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It’s early afternoon and I’m at the Yankee Doodle coffee shop, looking down at a plate stacked high with steaming burgers. The man to my left is wearing blue and white face paint and talking about eating strategy. Not your standard lunchtime chat, but then this is no ordinary lunch. We are here to break the Doodle record.
“You wanna chew thoroughly, so that you just have tiny little pieces falling into your stomach,” he advises. “I would go with no condiments until flavor fatigue sets in. And drink as little as possible, maybe a dram of water per burger, because you don’t wanna waste space.”
“Got it. But once I start feeling full, how do I get over that mentally?”
He says I need to find my motivation. And he should know. He’s Tim “Eater X” Janus, the sixth-ranked competitive eater in the world and the current Doodle record-holder. In February, he ate 33 burgers in two and a half hours (the time limit for the Doodle Challenge), earning the official prizes: his name on the Wall of Fame, a trophy, and his burgers for free. Though my hope is to defend the honor of Yale by breaking his record, I know this notion is wildly ambitious. Instead, Eater X suggests that I pick someone from the Doodle Wall of Fame and try to beat him. I look up at the plaque on the wall and recognize a name: Garrison Smith '95, with whom I played JV hockey my freshman year.
“Did you like Garrison?” Eater X asks.
“Well, he didn’t like you.” Eater X smiles. “He ate 19, so your motivation is to beat him and eat 20. Do the deuce, as they say on the hot dog circuit.”
Rick Beckwith, the third generation of Beckwiths to own and run the Doodle, reminisces about the day Smith broke the record. It was September 13, 1991, Garrison’s freshman year. Because he is Mormon and doesn’t drink alcohol, the hockey team decided that eating Doodle burgers until he got sick would suffice as his initiation rite. The whole team showed up to watch. But Garrison got the best of them, because he broke the record and didn’t get sick.
So now that I’ve figured out my motivation, the question remains: what is the motivation of competitive eaters in general? As a part-time emcee for the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and the author of a book on the “sport,” I’ve been grappling with this question for nearly three years now. According to Kelly Brownell, the chair of the Yale psychology department and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale, their motivation is simple: celebrity. “If the social context weren’t there, where people can enter a contest, beat other people, and get some attention for it, do you think someone would go home and eat 50 hot dogs?” Even Garrison Smith concedes that his Doodle champ notoriety was kind of alluring. He fondly remembers random students shouting out “Doodle guy!” and was later shocked to see his record featured in a Food Network documentary about restaurant eating challenges.
Twenty minutes and five burgers into the challenge, I realize that even Smith’s record is likely out of my league. I ask Eater X if I can drink water yet. He shakes his head no, steadily munching. If you ask him about how competitive eaters (or “gurgitators,” as they’re called) do what they do, he would unblinkingly say that it’s a sport for which they train like any other athlete. The most common method is water training—chugging massive quantities of water—which expands the stomach and trains the esophagus to accept large chunks of partially chewed food, a crucial skill for a speed-eater. Eater X says he can put down a gallon of water in 31 seconds. During the 2005 season, his training paid off, literally, to the tune of $20,000 in prize money.
Conversation turns once again to strategy. Eater X talks about his tour of Midwest restaurant eating challenges. In Michigan, he ate 43 and a half chili dogs (more than 12 pounds of food) to break a long-standing record. He had brought a Cuisinart in hopes that the manager would let him chop up the food and then spoon the chili dog slush into his mouth, but he ultimately decided to eat them “in the same condition that they had been given to me.”
The Doodle’s Rick Beckwith says he has outlawed blenders, but as far as he’s concerned, cutting is kosher. He remembers how John Bockstoce '99, the last Yalie to hold the record, cut the burgers up and popped them into his mouth like hors d'oeuvres. Bockstoce made three attempts in five days, eating a total of 69 burgers. He finally nailed the record with 26 the day after his graduation.
Although the nature of the Doodle challenge has changed radically as professionals have moved in, the restaurant itself has remained essentially the same for more than 50 years. There’s the same din of conversation punctuated by the scraping of a metal flipper on the grill. The same smell of buttery goodness and the pile of little paper cups filled with “special sauce.” The same old cigarette vending machine near the door. (It hasn’t worked since the '80s, but Beckwith won’t part with it because it was installed the day President Kennedy was shot.) And the same slogan high above the counter: “The place is small / The food is great. / It’s worth your while / To stand & wait!” Outside the window, Broadway has upgraded to shops selling trendy clothes and natural exfoliants, but inside, one of the Beckwith boys is still serving up Doodle burgers.
Eater X has lapped me now. An hour in and he’s put down 20 to my 10. To keep ourselves amused, we hum while we chew and try out new “techniques” like turning the burgers upside down and standing on one leg. Customers walk in, check our progress, and wish us luck. My ambition wanes as my stomach distends. Always encouraging, Eater X sees triumph through the fog of my despair. With 10 burgers down, he explains, I just passed Ed Anderson '89, the first-ever Doodle champ.
A few minutes later, flavor fatigue sets in. Eater X takes a pack of powdered lemonade from his backpack and asks for water. He explains that he pioneered the “alternative beverage movement” on the circuit in 2005. “I realized that lemonade cuts the flavor of hot dogs like Palmolive cuts grease.” Since then, others have followed Eater X’s lead, including the great Takeru Kobayashi, the hot dog champ, who now brings iced tea to every contest. At Eater X’s suggestion, I order a Coke. It is unnaturally delicious, like carbonated ambrosia.
Just after I finish my 11th burger, the first one with ketchup, it hits me. Hard. I feel warm saliva rising in the back of my throat and grow suddenly convinced of impending doom. I’m sweating and the world is swirling and the Doodle suddenly feels like a disturbingly fragrant prison cell. I slow my breathing and put down the burger. The wave of nausea ebbs a little but is replaced by an existential crisis. What am I doing here? Is this competitive eating thing completely insane, or at least, in Professor Brownell’s words, “glorifying the wrong sort of behavior?”
But the moment passes, along with the dilemma. While staring at the hulking slab of butter next to the grill, it occurs to me: I can stop whenever I want, which is to say, now. Freedom! The final tally is 13 burgers (for which I have to pay) and one penetrating stomachache. On a positive note, I have achieved a personal best. Eater X will soon break his own record with 34.
A burly construction worker walks in, helmet in hand. He asks Rick where the Doodle challenge guy is and then expresses shock at how small and fit (5' 10", 170 lbs.) Eater X is.
“How many has he eaten?” the guy asks.
“That’s his 33rd,” Rick responds. “One more to go.”
“God bless him.” The construction worker shakes his head. “Hey Rick, can I get a salad?”
Tennis ace Brandon Wai '07 was the unanimous choice for Ivy League Player of the Year, capping a season in which he was undefeated in league play. The men’s and women’s teams both finished with a share of third place in the Ivies.
The women’s golf team regained the Ivy League title this year at the league tournament in New Jersey on April 23. The team had placed second to Princeton in 2004 and 2005. Defending individual champion Cindy Shin '07, who will captain the team next year, finished second.
For the seventh straight year, the Crimson heavyweight crew beat the Bulldogs at the Yale-Harvard Regatta in New London, Connecticut, on June 11. Silver linings: Yale’s freshmen rowers beat Harvard for the first time since 2000, and the varsity race had the closest margin of victory (7.8 seconds) since 1999. This was the 141st edition of the nation’s oldest intercollegiate sporting event.
The heavyweights also finished sixth at the Intercollegiate Rowing Association’s national championship regatta on June 3. The lightweights came in fifth in their race. The women’s varsity placed tenth at the NCAA championship on May 30.
Another Yale swimming great has donated an Olympic souvenir to alma mater. Mike Austin '64 presented his gold medal from the 1964 games to the university in a June 3 ceremony at Payne Whitney Gymnasium. Austin won his medal in the 400-meter freestyle relay along with three other Yale swimmers. Austin said he was inspired by his teammate Steve Clark '65, who gave Yale one of his gold medals last year.
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