March 2, 2012
When did consuming food become competitive? I know I’m more than a little behind on this, since there have been eating competitions for, well, possibly as long as there’s been food. Stories of someone who could eat an entire restaurant’s menu–okay, not the menu itself, but every item on it–date back to when Coney Island was full of rabbits instead of Nathan’s Hot Dogs, home of the annual hot dog eating contest. And Lewis and Clark stopped several times on their trip west at places where they could get a sixteen-hundred ounce steak for free if they could eat the whole thing in less than an hour, or a pizza the size of a dinner table, or a sub sandwich that was not only the size of a horse but was made from a horse, inspiring the saying "I’m so hungry I could get a free dinner at Big Lou’s".
And it seems like these contests are proliferating, which is a strange thing to have happen in a time when it seems like more and more people are going hungry. In fact it seems unnecessarily cruel to think that some people who aren’t able to afford food might be sitting at home watching a bunch of guys in Boise stuffing their faces in a competition to see who can eat the most potatoes. And maybe the reason people are going hungry has nothing to do with the economy or poverty or anything like that, but because those guys in Boise are eating up the food. Admittedly I can understand the impulse to take something that tastes good and eat a lot of it. At least I’m assuming people who enter eating contests actually like the food they’re eating.
Anyway, what I really can’t understand is the push to make spicy foods hotter and hotter, and to use those in competitions where the competition isn’t so much about whether you can pound down more pounds than somebody else but just whether you’ll even be physically able to take a second bite…or whether you’ll ever be able to eat again, since the first bite caused your head to explode. When you were a kid in school maybe you or one of your friends took an entire tray of cafeteria food–some "meat" loaf, some mashed potatoes, some stewed prunes, some chocolate pudding, and a banana–and smashed it all together and dared you or someone else to eat it. And no one would. Everyone said, "No, that’s disgusting." Sure, it wasn’t any less disgusting than it was before it was all mashed up, although the addition of the chocolate milk didn’t help. Now adults are taking everything from jalapenos and scotch bonnet peppers to exotic chilies that grow on a man-eating plant in the jungles of Thailand, piling them on something like a hot dog or a bowl of stewed prunes, and daring each other to eat it. And this isn’t something people do because they’re bored and sitting in a restaurant that just happens to have a lot of cayenne and a small shipment of death’s head peppers from Borneo that the cook thought he’d try. There are whole competitions, and even television shows devoted to making spicy foods that could actually be used as an alternative form of energy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against spicy foods. I understand that the whole reason the British joined the Crusades was because spices came from the far east, and spices introduced to British food something that, to this day, it still lacks in many places: flavor. I like spicy food when the heat helps enhance the flavor of the food. What I have a problem with is something that sets your mouth on fire just for the sake of setting your mouth on fire. Okay, it does have the added advantage of proving how tough you are, which is why there are so many hot sauces out there with names like Flaming Hot River of Death Sauce or This Sauce Will Kick Your Ass Across The Room, or Keep Away From Children. I first realized that the real purpose of these sorts of hot sauces wasn’t to enhance or even improve the flavor of foods but to prove how tough you are when I was browsing in a store that exclusively sold hot foods. There was a little guy with a bad combover and horn-rimmed glasses gleefully telling the guy behind the register that he’d really been "cultivating an aptitude" for hotter and hotter foods. I guess it made him feel better about having always been picked last to be on somebody’s kickball team when he was a kid. Interestingly not too long after that the store burned down. I guess they couldn’t take the heat.