By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Kyle Swenson
At least 200 spectators gathered before a Florida Panthers game recently to witness a hot-dog-eating contest outside the BankAtlantic Center. Along the way, they got to see the gruesome underbelly of a sport that seems to be nothing but gruesome underbelly.
The favorite at this match, as he is in just about any eating contest in Florida, was Hollywood's six-foot-eight Joe LaRue, who has advanced from the South Florida regional qualifier to the Fourth of July Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest every year since 2003. In an indication of just how competitive this competitive eating thing has become, though, the contest in Sunrise attracted not the usual field of LaRue pushovers but a contingent of ringers, including five eaters ranked 12th to 26th in the world.
And it got ugly. The dogs, LaRue tells Tailpipe, were dry and leathery, not for the faint of mouth or for amateurs. Most of the competitors who took their places on the dais gamely chugged their dogs as the emcee, Ryan Nerz, carnival-barked their totals to keep the crowd engaged. As the requisite 12 minutes expired, both LaRue and "Crazy Legs" Conti, who holds the world record for speed consumption of green beans, had totaled 21.5 hot dogs. Nerz announced, to merry applause, that a one-minute overtime would decide matters.
It didn't, really, though the fast-paced gorge could easily have served as an appetite suppressant for weight watchers. Conti and LaRue ate as men condemned to eat, breaking the dogs and stabbing them into their mouths with visible displeasure. As the minute expired, and with LaRue behind by some fraction of a dog, he rammed another dog into his bulging cheeks. The 'Pipe was standing close enough to the stage to catch the distinct aroma of vomit in the air. As Nerz and the judges examined the eaters' plates, LaRue and Conti strained to keep their mouths closed and the food moving down.
Nerz returned to the mic to announce the decision: Crazy Legs, who thus automatically qualified for the national event in Coney Island. LaRue, mouth still packed with concessions, tried to protest. Out of the mouth of the giant contestant came a strangled "No!" The sound of Nerz's amplified voice drowned him out, then a rock band that had been waiting patiently at the other end of the pavilion started covering Tom Petty, and the crowd dispersed.
LaRue is still furious. He says Conti not only sprayed food everywhere as he ate, he broke one of the cardinal sins of the sport when, at the end of the overtime, he vomited into a hand towel and later into his shirt, which he discarded.
"It wasn't one of those where you pick up a towel and wipe your face off, you know?" LaRue says. "He's never in his life gone over 20 hot dogs. Twenty-five, that's not a number that he's capable of doing."
Conti, with a Bushian shrug, contends that he didn't suffer a reversal as he wiped the dog detritus from his goatee. "I've been on the circuit for five years, and as a trained gourmand, you're able to hold it down," he says, adding that he sympathizes with LaRue's close loss: "My heart and stomach go out to him."
Reached by phone in New York, George Shea, chairman of the International Federation of Competitive Eating, sticks by his judges' ruling, but he held out hope for LaRue as a Coney Island wild-card contender. "I think that speculation that Joe would be well-treated would be well-grounded," he said.
Meanwhile, the national sweet-corn-eating championship in West Palm Beach is scheduled for Saturday. LaRue, the returning champion, wants to move past buns to cobs. "Right now," he says, "I've got to think about corn."
You can't afford one of those frappuccino things at Starbucks, and the line at Quizno's is spilling out the door, and you just need a quick fuel stop. Or maybe you're on a college food plan and you have no other choice. So you hit the Florida Atlantic University cafeteria. The Marketplace Cafeteria, as it's called, is where you can get a quick hamburger or a burrito or a plate of baked ziti as part of the $6.25 blue-plate special. Just don't spend too much time there, students say, because your clothes start smelling like mozzarella sticks.
OK, the place sucks. But it's not supposed to make you sick. That's apparently what it did two weeks ago, infecting 150 undergrads with a norovirus. The origin of the virus is officially unknown, but the most likely culprit was food workers in the cafeteria (could it have been somebody who didn't heed the restroom signs admonishing employees to wash their hands?), which is where many of the students reported scarfing down their Friday lunch before the outbreak of VomitFest '06.
Wherever it started, the thing spread in waves, like a red tide coming in, students say.
"It was wretched," senior Max Schuversaid. "I was locked up in the bathroom all day... Some people are getting sick that didn't seem to be involved with eating at the café; it's like a second wave or something spreading to other students."
"It seems like it wasn't one specific food," senior Billy Wilkesaid. "Like, I had bratwurst and my friend had chicken, and we both got sick. It might have been the utensils that were infected."
The sickness just rolled in.
The public relations machine at FAU dashed off a series of news releases that described receiving "various reports from individuals with gastrointestinal symptoms ranging from nausea to diarrhea and vomiting." The virus, common on cruise ships and at homes for the elderly, is highly contagious and spreads quickly in tight living conditions, the press office noted. College dorms are an ideal breeding ground, and FAU has more than 1,900 kids living within vomiting distance of one another.
As of late last week, university staff were cleaning flat surfaces with sanitary wipes, starting with the tainted cafeteria and working their way to dorm rooms. A news release reminded students of basic cleanliness techniques, rarely seen on a college campus, which include washing their hands frequently, "especially after toilet visits." The press office helpfully advised students that they should flush all "vomitus and/or stool" in the toilet (as opposed to, say, collecting it in a balloon or pasting it into a scrapbook). Hand sanitizers have been installed throughout campus.
It has been a rough year for FAU. The epidemic comes on the heels of a student-gone-wild being shot by a campus police officer in the middle of the night. The February 8 shooting created another frenzy of news releases, including a letter written by University President Frank Brogan, to portray FAU as the safest campus in South Florida. It didn't help that the shooting occurred while the university was still investigating a high-profile rape that went down at high noon on Thursday last October. That was followed, of course, by the fake rape on February 26, a report by a student that she had been attacked that was subsequently proven to be false.
The norovirus seemed like the perfect metaphor for the malaise that seems to have struck the campus.
"With all of the recent problems at FAU, I'm wondering if I've wasted the last four years here," Wilke says. "I'm glad this is my second-to-last semester."
Tailpipe says, let's nip this in the bud. When the contingents of eager freshmen are introduced to the campus by student guides, all you FAU veterans button up!
As told to Edmund Newton