Of all the so-called seven deadly sins, gluttony -- "excess in eating and drinking," according to Webster's -- has always gotten the worst rap. Pride, envy, lust, anger, greed and sloth I'll grant are aptly classified -- after all, no one I know would like their personality described using any of these six. But gluttony? What's wrong with a little feast every now and then? As Chris Rock notes in his Bring the Pain special, people all over the world go hungry for want of food. The gospel of Rock? "If you're lucky enough to get your hands on a steak, bite the shit out of it!"
Of course, no one's going to call you a glutton if you drink ten bottled waters a day. You won't get fitted for a piggy costume if your tastes run toward a half-dozen cups of coffee a morning.
Food, however, is a different animal (grain, vegetable, what have you). We've all felt a small amount of discomfort watching someone slovenly tearing their way through a buffet, their shirt covered in goop. It's a shame of an almost sexual variety, in fact. One wants to cry: "Get a room, damn it!"
However, to turn that analogy around, who are we to judge? Who doesn't want a glutton in the sack on occasion? If you have the resources (and the stomach), whose business is it how much you eat, as long as you don't let it get out of control or do it for the wrong reasons (psychological flaws, etc.)?
After all, we're a society that loves a glutton. Many otherwise reasonable males obsess about the weights of college football recruits and know every time their favorite offensive lineman has changed his eating habits. We're wary about entering a restaurant and finding a rail-thin chef behind the line. Our action heroes almost inevitably are built like brick smokehouses. We're a land of plenty, and we like to be reminded of that every now and again. Not all of us can afford multiple houses, Escalades or offshore investments, but we can splurge on the occasional rack or two of ribs and a six-pack. It's a way to live large, if only for a few hours. In tough times, we seek comfort, if not comfort food.
One of the biggest indicators of this newfound tolerance for the glutton is the exponential growth in popularity of something called IFOCE, the International Federation of Competitive Eating (see www.ifoce.com).
Competitive eating has always held a place in our hearts -- see famous Depression-era trenchermen like reporter A.J. Liebling and bon vivant Stan Libnitz -- especially in times of want and war. For a man of means, a full stomach, the sturdy trophy of a proud gorge, was something to boast about, something to literally precede you when you entered a room.
However, IFOCE was formed to do something else: to make competitive eating a sport. Through the creation of safety measures, a governing body and various national championships, IFOCE seeks to carve out a niche at the national sporting table, partially by promoting their eaters as athletes. (They may have a point here. If bowling and NASCAR are sports, why not a gal -- Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas -- scarfing down 167 chicken wings in 32 minutes? That's one less than 14 dozen, folks.)
Competitive eating even has its own version of the Super Bowl, the (in)famous Nathan's Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest. Drawing contestants from all around the globe, the event is so hallowed among competitive eaters that even getting an invite is akin to making the all-star team. First held in 1916, the event has recently been a mere formality, as Takeru Kobayashi (the New England Patriots of competitive eating and a celebrity in his home country of Japan) has taken every title since 2001. Kobayashi set the record with 53.5 hot dogs in 2004 -- in 12 minutes. He also holds the record for eating 17.7 pounds of cow brains -- yes, cow brains -- in 15 minutes. (Pause for wretching.)
Our fair burg of Charlotte has even been the site of a record-setting performance: "The Black Widow" ate 8.31 pounds of Vienna sausages in 10 minutes at Lowe's Motor Speedway in May of this year, which, somehow, seems fitting. (As if to clinch her Southern credentials, the Virginian also holds the record for pulled-pork sandwiches -- 23 in 10 minutes.)
So competitive eating is not the most politically correct pastime in a world full of hungry people. And it's probably not the healthiest thing in the world, especially if taken to extremes (interestingly, the two most dominant competitive eaters in the world, Kobayashi and Thomas, are down-right skinny, and both speak of the importance of a regular, healthy diet). It's mere human nature and goes back -- literally -- to the Stone Age, when any kind of eating was competitive.
I just so happen to have a big steak in my refrigerator right now. I'm gonna go take Mr. Rock's advice -- and enjoy every last moment of it.
Timothy C. Davis is a correspondent for Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food website egullet.com.