The shimmering circus that is Times Square oozes neon fingers through the front glass of ESPN Zone, a restaurant in which people watch 14 large televisions while they dine -- and one small screen when they urinate. In a second-floor skybox overlooking this den of excess on an early July Saturday, a 44-year-old man-hulk from Hollywood, Florida, named Joe LaRue is settling down to a buffet plate heaped with goopy chocolate desserts. About 18 hours from now, he will ingest more hot dogs in 12 minutes than most people eat in a summer. Tonight, the brownie mound is a potential gut-plug after a full dinner.
"I wouldn't if I were you," fellow eater Dale Boone advises.
"Go get a plate," LaRue joshes. "I'll beat you."
Ah, the camaraderie is almost palpable, if not very palatable, before the world's biggest digestive bacchanal, the annual Fourth of July Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island.
Imagine, if you're not just sitting down to an omelet or a plate of noodles, a league of comic book heroes whose sole, shared superpower is the ability to down food in Costco portions at hors d'oeuvres speeds and you might begin to comprehend this gathering. The six-foot-eight white dude with the trimmed hair and a sapphire in his left ear is LaRue. The loudmouth tottering about in the overalls and coonskin cap? That's Boone, an alleged descendant of Daniel, who once consumed 28 reindeer sausages in ten minutes. The bearded fellow in the suit with his ass filling a crater in the couch? That's Don Lerman, who set a world record by gulping 7.5 sticks of salted butter in five minutes. "I love butter," he says. "But when you eat that much, it's not that tasty. The grease is overpowering. Best laxative I've ever had."
Across from Lerman, with the plate of victuals in his lap? That's Cookie Jarvis, a human Himalaya capable of scarfing 64 ounces of mayonnaise in five minutes. "That's only half a gallon," LaRue says, almost dismissively, when he recalls this fact. The guy in the mustard-colored sports coat and shorts with a bouquet of dreadlocks crowning his grinning head? That's Crazy Legs Conti; he's trying to explain to a New Zealand documentary film crew the meaning of tomorrow's Coney Island race. He asks what is the biggest sporting event in New Zealand, and the answer comes: Rugby World Cup. "OK, Rugby World Cup," Crazy Legs says in a gallant display of cultural insensitivity. "Take that, and bump it up a notch."
The towering Japanese fellow with the mouth seemingly large enough to conceal a mid-sized chandelier? That's Nobuyuki Shirota, the only human ever to have beaten the otherwise superhuman eating champion, Takeru Kobayashi, who in 2002 set a world record of 50.5 hot dogs in the 12-minute Nathan's Famous race. Aside from Shirota, only a brown bear has out-eaten Kobayashi.
"Beyond any sport, we're the most dedicated athletes," Jarvis says. "Because if you don't win, what's the point?"
Among this astounding group, LaRue stands out because of his height and also because his 280 pounds are more muscle than bulbous belly meat. After two years of competitive eating, he's ranked seventh in the world; that's hardly a scientific rating, but it's safe to say that few humans (or baleen whales, for that matter) can eat more food in less time than LaRue.
"He's one of the fastest-rising stars in competitive eating," says George Shea, who with his brother Richard runs the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), which oversees the contest. "He's a big man, and he harkens back to the very essence of humanity. If he were on the plains of the Serengeti 50,000 years ago, he would have survived."
He'll have his plates full tomorrow, when in front of 10,000 screaming, grimacing fans, he'll chug dogs against 19 others. ESPN will broadcast and rebroadcast the event to 2.75 million households. It's the first time the super bowl of competitive eating -- the Rugby World Cup of the sport, if you will -- has been carried by the network. The niche sport is growing even faster than America's collective love handles, and o! the glory that befalls its fearless competitors!
LaRue lives in a two-bedroom apartment on Sheridan Street a couple of miles west of I-95, in one of those fungible South Florida complexes that look like a layer cake of 40-year-old beach hotels. The living room holds a couple of couches, a desk cluttered with newspaper clippings, and a bookshelf jammed with about 80 cookbooks. LaRue is a part-time chef at one of the area's finer kitchens, the Turnberry Isle & Resort in Aventura; from banquets there, he has spirited out a mess of wine corks to glue against a wood frame to make a bulletin board. That project sits perpetually half-finished in the tiny kitchen that is LaRue's pantry, his sanctuary, his laboratory, and his training room.
When going against the world's best, LaRue sharpens his prodigious powers of consumption with various forms of preparation. One is what he calls "water training." He fills 20-ounce tumblers of water and gulps them in succession. In the past year, he has nearly doubled the amount he can drink at one sitting to about a gallon and a half. This is enough water to make most people quite ill or, perhaps, dead. It makes LaRue feel woozy.
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.
His lanky roommate, Steve Lutz, arrived home with his chatty blond girlfriend, Becky Silvagi, just as LaRue was psyching himself up. "I've never seen this," she said.
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.
George Shea says the league lost money for years but is finally looking up and working on television deals, and talks are moving for a reality TV series. "We're not making these guys up," he says. "It's not like 'Stone Cold' Joe LaRue who people see through. The quest is real, and the competition is real."
You will never eat so well as when you hang around LaRue. "Dude, you hungry?" is a standard greeting at his front door, then out comes, say, a roast beef, pepper jack, lettuce, tomato, and mayo sandwich built into a half-yard of French bread from Publix. On a night when he barbecues, he stands in the small apartment courtyard wearing a pair of cloth shorts with the fly down and a T-shirt with a cartoon pig head from a North Carolina barbecue joint named Lancaster's. He's a droll sort of jolly, quick to offer a dry joke or a flat Sprite. He talks about how he loves the pots and pans at work as he arranges his $29-a-set cookware and begins preparing the exquisite barbecue chicken and what he calls "salt potatoes." He boils them along with a pound of salt and slathers them in so much butter that they taste like candy-coated heart attacks. In a 12-minute contest, he figures, he could eat three, four pounds of them.
"I'm a person of limited moderation," he says. "In every aspect of my life. Except for money. Earning has always been in moderation."
He was born in Binghamton, New York, the third of four children, in 1960. One of his earliest memories is from when he was about 6, when his dad, Lloyd, drank himself out of his job as loading-dock muscle at IBM. The family left its house and moved to a mangy apartment with graffiti in the hallways. LaRue remembers a Christmas when he was about 10 years old -- his entire haul was a secondhand vinyl gym bag. From a young age, LaRue's appetite was remarkable. His old man, a 325-pounder who also answered to "Ox," used to ask him: "Do you have to make a fuckin' meal out of everything?"
"He had a rough growing up," says his maternal aunt, Evelyn Napierala. "His father was not the best provider."
Ox had a hard time getting or keeping work. When the old man would guzzle a quart of Fleischmann's whiskey by 1 p.m. and pass out, LaRue would sneak a couple of ounces from the bottle and stash the stuff. At age 11, he was meeting friends on a nearby railroad trestle to drink.
He had a mind to play wide receiver in high school, but his coaches wanted to put his six-foot-four, 178-pound frame on the line. LaRue ditched and took up soccer, which he wasn't particularly good at because by that time he was generally too stoned to much care. After graduation, he went to work as a cook but dedicated himself to getting drunk.
At the time, his mother, Irene, suffered from epilepsy, diabetes, and vicious mood swings. "I was the only one who could calm her down," LaRue recalls. When he was in his mid-20s, they found part of the cause: She had a brain tumor nearly the size of a baseball. That one, surgeons carved out. In 1986, they found a second one. LaRue thinks her medication kept her blood sugar artificially high, which prevented her family and doctors from noticing that she wasn't eating. Only after she died did it occur to Joe that she had starved herself. "I never really felt it until years later," he says of her death. "Addiction numbs quite a few things."
In this time, LaRue worked a steady procession of humdrum jobs. He sold insurance, then swimming pools, then windows, then home improvement; then he turned a wrench for a while as an auto mechanic. By 1990, he was running deliveries for an industrial laundry. Then he met Stacey Rehberg, whom he would later marry, at the gas station where she worked.
She remembers his vast appetite. Sunday breakfasts were a pound of bacon, two pounds of potatoes, and a pile of eggs. At his favorite restaurant, Old Country Buffet, she would so tire of watching him eat that she would bail mid-meal to read a book in the car. "He was a big boy, and he ate a lot of food," she says. But she loved him for what he was, and LaRue was moderating other parts of his life. He got sober in 1991, an event he commemorated with a tattoo on his left biceps of the Alcoholics Anonymous symbol breaking through a chain. He and Stacey tied the knot in a hilltop park in June 1994.
In 1995, his brother Mark, an addict, succumbed to a brain tumor. Then his dad, who puffed chains of Chesterfield King nonfilters pulled up with emphysema and heart problems. LaRue put him in a home and visited him weekly. "We didn't get along until I was sober," LaRue says, taking the blame for that rift. "I saw too much of me in him." His father died in February of 1998, and later that year, LaRue quit smoking. He bought pretzel sticks and Tootsie Pops in bulk, to give him something to hold, and packed on about 15 pounds.
Clean, sober, and a nonsmoker, Joe LaRue became restless. He left Stacey, and two years ago, needing a change, he did what 700 people do each day: move to Florida. Originally, he followed a woman to Coral Springs, but that imploded about the time he got here. So he was kicking around, working for an appliance repair shop, when friends told him a meal he cooked one night was so intricate and flavorful that he should be a chef. In September 2002, he enrolled in culinary school, at Johnson & Wales University; he is two years shy of a bachelor's degree.
"He's still struggling," his sister Cathy says. "But I think he's come a long way, and I'm proud of him for moving on."
In fact, LaRue has sublimated his self-destructive cravings into a calling. Whereas some recovering addicts find God, he found food.
According to LaRue, the best Broward sushi restaurant is an all-you-can-eat joint in a Lauderhill strip mall between a ten-cent bingo parlor and an adult video store with posters advertising Paris Hilton's One Night in Paris. He drives there one 80-degree summer evening with the heat running full-blast in his irascible 1995 Chevy S-10 so the engine doesn't turn to cinder.
When the enormous man lumbers into Sushi Takara, heads turn. He plops down and fills out the little order cards that look like Monopoly money. In the next 45 minutes, he eats two pieces of white tuna, 32 sections of various rolls, seven hand rolls, a summer roll, an autumn roll, a spicy conch salad, something called a son-in-law egg, and three chunks of tempura bananas. "I could eat more," he says, "but I don't want to bore you." Then a waiter brings a huge plate of stuff that LaRue didn't order and walks off. By now, you can pretty much guess what happens.
"Excess has been with me my entire life in one form or another," he says. "I have found a balance with it. I can't let excess rule my life."
In another dimension, Joe LaRue would be merely local legend, a wisecracking gentle giant with a storm drain where his esophagus ought to be. His friend Marshall Levy, the former banquet sous chef at Turnberry, praises LaRue for working hard and pushing himself to invent new dishes. But Levy marvels at the cafeteria lunches in which his friend mows down three heaping plates of food. "How can one man eat so much food?" Levy says. "I don't know where it goes, I don't know how he doesn't get sick or something. To be honest, it was kind of nauseating."
It was 1999 when LaRue had the mini-epiphany that launched his athletic career. He had just come from the all-you-can-eat pancake breakfast at the Marathon Maple Festival in Marathon, New York, when he mentioned to someone that the festival ought to have a pancake-eating contest. He was told that they did -- and that he had missed it by an hour. He waited a year, then made like MacArthur and won the first of his three titles there.
"We've had some characters, some 300-pounders -- you can't fit a ribbon around their neck," says Connie White, who coordinates events at the festival. "They can't eat like Joe LaRue. Those guys go down in flames."
Florida opened a new world of eating for LaRue. In June 2002, he read about the Nathan's qualifier at Pembroke Lakes Mall after the fact. He went online and joined the IFOCE. "That's when they contacted me and told me, 'Hey there's a contest down your way,' " LaRue says. "I said, 'Oh, really? Kickass.' " It was conch fritters, in Key West. He drove down as an unknown and placed second, with 41 fritters down the ol' stovepipe. Among those in his conch contrails: Ed "The Animal" Krachie, a two-time Nathan's winner at Coney Island.
"Dude, I was elated with second place," LaRue says. "I thought I could have won it. I hesitated for maybe 15 seconds -- which when you're competing is an eternity -- to catch my breath, look around for a second. I lost like two, three conch fritters."
Suddenly, a surreal thing was happening. LaRue was finding that an ability he had always taken for granted was being measured. And he happened to be one of the best in the world. The next year, he romped in the local qualifying event for the Nathan's competition, with 14 dogs, and at the 2003 Nathan's contest at Coney Island, he scarfed 19, good enough for eighth place. He followed that with a sixth-place finish at a chicken wings competition in Buffalo and seventh at a chicken taco contest in Grand Central Station.
The only time LaRue has been formally kicked out of a restaurant was the day he pulled a chair up to a Shoney's breakfast buffet in Davie for a radio stunt in 2003. The manager shooed him. "Well, it's an all-you-can-eat buffet, right?" he replied. "I'm going to eat it all." The manager threatened to call the cops. LaRue filled a couple of plates and was noshing away when an officer arrived and politely escorted him out.
"I wasn't trying to be a hard nose, but I wasn't going to put up with that," general manager Barbara Higgins says. "Our biggest seller is our buffet. I get complaints when a child goes up and touches the food, much less an adult. I'm reasonable with people, but that's not reasonable."
This year, in preparation for the Footy's Y-100 Wing Ding in Miami, LaRue was invited to the nine Hooters restaurant qualifiers in Broward and Miami-Dade counties. Anyone who finished first or second was qualified for the Wing Ding. LaRue swept all nine, including two in one day. He won the second leg by a scant wing, then ordered a cheeseburger out of gastric chutzpah. Some wise guy bought him another, then someone ordered him a third. Another man pulled out $300 and bet LaRue that in his current state, he couldn't eat five cheeseburgers. "I wanted to," LaRue says. "But I just couldn't cover the bet." At the Wing Ding, he razed more than three pounds of chicken wings in 12 minutes to earn a giant, gold, wrestling-style title belt that he keeps in a cotton cover in his bedroom.
"Some people look at [the contests] with disbelief and disgust," says James Gelfand of Coconut Creek, a friend and fan of LaRue's who helped coordinate the Wing Ding and qualifiers. "It's a freak show."
This April, LaRue finished second in the Sweet Corn Fiesta contest at the South Florida Fairgrounds. To earn a trip to the 2004 Nathan's contest in Coney Island, he vacuumed up 18 dogs in a qualifier at Pembroke Lakes Mall, then told a Miami Herald reporter, over a huge post-match pastry, "I do it because I can."
He's perfecting his techniques yet. He lifts weights, cycles, and runs nearly every day to maintain enough muscle to burn the excess calories. He has learned not to starve himself before a race and instead pounds a gallon of water about six hours ahead of time, to hose himself out. He lost the corn contest because of sheer mandible fatigue. Before next year's event, he's determined to develop some kind of jaw-strengthening apparatus.
What began as a simple, consuming-all proposition has become all-consuming. "To have the model of the alcoholic father -- I learned those excesses, and later on, after I got sober, I could still eat, but it wasn't an escape that the drugs and things were," he says. "It went from fun to a minor hobby to I don't know what you call it now. I'm a professional eater. I can't make a living off it, not yet. I'm trying to figure out a way to."
Maybe one day, there will be sponsorships, movie deals, signature restaurants. To this point, LaRue has done well to break even. Maybe five grand in travel expenses, five grand in winnings. And a cholesterol level of about 230. He's trying to bring that down a few points.
"Joe's going to any length to enter the contests, whether he has to scrape up his last dime," Stacey says. "I wonder sometimes, but he seems to have faith that something's going to work out in the end."
One night after throwing a massive roast beef sandwich to that prolific furnace in his abdomen, LaRue rests on his floor, his legs sprawled on the carpet. For once, he speaks softly, as if revealing a tender revelation. He says, "I think I can do fuckin' anything."
The weather conditions on July 4 in Coney Island are clear, breezy, and wonderful. Eaters worry about standing in the sun for a half-hour at a time. Wrapping their stomachs around dozens of hot dogs is brutal enough and can induce crippling perspiration fits known as "the meat sweats." But the sun today is mild. It's a delicious day for spectacle.
George Shea, wearing a sport coat and barbershop quartet straw hat, barks to a throng of what must be thousands, in addition to the live ESPN audience, proclaiming his precontest show of rappers and banjo players and cheer squads "Broadway meets Vegas meets vaudeville meets grade school." (Shea later admits he was scared out of his wits, improvising like hell for the broadcast, and had a total budget of $75 for the entertainment. All considered, he performs admirably, though his blue tongue, stained by Gatorade, belies his inexperience.)
As the contest draws near, the 20 eaters pile out of their charter bus and approach the long stage surrounded by photographers. LaRue stands in a sleeveless white shirt and a pair of up-yours black Oakleys. "The sweet corn-eating champion of Florida! The conch fritter-eating champion of Florida!" Shea proclaims. "The missing link -- but not between man and ape. Between man and God! Jammin' Joe LaRue!"
They seat him near the end. Other eaters file on. To huge fanfare, Kobayashi takes center stage. He waves and smiles without showing his formidable teeth. At the devouring hour, 12:45, it becomes spectacularly apparent why the young Japanese glutton has groupies.
He is the embodiment of eat. He is a plague against hotdogkind. He is astonishing. Superhuman. Nauseating. It's downright violent, the way he buzzsaws through a hot dog, then pulverizes the wet bun and mashes it open-palmed into his mouth. The spangled girl flipping Kobayashi's tally card for the crowd stares at her eater like a child watching a mare drop a foal.
The horror. The horror.
From down the row, LaRue is having his best contest ever. But he is a tortoise chasing the hare. His difficulty arises from his blind adherence to the traditional human impulse to chew. He noshes at full height, tilting his head backward like a Tyrannosaurus, and lumps slide down his exposed throat. Later, he recalls the dialogue in his head as he forced himself to swallow: "More, more! You must eat more! Keep shoving food in me!"
While LaRue languishes in the teens, Kobayashi ravages his way past 40 hot dogs, then 50, and when he breaks his preposterous world record with the 52nd dog, LaRue and the other eaters turn to stare. The crowd erupts, and Kobayashi steamrolls to 53.5 dogs. The ESPN broadcasters earnestly posit, to the 765,000 households that are tuned in, that Kobayashi may be the greatest athlete in the world.
Afterward, LaRue stands at the side of the stage. His pockets bulge with plastic bottles of mustard and wasabi he pilfered from the table. He knew that salmonella poisoning was the only hope he had of surpassing the ravenous champion, but he had hoped to do better than the personal-best 20 dogs that earned him tenth place.
As Kobayashi accepts a towering trophy, LaRue mutters, "The bastard." Then he adds: "I'm gonna go get a burger."
The weekend after Nathan's, LaRue was in Orange County, California, on his own dime, for a doughnut-eating contest. With time expiring and Don Lerman (the butter junkie) midway through his 28th donut, Joe crammed the last bit of number 27 and an entire number 28 into his mouth.
"At five, four, three, two, one, I was shoving two donuts in my mouth," he says over dinner one night. "The news people, I could hear them go, 'Uhhhhh!' "
Lerman beat him by a quarter-doughnut in a one-minute tiebreaker. Actually, both men managed four donuts in the overtime, but judges ruled Lerman swallowed first.
"Swallowing is one of my biggest downfalls," LaRue laments. "That is one thing holding me back. The other thing I need to get used to is, I want to chew too much. I've got to work past that.
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"I've thought about trying acupuncture. It's not like I'm having surgery to enlarge my esophagus. There's an Oriental herbalist. I stopped there, and I was talking to him about it. He said, 'I have advice for you.' I knew what he was going to say. I said, 'Yeah, what?'
"He said, 'Don't do it.' Don't do the contest.
"I told him, 'Thanks. Have a nice day.'
"So I'll find it," LaRue continues, probing the problem of how to take it all in, all of it, the fastest of anyone. Of how to remove the body from the equation altogether. Of becoming a mind and a mouth. "I've got a guy who may help me with Zen kind of shit, and that may help. I'm looking outside myself to look inside. I know the answer's inside. But I haven't been able to pull it out yet."