Sonya Thomas is the world record holder in 25 sports. Photos adorn the internet of her victorious, holding up one cup or another, her – frequently male – opponent slouched, defeated, despondent, just in shot. Go on YouTube, and you can watch her in action. Tiny, elfin, and strikingly pretty, she weighs just under seven and a half stone – a weight she maintains by eating a single, vegetable-heavy meal a day and following a strict exercise regime. Frequently, she will spend a day abstaining from all solids.
Above all, though, she is fast. The fastest. She can eat hamburgers quicker than anyone else on the planet (seven "thickburgers" in 10 minutes). She can swallow more oysters (46 dozen in 10 minutes), munch on more pizza (six extra-large slices in a quarter of an hour) and make her way through more hard-boiled eggs (a staggering 65 in six minutes and 40 seconds) than anyone she has come up against. When it comes to consuming cake – cheesecake, fruitcake, crabcake – she's your woman. Ditto chicken: nuggets, or wings. Lobster, crayfish, pulled pork or a whole Thanksgiving dinner. You name it, she'll eat it and she probably holds the record for it. Her ferocious ability to ingest has won her not just a cabinet full of silverware, but that necessary accessory of sporting greats, a nickname. She is the Black Widow.
Competitive eating has been one of America's fastest-growing sports over the past 15 years, driven largely by companies who have cottoned on to the potential for cheap, easy brand exposure (rarely are contests measured in terms of "pizza slices" – commentators are more likely to talk about the record for Bacci pizza – while Pepto-Bismal's sponsorship of the sport is something of a match made in target-market heaven). Governed by the Major League Eating and International Federation of Competitive Eating, there are more than 80 certified competitions a year and countless other unofficial ones.
The phenomenon has yet to catch on to the same extent in Europe. Recently, though, things have started to change. Extreme eating – competitive consumption, yes, but also "big" eating: huge hamburgers, extra-hot curries, exotic offal – has received a new vehicle in the form of Man v Food. The programme made its UK debut earlier this year on the Good Food Channel. A kind of food programme for Total Wipeout fans, its garish camera effects and brash, cartoonish presenter stand out a mile from the dainty dishes and sober sorbets that dominate the rest of the channel's picturesque Nigella-Jamie-Raymond roster. Each week a different "big food" eating challenge is featured, in which the host Adam Richman (not exactly a slip of a thing himself) takes part. Burgers bigger than men and double-digit portions make regular appearances. Critics have given it a liberal mauling but viewing figures have been high; Richman has been rewarded with a prime-time slot on the channel, broadcasting at 9pm every weekday.
"It's one of our hottest shows," says Nicola Dann of Good Food. "Adam is really charismatic and we're super excited about it. It's a really nice combination of entertainment mixed with food. It's very different from our usual thing but that's appealing in itself. It attracts a younger audience." Extreme eating, it seems, is not just for extreme viewers.
Alongside his brother Richard, George Shea is the chairman of the Major League Eating, and – like Richman – has built a career on extreme eating. "If you haven't been in the US, it could easily have passed you by. But we're seeing more and more interest overseas. We've just done a tour of Japan and recently we have been in Australia, Singapore and China." Soon, Shea hopes to bring more events to the UK. "We've done three in England – it's a whole show. We have this wry commentary as we go along and I think it could be popular. Hey, we've seen a lot of soccer recently because of the World Cup. Europe gave us football: it's time to give something back."
Of course, the concept is not without its problems. It isn't just Richman's in-yer-face persona, or the unedifying spectacle of his munching through 29 pieces of deep-fried Oklahoma catfish, that has garnered criticism. There are more serious concerns over the ethics and dangers of such practices. Man v Food repeatedly warns viewers not to try any of the programme's stunts at home, but as anyone who ever used to "play Gladiators" in the school playground knows too well, such messages can be lost on impressionable viewers. Vomiting and diarrhoea are among the more moderate side-effects; others include ulcers and digestive damage.
Then there are the broader public health concerns: extreme eating celebrates excessive consumption, in effect condoning binge eating. Frequently, the object of a challenge is junk food. Neither can be very good for rising obesity levels in the West. Shea has little truck with this critique, saying the challenges presented on television or in his contests are too wacky to encourage copycats. "Those are all legitimate issues," he says. "But they're not directly related or caused by us. No one watches what we do and thinks, 'hey, this how we eat now.' Obesity is not eating 65 eggs."
More difficult to shrug off are accusations of moral complacency. In a world where people are starving, the idea of food for spectacle's sake can be distasteful: both gluttonous and wasteful. Defenders point out that the food consumed by extreme eaters could not realistically be relocated. While undoubtedly true, it's a defence that misses the more philosophical significance of such frivolity.
Whatever its moral failings, extreme eating is unlikely to go away. With the extreme cooking market increasingly crowded (Masterchef, The Restaurant, The F Word, Ramsay's Kitchen Nightmares, Britain's Best Dish and so on), extreme eating is, in many ways, a logical next step. I'm a Celebrity ... Get Me Out Of Here! already has contestants munching on testicles and insect colonies; a gimmick that has survived the protests of animal rights activists and become a hallmark of the show. How much longer can it be before we hear the anticipatory phrase: "Eating can't get tougher than this?"
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