PHILADELPHIA— The Wing Bowl ended for me at 9 a.m., three hours after the early morning competitive-eating contest began. But Takeru Kobayashi would not be finished with the event for three more days.
After eating 337 wings in 30 minutes on Friday, the champion eater took home $20,000, a golden scepter, and a crown decorated with rubber chickens. He inhaled so many wings, he could have sat out the final round of the competition and still won. But he ate on and won with a 66-wing margin.
Crouched on a confetti-strewn stage in Philadelphia's Wells Fargo Center, Kobayashi cradled his distended belly and predicted his wing shits would last for the next 72 hours. Then he averted eye contact and giggled.
In the three hours I spent following the world's most famous competitive eater around the massive arena, I had been pelted with garbage, felt up by a porn star, shouted down by racists, splashed with beer, and asked to show my tits. All before most Americans started their workdays.
* * *
A 20-year Philadelphia tradition for "the men who get kicked out of sporting events—the boorish, drunken slobs who curse too loudly, start fights too easily, [and] harass women too aggressively," the Philadelphia Wing Bowl has grown from a morning radio contest held in a hotel lobby to a large-scale festival of gluttony held at an indoor arena that seats 20,000 and is home to Philadelphia's professional basketball and hockey teams. Think of it as the Coney Island hotdog eating contest as produced by Joe Francis.
The result was a loosely organized inferno. On the outer ring, thousands of men and a handful of women sat in stadium seats, swigging beer and watching mechanical bull and mud wrestling contests. Every time the Jumbotron focused on a woman, it began with a close-up of her breasts. A chorus of men would immediately chant, "TAKE IT OFF." Busty women hoisted their boobs to their chins and made kissy faces. Friendly women rubbed their boobs against their friends. Exhibitionist women pulled their boobs out of their bras, allowing their nipples to swing free. The "kiss cam," typically used to highlight cute couples at sporting events, was exclusively for girl-on-girl action today.
On the floor of the stadium—the second ring of Wing Bowl Hell, dedicated to lust—strippers posed for pictures and gyrated.
"It's fun," a bottle-blonde stripper told me through a yawn. She wore a fresh set of acrylic nails and panties with her employer's logo stamped on the butt. "The club pays us to be here, and then guys come to the club after, so we make money there, too." (Wing Bowl, keep in mind, is more or less over by 9 a.m.)
Porn star Mary Carey was in attendance, but I never saw her. I did, however, manage a photo op with Ron Jeremy. When he put his arm around me, his hand mysteriously ended up halfway up my shirt. Given the amount of female flesh he likely encountered that day, I didn't take it personally.
The innermost ring of Wing Bowl hell is reserved for two-dozen semi-professional gluttons. Together, they would consume thousands of sauce-slathered wings. Their seats were arranged in four-foot increments on a raised stage. OINK OINK, one name card read. FREAK OF NATURE, read another.
The event's top-ranked competitors would sit side-by-side. Takeru Kobayashi, the 5-foot-8 Japanese waif who revolutionized competitive eating with six Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Championship wins (not to mention a contract dispute, one arrest and one cheating accusation) would sit beside Super Squibb, Philadelphia's 6-foot-4 hometown hero and three-time undefeated Wing Bowl champ. Compared to Squibb, Kobayashi was an outsider: This was his first Wing Bowl ever.
Tradition holds that eaters enter the arena on homemade floats and with entourages composed of local dignitaries and "Wingettes," the scantily-clad women in charge of delivering plates of wings to the eaters, cheering the eaters on when they grow fatigued, and wiping the tables clean between rounds. If Wing Bowl were a boxing match, Wingettes would be ring girls. Around 7 a.m., I joined their ranks. Kind of.
Team Kobayashi had gamely played into the boxing motif. His float was decorated to look like a boxing ring; backstage, he donned a grey warm-up suit and red boxing gloves, performing stretches and shadow boxing. His Wingettes wore red booty shorts, striped athletic socks, and KOBAYASHI belly tees. I wore a regular KOBAYASHI tee, slashed at the neck, with jeans. My job was to strut in front of Kobi's float holding a TAKERU KOBAYASHI sign over my head.
My Wingette disguise worked perhaps too well. One of the dignitaries in our group was Bernie Parent, the 66-year-old former NHL goalkeeper who won the Stanley Cup with the Flyers in 1974 and '75. A white-haired man with a tan face and squashed nose, Bernie walked up to me before our entrance, chuckled, and wordlessly began to rub me like a shiny trinket.
"You see this ring?" he said, waving a Flyer's ring before my face and applying friction to my torso. "I got it for winning the Stanley Cup." He rubbed me from my ears to my elbows. "What, not a hockey fan?"
He pulled out his phone and showed me a picture of his boat.
I led our group into the arena, KOBAYASHI sign aloft. The crowd broke into a chorus of boos and pelted our float with empty beer cups and wadded-up garbage. Between 4 a.m. Wing Bowl tailgates and beer-soaked all-nighters, some of the attendants had been drinking for hours on end.
I initially mistook a heated chant of "U-S-A!" for standard-issue sports arena chanting. (Kobayashi, who moved from Nagano to New York City in 2010 to optimize his ability to eat hotdogs, is something of an American dream.) Turns out it was a taunt. In 2004, Wing Bowl attendants jeered Korean-born champion Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas with the same chant. Josiah Schlatter, an Asian-American reporter for Off the Bench, said afterwards that one drunk attendee shoved him into a lamp post outside the stadium and shouted, "Get the fuck out, Asians! U-S-A!"
"I felt like a Japanese dude in the 1940s," Schlatter said. He'd also been called a "chink" and "Kobayashi's boyfriend" while wandering the mostly white Wing Bowl crowd. People made slanty eyes at him and waved their middle fingers.
Though half Asian, I didn't weather any direct racist confrontations. Apparently my second X chromosome deflected racism; most guys just wanted to see my tits.
As Kobi's detractors assaulted us with half-eaten pretzels and dirty napkins, the procession devolved into mayhem. "Move! Move! Move!" a security guard shouted, yanking Kobayashi off the float. Another guard materialized, and together they covered the miniscule eater's head and shuttled him to the relative safety of the stage.
Within the hour, Kobayashi would shatter the Wing Bowl record and strike valiant poses for reverent articles in the local papers. For now, though, he was most hated man in the city of Brotherly Love.
* * *
The eating was disgusting.
For half an hour, orange-skinned Wingettes carried orange chickens wings to the eaters. The competitors would rend the meat apart with orange-coated hands, cramming it into mouths ringed with orange, chins glistening with orange-tinted drool. As a member of both the press and Kobi's entourage, I was free to wander the stage for the duration of the contest. I wandered back and forth, alternately peering into the churning mouths of the contestants and fighting the urge to vomit.
In 2002, Kobayashi introduced a style of competitive hotdog eating that involved breaking the dogs in half and dipping the buns in water. For the wings, he scrunched the wing meat at the top of the bone, then ripped the flesh off with his teeth and swallowed. He barely seemed to chew. Super Squibb's method involved sticking the wings into his mouth and twisting, as though sharpening chicken-limb pencils. Several contestants wore snore strips over the bridges of their noses to facilitate breathing.
Wing Bowl's sole female contestant, the 5-foot, 100-pound Chillita, ate with her face centimeters from the plate, barely looking up as she tossed the cleaned bones aside. Chillita wore sweatpants and an oversized men's t-shirt. Her Wingettes, among the competition's most glamorous, were voluptuous women with wavy hair and rhinestone push-up bras. One had a rhinestone cell phone tucked snugly into her cleavage.
At the end of the first four-minute round, Kobayashi had downed 165 wings to Super Squibb's 144. When the emcee announced his score, Kobi lifted his shirt and pulsed his belly in and out, and the crowd roared. In the second round, he recovered from a brief gagging incident with a broad smile and a tap of the throat for a two-round total of 317 wings. Super Squibb, alternating between stuffing his face and staring in awe at Kobayashi, had mustered only 252 wings by the end of the second round.
I leaned over to Kobayashi's manager-translator-girlfriend Maggie James. She had spent the contest crouched beside him. Was she happy with her boyfriend's performance?
"We were hoping for 400," she sighed. "You can see he's struggling. He's really pulling the meat." With clenched teeth, she pantomimed wrenching meat from a bone.
It should be noted that any eater who vomits during Wing Bowl is disqualified. When a competitor gags, the Jumbotron zooms in first on his sickened face, and then switches to vintage footage of contestants projectile vomiting to encourage mass nausea. Despite the Jumbotron's efforts, no competitors vomited this year.
Watching people eat for thirty minutes gets boring. Standing at the edge of the stage awaiting the final speed-eating round at 8:30, I entertained myself by trying to visualize 400 wings. I ended up with an image of 200 disfigured chickens, stripped of their wings, clucking and pecking at the ground instead. My mind wandered to a scene from dystopic Margaret Atwood novel Oryx and Crake, in which geneticists engineer a species of extra-edible chickens. The characters observe a "large bulblike" modified chicken with 20 "thick fleshy tubes" emerging from it:
"That's the head in the middle," said the woman. "There's a mouth opening at the top, they dump the nutrients in there. No eyes or beak or anything, they don't need those."
"This is horrible," said Jimmy. The thing was a nightmare. It was like an animal-protein tuber.
Later, as I used the bathroom in Kobayashi's locker room, I looked at a row of urinals and toilets and thought about tubes. How the wing-eaters tilted back their heads to ease their gag reflexes, turning the top halves of their bodies into funnels. And how, a few hours of digestion later, they would plug their butts into these white porcelain tubes and release the remnants into a network of water-filled tubes called plumbing.
Everything everywhere resembled a tube. People were tubes. Throats were tubes. Beer bottles, toilets, sinks, the fountain-tip pen I used to take notes. Photographers used glass tubes to take pictures of human tubes swallowing flesh stripped from chicken tubes. The boob-jigglers on the Jumbotron were flashing their milk tubes. I turned on the faucet tube, pumped the soap tube, and washed my hands in cold water.
* * *
For all the spectacle competitive eating makes about how the food goes in, competitive eaters are surprisingly shy about how it comes out. I approached Super Squibb minutes after his 271-wing second-place finish. As the best-performing Philadelphian, he had won a new car. A ring of reporters pointed eight microphones at his sauce-smeared face, murmuring questions about personal bests and whether he'd need a new garage.
"What's your shit going to be like after this?" I called out.
"Are you serious?" an indignant Squibb snapped, turning to walk away. Notebook in hand, I ran after the formerly undefeated three-time Wing Bowl champ.
"But you're going to digest it, right? What's that like?"
Without breaking stride, Squibb looked over his shoulder. "Just like you'd imagine shitting 271 wings would be," he said. He strode away with purpose, in the direction of his locker room.