sport is about shovelling as much food into your mouth as possible within a certain timeframe. The food must stay within the contestant during the competition process, and that’s basically all! The winner is whoever eats the most.
Now, I hear you may be asking, where is the nuance? The romance of sport and competition? The storied tales of rivalry and triumph? This article answers it all, giving you a taste of how competitive eating came to be, and how Japan became inextricably linked to the sport.
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The history of competitive eating must have started with the history of consumption. Any being which consumes must be capable of over or under consuming. For the human being, the first records of a person letting eating be their identity seems to be the “GREAT EATER OF KENT”, Nicholas Wood. While we can’t verify why he’s from Kent, the records of his eating are well documented in 1630 by John Taylor (his friend and now famed poet).
What does a regionally famous Kent eater need to achieve to garner the title of Great? His early days saw him devouring seven dozen rabbits in a sitting, “Another time he eat 30 dozen of pigeons,” both recounted vividly in Taylor’s concisely worded pamphlet The Great Eater, of Kent, or Part of the Admirable Teeth and Stomach Exploits of Nicholas Wood, of Harrisom in the County of Kent His Excessive Manner of Eating Without Manners, In Strange and True Manner Described. He also ate a whole sheep… raw. Of course that included the wool, bones, and horns, otherwise how is that filling?
To me, Nick earnt his title and with it sustained a career. Patrons would pay to watch him eat, an event that foreshadows the future of mass eating. Yet he was merely the first great eater, with many following in his stomach steps.
Maturation of the Eating Class
When discussing rapid consumption competitions, it would be remiss to leave out North America’s role. Yes, the first recorded eating contest was held in the 19th Century in North America. Eating pies in Canada. No time limit in those days, just until your stomach or conscience gave out.
Pies were the main unit of measurement for decades of eating. In those days, the winner was publicised but his tally wasn’t. It wasn’t until the USA decided to proudly host their own pie-eating contests, Joe McCarthy (no relation to the US senator I think), that total count was recorded. He finished 31, and promptly started thinking Broadway. People were drawn to mass eating he thought, so he tried producing a show where he’d eat a mere 7 pies while topless. The show did not seem to make it onto any stage.
Then came the hotdogs. More American than a Mountain Dew Wikipage discussing Mt DEW-S-A, in strode Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. Accounts on its origins differ (even from each of Nathan’s recounts), regardless the contest added a new element. Time. Nathan’s now allowed 10 minutes to finish as many hotdogs you can, counting halves.
The pie-eating contests and the hotdoggers would mark the major divide between eating philosophies. The pie-eaters claim that theirs is the “traditional” way of eating, and that volume is what should matter, not speed. Yet the course of competitive eating veered towards the hotdog view that timed eating was more important.
Learning to eat
For decades, competitive eating seemed to live safely on the shores of America. People ate in peace there, with their fat men’s clubs, and patriotic eating contests. There was a single moment that changed all of that. July 4th, 2001. The year of Takeru Kobayashi.
Kobayashi-san had entered Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest that year. He was 23, skinny, and never eaten a hotdog before. The contest in the pre Kobayashi days was mostly American affair. There was a growing interest by Japanese nationals at the time, who had seen the competition on television, and thought “why not!”. There was a record set for 25 and a half hotdogs, demolished in 12 minutes (also by a Japanese national).
Then came 2001. Kobayashi-san took the stage. He finished 25 hotdogs in just over 5 minutes. His competitors had stopped eating, just observing the start of a new age. Takeru kept eating. The cheerleaders holding the number placards which announced the running scores also stopped. Their numbers didn’t go high enough. He kept eating. Only the 12 minutes could stop him, and he successfully completed 50 hotdogs that day.
This had changed competitive eating forever. The victory made news globally. It was an unbelievable achievement, even teaching people to eat differently (Not in the fad diet, Jenny Craig sort of way). His technique of breaking the hotdogs in half, while dunking the bread in water and shimmying was copied by everyone (in the competitive eating sphere). To get graphic, the shimmy is to help the food travel down the oesophagus faster. This is now universally known as the Kobayashi Shake. A Japanese Prometheus, having brought the power of insane eating to the rest of the world.
He’d reshaped the sport in his image and forever holding his place as the sport’s first superstar. By 2007, he was among the world’s most famous athletes featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated and naturally winning the hotdog contest every year consecutively. Major League Eating’s president said "To associate Michael Jordan with Kobayashi is a slight against Kobayashi."
With the cult of Kobayashi, came the products. No longer in a pie and hot dog dichotomy world, there were food challenges in almost any conceivable style. Among the food world records that Kobayashi has held include most rice balls (150), most soba noodles (21.3 pounds), and most cow brains (57). For a stretch of time, if your restaurant needed a promotion, you could just ask Kobayashi to eat as much of your food as possible. The Simpsons would predict Kobayashi’s value as a man who could eat it all.
Just as Prometheus, Kobayashi suffered for his art. Like many other athletic endeavours, there are injuries from their exploits. Maybe this one was a bit more predictable than others though. For Kobayashi, he now suffers from enduring jaw arthritis. Beyond that, Kobayashi has been open that if he’s in competitive eating mode, he won’t taste anything. A more tragic tale is seldom told, the hero who can eat everything but taste nothing.
The punishment has not yet ended for Kobayashi. As the face of competitive eating, he elevated the sport so many would join and compete mouth to mouth with him. Yet, the very scene of his most famous triumph, Nathan’s Hot Dog Contest, has banned him. His fame outgrew their’s following the successive wins and contract negotiations were in place. Kobayashi wanted to continue eating lots and lots wherever he pleased. He wanted to promote every restaurant that challenged him. Nathan’s wanted them to be exclusive.
On the anniversary of Kobayashi’s first victory (and some other anniversary?), July 4th 2010, he was arrested at Coney Island. The crime? He tried to promote and stage his own hot dog eating contest.
The downsides of gluttony
He may have gotten off easy, as it many have argued that eating lots and lots in one sitting is actually not a super healthy activity. Countless psychologists have pointed fingers that competitive eating has encouraged the ongoing obesity crisis, as well as bulimia and other eating disorders. Divisively, China has completely banned the activity, citing that it encourages food waste.
Other cases are even more dire. Rapid consumption of food appears to be a common choking hazard. Sadly, there is a list of fatalities corresponding to this activity, and will likely continue as untrained contestants aim to reach for the rush of eating.
The Modern Eater
Where does this leave the aspiring young challenger? We will turn our gaze back to Japan. As foretold, Kobayashi has inspired a generation who desire to etch their name as someone who eats a lot.
They call themselves food fighters, and harken to the earlier tradition of competitive eating. Volume eating. Speed eating they say is unbecoming and “too messy”, for the Japanese audiences to appreciate. As such, many may look to make a pilgrimage to Kobayashi’s land and compete at Nathan’s, but not follow the path of Kobayashi.
The food fighters instead find ample challenges within Japan. You have the Kobayashi-inspired restaurant challenges, but you also have the traditional challenges (as Japan also has a proud history of volume eating across the country).
Traditional challenges for instance include Iwate Prefecture’s Wanko Soba. Across the prefecture, many noodle shops offer the “all you can eat” option for the famous soba. The most famed of these shops is found at Azumaya in Iwate’s capital Morioka. Anyone can participate, and the servers will cheer all eaters on with “Jan Jan!” (More, more!). The tally is of the total bowls you complete. Each bowl is smaller than normal with people calculating that 15 here translates to 1 normal soba serving. If you hit 100, you get a certificate. For true immortality, the goal is much higher. The record for men is 500 bowls. For women, 570 bowls.
At many other restaurants, there are frequent challenges that require eating a giant portion of their specialty dish. Known as “Deka Mori” challenges (crazy large portion), these challenges offer cash prizes to winning participants. Deka Mori challenges come in various forms, either giant versions or lots of little pieces. From giant gyozas, dozens of steaks, and hefty ramen bowls, there are food challenges galore across the country. While they often come with time limits, these don’t require special techniques to rapidly down the food.
While I can share locations, I suggest googling your favourite style of cuisine and “Deka Mori”. As someone who cannot eat kilos of food in one sitting, alas I cannot recommend which Deka Mori challenges are achievable. For many of the restaurants and the contingent of food fighters who compete across the country, the challenges are another way to market their favourite dish.
If you’re up for it, come visit Japan and participate in the now beloved activity of downing incredible volumes of food. My only advice is enjoy the food, be careful and remember the fate of food fighters before you.