By Nate Odenkirk and Bob Odenkirk | Staff and Guest Writer
Paramus, New Jersey – By nightfall, only five were left. The judges shuffled back to their hotel rooms, drained from the day, and when they amble back into the Radisson conference center tomorrow for day four, they expect to see the five contenders back at it, as well as the same pile of food (refrigerated overnight), barely diminished. The same drying chicken, the congealing rice, the long-wilted spinach, all of it having reached a point of stasis. The audience, comprised mostly of family members corralled into the room, will resume tearing hairs out, astonished at the snail’s pace of it all. This sheer talent for taking forever to finish eating is one that is often “discovered” by incredulous loved ones. It is, in this way, a family affair. This is the world of slow competitive eating.
Having held the first championship in 2015, slow competitive eating is growing at a pace akin to the rate at which these competitors masticate—unhurried. “It started out really small, but now we’re just small,” remarked founder of the Slow Eaters Sport Association (SESA) Andy Lowenstein as he nibbled at a timeworn turkey leg. Lowenstein, a judge at this year’s event, is simultaneously competing in another championship, in another state, that began last month. “That’s the best part about this sport. You have enough time to judge one competition, compete in another, and spectate in a third contest all at once, all while spending lots and lots of time with your family, which they love” Lowenstein explained as he gently sipped a paper cup of flat Diet Coke. “By the way, SESA is pronounced just how it’s spelled: se-sah,” he volunteered.
It started out really small, but now we’re just small!
Slow eating competitions go like this; contestants are given a full meal, and the last one to not finish their food wins. Entrants are given unlimited bathroom breaks, with extra points awarded to whomever comes up with a good pretext to excuse themselves. In the colorful world of slow competitive eaters, you get a lot of different strategies. “I compete for the points,” said Randy Williams, a rising star in the sport. In a gripping moment at last years’ event, Williams rose from his table, eliciting sighs of relief from his family, thinking the meal was finally reaching its terminus. As some especially antsy family members were putting on their coats, Williams clarified that he “wasn’t done, just need to freshen up in the bathroom,” unnecessarily adding, “I’ll be right back to clean my plate!” at which point audible groans were heard from his family, as well as cheers from the judges.
It is not surprising that most slow competitive eaters are naturally slow eaters anyway and are just happy to do something productive with their oft-undesirable trait. Lenny Fager, a storied competitor in slow eating circles reflected on his decision to join the sport. “Just knowing there’s a place where other slow eaters like me can show off their skills is all I need,” he said. Fager is a legend in the sport for holding the absolute record for slowest meal ever eaten, a Thanksgiving dinner at his brother’s home where the dessert couldn’t be served until after midnight so that Uncle Lenny could first “finish chewing,” as was the quaint family ethos. Truth be told, Lenny never really finished that repast; he proudly keeps the last piece of food from that fateful supper—an ancient, mostly-eaten pudding cup—still open in his backpack, proudly showing it off to any family member imploring him that it’s time to wrap up.
My family roots for me—to hurry up—but I know in the end, when I bring home that trophy, they’re proud. And relieved.
Others are in it for the low-key quality time. Briana Stokes regularly tops the women’s division. “My family roots for me—to hurry up—but I know in the end, when I bring home that trophy, they’re proud. And relieved.” Stokes explains that most events end silently, as both the competitor and extended family will have long since exhausted every possible avenue of polite conversation through the dinner marathon. “The check may have been paid, but that doesn’t mean we need to leave—if anything, that’s when the dinner really begins,” she says.
It’s now the afternoon of day four and the competition is cooling down, like the rice pilaf and chicken did eons ago. Two of the contenders are using the bathroom, while one of them is checking her phone under the tabletop. Yet another still is nursing a glass of room temperature water. The audience stares with increasingly angry eyes, the excitement is outdone only by astonishment and frustration; that’s what slow competitive eating is all about.
POST-SCRIPT: After eight days, Randy Williams ended up taking home the “audience favorite” award, which came with a brand-new set of polystyrene to-go containers he can use next time he’s out with family. ♦