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LaRue also assigns himself "buffet training." This involves visiting some poor, all-you-can-eat eatery and bombarding his alimentary canal with ten plates of food. Admittedly, if LaRue were not a finely tuned athlete, some might consider this "pigging out." The staff at his favorite restaurants, such as Dynasty Buffet in Miami Gardens, know him so well that they simply show him a table and bring him a pitcher of water when he arrives.
By far the most intense regimen is "dog training." This requires LaRue to simulate the Nathan's Famous competition over the kitchen sink. One night a couple of weeks before the contest, he grilled two dozen hot dogs, stacked them five to a paper plate, and lined the kitchen counter with the plates. He placed a pile of paper napkins nearby because when he eats too fast, his nose runs, one of the many aspects of his body he can't explain because it has always been that way.
LaRue warned: "It's not a pretty sight." He cued up Tool's hard rock album Aenima on the living room stereo and set a timer on his cell phone. Then he took a hot dog from its bun, snapped it in half and plugged the two ends between a set of molars. With 11 quick chomps, they were pulp in his cheeks. While he chewed, he grabbed the bun, ripped it in half, dunked the parts into one of the 44-ounce plastic cups of water by the sink, and mashed the soaking mush into his mouth.
Each dog and bun took less than 30 seconds to obliterate, which didn't seem terribly fast until he did it a second and third and ninth time.
For a while, the only sounds were the buzz from the old Hotpoint refrigerator, the blaring music, and a disquieting wet meat gulp-plop-sniffle-slurp-squish-belch that made LaRue self-conscious. Silvagi watched for a couple of minutes, at first sipping a Coke but almost immediately slowing as she registered the feat at the sink. "Ewww," she said, her face scrunching. "Why can't you eat the hot dog all together?" There was no way LaRue could answer with a faceful of soggy tube steak, so she said as an aside, "He looks like he's going to hurl." LaRue continued to burrow through his hot dog pyramids. He bounced on the balls of his bare feet as water ran down his elbow in rivulets.
When the 12 minutes had elapsed, LaRue's belly was 19 dogs and 17 buns the richer. (That was an improvement from a previous dog run at his home a week earlier, in which he did a mere 17 dogs and 14 buns. After that one, he plopped on his couch and said, "Dude, I'm not even full. I'm going to finish those out of spite." And he did just that.)
After the run, he stood red-faced and blowing his nose into a napkin, pondering the leftovers' fate. "You don't look so bad," Silvagi said. For a guy who had just ingested nearly 6,000 calories and 300 grams of fat, he didn't. He was, after all, upright.
LaRue, still sniffling, pointed to one of the remaining dogs. "If you want a hot dog...," he said.
"I don't want a hot dog," she replied.
Competitive eating may have eventually welled up from its county-fair roots to become a cultural force without the IFOCE, which was just a fluke of timing and effort. But credit where credit is due: It was the Sheas who put their fingers down the national throat and brought eating spectacles to the fore. In the late 1980s, the brothers were running public relations for the Nathan's Famous contest, literally standing on the street to amass a crowd for the annual hot dog-eating ritual, which has been around since 1916. Every year, they gussied up the contest until eaters started calling them. By 1997, they had formed a sanctioning body that now boasts more than 3,000 members and in the past year, has overseen more than 70 competitions in eight countries.
Among the foods: onions and pickles and cabbage and crawfish and deep-dish pizza and a whole host of other things that seem appealing until you watch someone down them in hazardous quantities.
"We did a huge thing [the 2001 Glutton Bowl] on Fox," George Shea says. "That was somewhat of a miss. We did Battle of the Buffets on the Travel Channel. Great show, wrong place. It's the Travel Channel. Its viewers didn't appreciate a piece of corned beef swinging from Cookie Jarvis' maw." The Sheas travel constantly, carnival-barking to crowds at fairs, malls, and conventions and giving off the aura of kids waiting for someone to walk up behind them, tap them on the shoulder, and tell them the jig is up.
But whatever; people keep watching this crazy mess, and they keep serving it. "I am hot dog boy," George Shea says. "I'm embarrassed, yes, but I've grown to accept that."
After California and New York, Florida is probably the hotbed of the sport. There's a wings contest in Miami, sweet corn in West Palm Beach, a Nathan's Famous qualifier in Pembroke Pines, burgers in Jacksonville, and up until a couple of years ago, conch fritters in Key West. The purses usually reach about $1,000 for all the competitors -- hardly enough to keep a family fed but enough that the top eaters can cover expenses. The Wing Bowl in Philadelphia this year did bestow a new, $20,000 Suzuki sedan on its winner.