They line up across the stage: kings of consumption, sultans of scarf. A half-dozen cameras hover around them, zooming in on waistlines and jaw lines and a few anxious, ticking fingers. In another setting, they might be freakish outcasts, but here they're revered professional athletes ready for action.
Pumping through the speakers comes the first few beats of Eminem's battle anthem "Lose Yourself." A throng of curious spectators looks on from the metal bleachers. Onstage, a thin man in a barbershop-quartet-style straw hat, a red-striped tie, and a blue shirt drenched in sweat barks into a microphone.
"They say competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer wage war for men's souls, my friends!" announcer and judge Mike Antolini proclaims with the gusto of a revivalist preacher. "And they are right! What we have today is a battle for the ages! A battle of the titans!"
At its core, this is a simple contest of biologic function. But the World Pickle Eating Championship — held this year at the Isle Casino in Pompano Beach — is something much more. Taking place beneath a small white tent on a 90-degree Sunday morning in September, this is a pageant of the hilarious and the horrific. It's sanctioned by Major League Eating, competitive eating's governing body, and with $5,000 at stake, the six-minute, vinegar-soaked battle is part athletic endeavor, part anachronistic entertainment. And it epitomizes the modern competitive-eating circuit, nicknamed the "fastest growing sport in America."
The event draws some of the finest "gurgitators" on the planet. The 285-pound bear of a man at the center of the table, that's Bob "Notorious B-O-B" Shoudt, an IT guy from Philadelphia who once ate nearly 14 pounds of Skyline chili spaghetti in ten minutes. He set a world record by gulping 36 peanut butter and banana sandwiches in a row. At an event last year, he chugged 23.4 pounds of salmon chowder in six minutes. "That guy can swallow a Krystal hamburger like a little pill," one of the other competitors whispers. Notorious B-O-B, a vegetarian when he's not competing, once downed 39 of the miniature burgers in two minutes.
Next to him, with his sleeves rolled up, his headphones blasting, and his hair spiked into a tall Mohawk, that's 25-year-old Chicagoan Patrick "Deep Dish" Bertoletti. He once knocked back nearly 11 pounds of key lime pie in eight minutes. He has slurped down 21 pounds of grits in a single sitting. In May, Deep Dish set a record when he ate 275 pickled jalapeño peppers in ten minutes. He also works as a chef at a catering company.
The five-foot-tall, 105-pound Korean woman with her shoes off and her jeans rolled up, that's Sonya Thomas. They call her "the Black Widow." Nothing short of a total ingestion legend, she holds records for sausages, baked beans, catfish, cheese steaks, chili cheese fries, chicken nuggets, and oysters. She can swallow an entire hot dog whole. "Yes, fellas, she's single!" announcers usually tell the crowds after she's introduced.
The athletic, clean-cut young man wearing Florida Gator colors, that's Hall "Hoover" Hunt from Jacksonville, the only faith-based pro on the competitive-eating circuit. Beneath his eyes, he has blue strips of paint with a Bible verse written in white: 1 Corinthians 10:31 ("So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God"). After nearly a year away from the tour, Hoover, a jaw-strength specialist, chose the pickle championship to make his return.
To Hoover's right, wide-eyed and grinning, is Sean "Wrecking Ball" Brockert, the up-and-coming crowd favorite from Palm Beach Gardens. Wearing a backward black ball cap and a two-day beard, Wrecking Ball invited family, friends, and former co-workers to root him on as he battles the master masticators. There's a cheering section of about ten people, many wearing matching black "Wrecking Ball" T-shirts.
When the announcer introduces him, someone in the crowd calls out "Go Wrecking Ball!" and there's applause.
Wrecking Ball, a 29-year-old Army veteran now attending community college, has a dream. He's been doing this for only six months, but winning the pickle contest would be the perfect way to show Major League Eating officials he can compete with the best, to prove he's worthy of event invitations, appearance fees, sponsorship, and ultimately a higher ranking with the International Federation of Competitive Eating. "Right now, I'm number 37 in the world," he says sheepishly.
Before the countdown to gorging time, competitors have the chance to fill tall plastic cups with whatever liquid they think will help the pickles go down. The Black Widow uses water. Hoover uses a red energy drink. "Dehydration will definitely be the biggest issue," he had postulated earlier in the morning. "With all that salt, your throat can close right up." Deep Dish fills his cups from two thermoses of heated, sugar-free Kool-Aid.
Across the table in front of the competitors are at least 200 chilled, full sour Kosher dill pickles sitting in wooden bowls, one pound — five or six pickles — per bowl. The air in a ten-foot radius is pungent with the sharp aroma of vinegar.
The participants ready themselves for battle. The Black Widow stretches her neck. Deep Dish sets the final playlist on his iPod — he's listening to Dillenger Four, a punk band from Minnesota. Notorious B-O-B pours the last few cups of his raspberry drink. Hoover blows his nose in a tissue and says a quick prayer.
"Everybody has their pickles!" the announcer says. "Everybody's ready!"
Wrecking Ball turns to Hoover, looking for some last-second pointers.
"Sean's asking for advice," the announcer tells the crowd. "It's too late, buddy!"
There was a time when eating contests were confined to elementary-school cafeterias, truck-stop steak houses, and rural county fairs. The winners got free meals, T-shirts, a photo on the wall, and a weird look from the waitress. Now there are more than 80 sanctioned Major League Eating competitions a year and hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. ESPN televises the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest live. Spike TV had a competitive-eating reality show. National restaurant chains and casinos line up to sponsor events, and advertisers include Pepto-Bismol, Heinz, and Old Navy.
"Watching people eat has never been more popular in this country," says Antolini, Major League Eating's head judge and the announcer for the pickle contest. "You don't want to watch it, but you can't look away."
Major League Eating was founded by George and Richard Shea, brothers who began doing public relations for Nathan's in the late '80s. It wasn't until the five-foot-eight, 140-pound Takeru Kobayashi debuted in 2001 that the public's appetite for pro eating began to intensify. Two and a half million people watched as the otherwise aloof Kobayashi buzz-sawed through an unholy number of dogs, astounding viewers with his violent, sloppy, open-palmed approach. Though there is perhaps no more American sport than competitive eating, the only competitor to beat the diminutive Japanese native in any serious hot-dog contest was a Kodiak bear. "When the bear came out, I saw a flash of fear for a second in Kobayashi's eyes," the Fox color analyst said during the original broadcast. "Because he's never faced competition like this."
Kobayashi proved you didn't need to be a behemoth to win a lot of contests, says Ryan Merz, a former Major League Eating judge and author of Eat This Book, about his time on the circuit. "It's called the 'Belt of Fat Theory,'" he says. "The idea is, if you don't have that fat gut up front, your stomach has room to expand, and you can pump in more food in less time. The top eaters almost all stay in traditional athletic shape."
Seeing the trim, toned Kobayashi on television inspired 175-pound Hoover, the religious eater, to turn pro five years ago. Now 28, Hoover was a structural engineering student at the University of Florida at the time and played on the school's soccer team. He'd always been an athlete, and from very early on, friends and family noticed his massive consumptive capabilities.
"When I was a kid and we'd all go to CiCi's after soccer games, I'd eat, like, literally a hundred pieces of pizza," he says. In college, teammates would marvel — and cringe — at what he could do to a Chinese food buffet. "I'd get five or six scoops of everything, even if there was, like, 80 different foods."
He began researching competitive eating. The top "gurgitators" — what they call themselves — have their travel expenses paid for, and with contest winnings, appearance fees, and endorsements, they can earn six figures a year. "That's the goal," says the recently married Hoover, who, despite being the eighth-ranked eater in the world, works a day job as a manager at a Publix in Jacksonville.
"I can honestly say that my life is like one big vacation," says Deep Dish, the Mohawk-rocking punk fan who's the third-ranked eater in the world. He's been doing this for six years and says he's made "at least $40,000" each year. Nearly every other week, Deep Dish travels to a new part of the country for an event: Buffalo for wings, Louisiana for grits, Denver for Rocky Mountain "oysters." At each contest, he's treated like a dietary deity, signing autographs, posing for photos, appearing on the local TV news.
"Eating is one of the few things I'm good at in life," Deep Dish says. He was chubby and quiet as a kid and didn't have many friends. But he had a big family, and they liked to cook. "Food was my one true love growing up," he says. "No matter what was going on, I always had food around to make me feel better." Now Deep Dish holds more than 25 Major League Eating records.
That's where Wrecking Ball, the Army veteran from Palm Beach Gardens, would like to be one day. "Everybody eats," he says, "but these are the best of the best eaters. I think it's pretty neat seeing if you can be better than maybe everyone in the entire world at something."
During three and a half years of service in the Army, he was stationed mostly in South Korea and San Diego. He liked being in the military, but there was a problem. "I've always eaten a lot," he says, "but that got me into a lot of trouble in the Army." He says he was always on the line of what the military deems "overweight."
After the Army, he moved back to South Florida in 2009 with his fiancée, Kim, and their two young kids, so he could take college classes with GI Bill money. In March, Major League Eating held the Corned Beef Sandwich Eating Championship in Palm Beach Gardens. The winner got $5,000. His large-scale swilling skills no longer an occupational preclusion, Wrecking Ball was inspired.
He entered the raffle to be one of the amateur contestants, but he wasn't chosen. He attended the St. Patrick's Day event anyway, watching from the bleachers. There, in front of cameras and lights and a crowd of drunken spectators, were the vaunted professional eaters Wrecking Ball had read about and seen on television. There were Deep Dish and Notorious B-O-B and the Black Widow and Joey Chestnut, the only man to defeat Kobayashi on the Fourth of July.
"Seeing everybody up there on the stage," he says, "I knew I could do it."
In April, he entered the corn-on-the-cob competition in West Palm Beach as an amateur — "We call them table-enders," says Antolini. "But everybody's gotta start somewhere." Though it was his first eating contest, Wrecking Ball took third, buzzing through 28 ears of sweet corn in 12 minutes. Joe LaRue, from Hollywood, won the event, setting a world record with 46 ears.
It was a turning point in Wrecking Ball's life: "I knew this is what I was meant to do."
Consider the pickle. The warped, slimy exterior, often emitting an eye-opening stench. The soft, lighter insides — more than 85 percent liquid, just like humans. Pickles possess a comedic quality. Just saying the word pickle often gets a snicker or a giggle. A pickle is an innuendo, an awkward, difficult situation.
But the pickle endures. Mesopotamians pickled cucumbers more than 4,000 years ago. They're mentioned twice in the Old Testament. Pickle fans include Aristotle, Cleopatra, Napoleon, and George Washington. Thomas Jefferson wrote, "On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally's cellar."
What we call a pickle is generally a cucumber, plucked from the vine, dropped in a vinegar brine — usually involving dill and garlic and a lot of salt — and left to marinate for a few months. It's separated, saturated, and left alone for a long time, not unlike how a lot of competitive eaters are made.
There are three key skills speed eaters must master. There's jaw strength, swallowing capability, and stomach capacity. And certain foods use certain areas more than others. For example, the hot-dog-eating contest — "The Super Bowl of competitive eating," as Antolini calls it — requires a mastery of all three. That's why top-ranked eater Joey Chestnut (who wasn't at the pickle championship) can down 68 dogs and buns in 12 minutes but Hoover struggles to top 40. "I just can't swallow as fast as those guys," Hoover says.
But he can chew really, really hard. And that's what a lot of people figure will factor most in the pickle contest. The previous record for sour pickles is 2.99 pounds in six minutes.
For the pros, Hoover says, capacity won't be an issue. Most of his training has been in jaw strength. Beginning eight weeks before an event, Hoover will throw ten or 12 sticks of gum in his mouth and work it into something the size of a racquetball. Then he chews it as fast and hard as possible for a minute. The next day, he'll do three or four minutes. Then an easier day, back to one. Then back up to five or six. He models his regimen on marathon preparation.
Wrecking Ball, the vet from Palm Beach Gardens, got his training advice straight from the Black Widow during a brief conversation before an event earlier this year. "She told me to drink a lot of water and eat a lot of lettuce to stretch my stomach," he says. "And a lot of cardio. You need to make your body need those calories." In preparation for this event, Wrecking Ball also ate a jar of about 12 pickles a day for the week leading up to the contest to "get totally used to the taste," he says. "If the taste is gonna stop anybody, it'll be one of my opponents." Before the jalapeño pepper contest in San Antonio, he practiced with the wrong pickled jalapeños for several days and says that's the main reason he ate only 45.
For safety reasons, Major League Eating has a policy discouraging competitors from practicing. "Someone could choke or... who knows what," Wrecking Ball says. Aside from the standard sore jaw, stained teeth, rather unpleasant digestion, and temporary fatigue — "like the feeling you get right after a huge Thanksgiving dinner," Hoover says — the competitors all say there aren't any short-term effects from such gorging — a testament to the durability of the human body, they say.
Competitive eating has, thus far, evaded serious scientific scrutiny, but there are definitely risks. Swallowing pickles that haven't been chewed can inflame the esophagus. Several pounds of them ingested quickly could cause a stomach to rupture. Each pickle contains 750 milligrams of sodium, about half the daily recommendation — and beating the record would mean the winner will ingest about eight times the daily intake.
As far as the consequences of ingesting that much sodium or cholesterol or fat and repeatedly stretching the stomach to fit bowling-ball-sized feasts week after week for years, Hoover says nobody really knows if there will be long-term effects.
"People have never eaten at these numbers," says Hoover. "Nobody's studied it." The potential permanent health issues are rarely discussed. "I'll just listen to what my body is telling me to do," Hoover says, quickly adding, "Except when I'm competing. Then it's all about ignoring whatever your body is saying and pushing through it."
The morning of the contest, Wrecking Ball wakes up early. He doesn't eat, and he runs around his neighborhood for an hour and a half in the warm morning sun. "I wouldn't run if I wasn't in competitive eating," he says. "I hate running." Then he and Kim, a petite brunette, load their 2-year-old daughter and 1-year-old son into the car and head south. Everyone wears matching black T-shirts with an image of a grinning wrecking ball smashing bricks.
He arrives at the casino an hour early and waits to see his opponents. As they start to show up, equipment bags in hand, Wrecking Ball can't contain his smile. "That's Pat Bertoletti," he says, admittedly giddy just to be at the same table with some of these legends. "There's Notorious B-O-B, second-ranked in the world. There's the Black Widow."
Hoover and his wife drove down from Jacksonville and spent two nights at the Westin one exit down from the Isle Casino. The first thing he did when he got to town was go to the contest site to try the competition pickles. The morning of the championship, he drank two gallons of soda to stretch his stomach into game shape. When he shows up, he's dressed head to toe in Florida Gator colors. His turned-around blue baseball cap has "Hoover" and a tiny knife and fork embroidered on the back — the part that's facing the cameras when he's eating.
Antolini brings the eaters to the stage one by one, starting with the table-enders and ending with the stars. He warns the spectators in front that they are in a splash zone, in case a competitor has "any urges contrary to swallowing." By Major League Eating rules, a "reversal of fortune" is an automatic disqualification.
"You may get hit," Antolini tells the crowd. "If you get some relish on you, we do not cover dry cleaning."
Antolini leads the crowd in a countdown: "Five! Four! Three! Two! One! Begin eating!"
The Black Widow downs her first pickle before the announcer finishes his last word. His headphones on tight, Deep Dish is halfway through his first bowl at the ten-second mark.
"Notorious B-O-B is shattering the pickles in his hands, but they're not going down fast enough," Antolini says in the style of a '30s radio play-by-play man.
Less than 45 seconds into the competition, Hoover inexplicably drops to one knee, his face inches from the bowls of pickles. He's taking large bites and choking them down.
Wrecking Ball is taking two pickles at a time in his left hand and squeezing them against each other to get the excess fluids out. Then, like a thumping, slurping machine, his right hand pounds both pickles into his mouth.
A minute and a half into the six-minute contest, Deep Dish finishes his second one-pound bowl. He's swallowing a pickle every ten seconds. And with each pickle, Deep Dish bucks his head like a rooster downing a seed, his spiked hair wiggling. Without stopping the conveyer belt of pickle destruction that his hands and mouth have become, he periodically shakes his abdomen like he's dancing.
"Notice Pat Bertoletti shake," Antolini says into the mike. "When he shakes, the pickles fall on top of each other perfectly in his stomach, thus creating more room for the pickles!"
Moments after Deep Dish finishes his second bowl, the Black Widow finishes hers. "We are gonna see a record shattered here today!" Antolini shouts.
At three minutes in, it looks for a moment like they might run out of pickles. A new batch of bowls is weighed and distributed, and Antolini works in a plug for the casino's upcoming horseracing season and the poker room.
Hoover has eaten only a pound and a half, and the announcer tells the crowd: "Hall Hunt is rusty from a year off."
In his head, Hoover repeats a series of aphorisms to stay focused. Your throat is as wide as a trash can, he tells himself. Just throw the food down there. Your stomach is as big as a bedroom. There's plenty of room. Everyone's invited.
Sweat covers the competitors as they writhe and twist and choke back each pickle, ignoring the body's natural impulse to stop. A vein in Notorious B-O-B's forehead throbs. The muscles in Wrecking Ball's neck bulge.
With a minute left on the clock, Deep Dish leads the Black Widow by one pickle. He's shaking hard. She has pickle juice dripping from her elbows. Notorious B-O-B is obliterating the pickles at an even faster pace. He slaps the mush into his huge mouth with a disturbing urgency.
Thirty seconds to go and Hoover takes even bigger bites, trying to work each pickle down his esophagus with sips of the red drink. Wrecking Ball crouches over the table, pounding pickles into his mouth sideways. He's behind, but he refuses to quit.
Antolini begins another countdown at the ten-second mark. At the end, he yells, "Put down those pickles, lady and gentlemen!" A three-judge team counts empty bowls and weighs what's left in the others. The competitors wait anxiously for the results, each breathing heavily as they chew their final bits of pickle.
With four pounds, Hoover beat the old pickle record by a full pound, but that was good enough only for a three-way tie for third place. He gets $416.66 for his troubles.
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The Black Widow and Notorious B-O-B tie for second place, each having eaten exactly five pounds five ounces and each receiving a check for $1,125.
Deep Dish, his face and shirt stained red from his drink, is declared the winner. His total: five pounds 11.2 ounces of pickles consumed, nearly twice the previous world record. He gets a small trophy, a check for $1,500, and his 28th world record.
Wrecking Ball comes in ninth with two and a half pounds. He shakes hands and poses for photos with the other competitors. When all the pictures are taken, Kim and the kids have a hug waiting for him at the top of the stairs. He's feeling a little down, but he also knows something that might make him feel better.
He looks at his family. "Anyone wanna try the buffet?"