Sitting in a corner booth at Junior’s in Brooklyn, furiously shoveling literal fistfuls of what had mere seconds ago been a pristine slice of strawberry cheesecake into my mouth—my hands now dripping with oleaginous, police siren-red, glucose-laden goop—I began to get a queasy sensation. And not just in my stomach.
I was painfully aware that as soon as the clock hit zero, I’d lose any and all street cred with the woman seated next to me—23-year-old Kiwi model-slash-pro eater Nela Zisser—because there was a more-than-decent chance I’d suffer a “Reversal of Fortune.”
That’s competitive eating industry slang for… well, exactly what it sounds like. From time to time, an athlete’s eyes will prove way too big for his or her stomach, and he or she will turn into a human fire hydrant, spouting geysers of whatever foodstuff had previously been engorged during the frenzied bout of mastication.
As per the rules of Major League Eating, the organizing body of the sport, upchucking either during the match itself or soon afterwards results in an immediate disqualification. Zisser told me that she’d witnessed a Reversal of Fortune firsthand only once, during the Sal’s Pizza Eating Competition.
“He threw back up most of the pizza on his plate. It was like a projectile,” Zisser said. I’m lucky I didn’t see it, because that would have put me off a little bit. If you’re seated next to someone that’s going to vomit, you’re basically screwed.”
But I was the one fretting about heaving while cramming unholy amounts of desert into my mouth because, somewhat to my surprise, Zisser wasn’t hungry.
Earlier that afternoon, she’d let delicious pastrami on rye from Katz’s Deli sit untouched. At Junior’s, even though she was “fairly confident I can beat you in any eating contest,” and insisted that she was “a big fan of cheesecake. It’s probably my favorite dessert,” she turned down my challenge to see who could first devour the cakes and pies in front of us.
It sounds like the setup to a hackneyed Seinfeld routine: “So I went to lunch with a competitive eater… and she wouldn’t eat. I mean, come on! What is the deal with that?”
But Zisser had just flown in to New York City for the first time in her life and was in the midst of a pretty jam-packed press tour. Between that, the jetlag, and the mounting pressure of taking on the world’s best on Saturday during the World Famous Nathan’s International Hot Dog Eating Contest, even though she’d never devoured a frank competitively before, it’s not at all surprising that she might not be feeling that peckish.
More to the point, like any athlete, she needed to follow a fairly strict regimen.
“I drink a lot of liquid just to keep my stomach stretched,” she said. “Probably double what the average person would drink in a day. Your stomach’s a muscle. And you have to stretch it.”
Contrary to the popular misconception, her pixie-like, waifish model’s physique carries an advantage—not unlike that of the equally ectomorphic, somewhat disgraced former champ, Takeru Kobayashi.
“You can’t be a big guy,” Zisser explained. “You need to be fit and you need to be small enough that you don’t have a lot of fat around your gut. You need space, and if you’re big, you’re not going to have room for your organs to move or for your stomach to expand very much.”
Which, yes, going from winning the 2013 Miss Earth New Zealand Pageant to wolfing down a 5-pound burrito, a five-foot long subway sandwich in just over nine minutes, 120 chicken nuggets in 16 minutes, 50 mozzarella sticks in less than eight minutes, and many, many more gustatory feats isn’t exactly a standard-brand career path.
Zisser explained that she got hooked by watching YouTube videos of the world’s number two eater, Matt “Megatoad” Stonie. While many people might recoil at the Saturn Devouring His Son-level ingestion, her reaction was instead, “This is really cool!”
“It’s just so exciting!” Zisser said. “Before I watched the videos I didn’t want to become a competitive eater or anything. My mum actually told me to go into the Sal’s qualifier. I’m pretty sure she just wanted me to take her to get free pizza.”
After netting a shocking victory, Zisser entered a few more contests in New Zealand, and the viral buzz generated by her YouTube videos led to a contract with MLE. An online campaign driven by the comic duo Jono and Ben provided the funds that enabled her to make the trek to New York.
Given her relative inexperience with hot dogs, she’s been cobbling together various techniques to create a style that will work for her, which involves deconstructing the wiener and then gobbling them up two at a time.
“You want to take both sausages out, hold it in your hand, and shove them in,” she said, miming. “While you’re doing that, you take the bread and you fold it in half backwards so the soft bit is on the outside. Then you fold it again and dip it into the liquid that you’re using. And then you use the wet bun as moisture to get every bit of debris that hasn’t gone down. Then you do the other bun. So that’s two hot dogs.”
Viewed from the outside, the hot dog contest itself may resemble a pack of apex predators tearing apart a poor felled cow, but there’s actually a great deal of skill and training required to keep all the moving parts working in unison.
“You just have to be conscious of your swallowing,” Zisser said. “When people eat, they take in air. But if you’re being conscious about it you can reduce the amount of air you’re taking. And the less air, the less full you feel. So when I do contests now, I really try to take in less air. Because when you do, you end up feeling sick.”
Speaking of which, anyone who still isn’t convinced competitive eating is, in fact, a real sport might want to take a stab at it sometime. I couldn’t convince Zisser to battle me personally, but she bet me that I couldn’t eat three mammoth slices—a regular cheesecake, a strawberry-topped cheesecake and a piece of red velvet cake from Junior’s—in under two minutes.
Now, I dig food. And I can recall binge eating more than that at various points just for my own pleasure in my lifetime. So I agreed.
Zisser coached me up, recommending that I forgo utensils altogether, lest I accidentally scrape my mouth (an occupational hazard, especially for newbies), and start with the strawberry, because the clunkiness of the fruit would probably prove the most challenging. Also, when my body started to send out blaring signals that I should seriously stop eating, I should use this particular technique.
“You want to turn your head to the side, because it forces you to swallow,” she explained. “Your body does not want you to swallow, because it doesn’t know what’s happening. So if you turn your head, your body will swallow.”
Zisser shouted, “Go!” and I plunged in, plowing my way through the first slice as Junior’s customers seated nearby began to slink away in abject horror. After what seemed like an eternity, I’d barely eaten one piece, and my body was not happy at all. I could not swallow, and Zisser was shouting, “Jerk your head! Jerk your head.”
It worked like a charm and much to my dismay and repulsion, down my gullet the food went. I managed to grind my way through both the strawberry mess and the red velvet cake, but I felt like warmed-over death, as if dairy products were oozing from each and every pore of my body. I tapped out just before the buzzer, falling well short of fulfilling the challenge.
Zisser though, was at least somewhat impressed: “You did good—for an amateur!”
I trudged to the bathroom to clean my Guy Fieri-fied face, horrifying a nice family on the stairwell and causing one busboy to actually wonder if I’d been shot.
Suddenly I started to feel that oh-so-familiar swell of saline welling in my jowls, and I bolted into the stall.
Yep, a Reversal of Fortune. Cookies summarily tossed.
I came back to the booth, exhausted and sweating profusely, a thin layer of gelatinous not-really-fruit residue still on my face and hands, as if I’d been moisturizing with cherry Jell-O.
Television has a strange way of flattening and normalizing the amazing things that athletes do. If you watch the contest this Saturday, you might even be tempted to think you too could munch somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty tube steaks in ten minutes. And if you need a reason to tune in, Zisser is convinced that this is the year that Stonie wrestles the Nathan’s belt—and yes, there is an actual belt—away from the eight-time defending title-holder, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut.
But after Thursday, I realized I was so far out of my league here that the idea of competing against a professional like Zisser was a joke. And the thought of eating anything ever again—particularly cheesecake—was nauseating.
“It’s something you either love or you hate,” Zisser said, providing some measure of comfort. “Some people are obsessed with it. They think it’s amazing and they love watching it. And other people think, ‘Oh that’s disgusting. Who would do that?’”