Food eating competitions have been around for years, but it wasn’t until the 20th century that it was recognised as a professional sport. The Major League Eating association, formed in 1997 and headquartered in New York City, is the world body that oversees all professional eating contests both large and small.
People-watching is an innate part of life. Throw in abundant quantities of food, competitive eating enthusiasts, and a crowd willing to watch and—bam—you’ve got a sport, one that makes cultural cuisine the focal point of the match. Here are several unique food competitions throughout North America, some noteworthy for their location and history, others for their unconventional cuisine. Let’s dig in!
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest
Coney Island, New York
There are few things as American as baseball, the Fourth of July, and the hot dog. Sausages have been around for many years, but it was Germany that transformed wieners into countless varieties—from bratwurst, to blutwurst, to bockwurst, among many more. Brought to the United States by German immigrants in the 1860s, hot dogs hit the streets of New York City, and were sold to locals from street carts.
Nathan Handwerker, a Jewish immigrant from Poland, took this street food from anonymity to popularity, and it all began in Coney Island. Handwerker’s Nathan’s Famous opened in 1916 and now has restaurants around the world. Its original shop in Coney Island still stands today and is the location for Nathan’s Famous’ annual hot dog eating contest, which takes place every Fourth of July. Competitors have 10 minutes to stuff as many of Nathan’s dogs into their mouth as fast as they can.
Zombie Fest Brain Eating Contest
Long Beach, California
The sentence ‘you’ve got brains’ takes on a whole new meaning in Long Beach during their annual Zombie Fest in October. Long Beach, California, is about an hour away from Los Angeles. The city was founded as a ranching community, and over time, it established itself as a port city. Given the zombie fanaticism of recent years, with AMC’s Walking Dead and movies like 28 Days Later and World War Z, it’s no surprise there’s a festival fully dedicated to the celebration of all things zombie.
A Zombie Fest attendee bites down on a toy brain, but contest participants munch on the real thing.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JEFF GRITCHEN, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/GETTY IMAGES
Long Beach’s ranching roots are represented during Zombie Fest’s brain eating contest. Competitors are required to munch on boiled cow brain and tongues and lick the plate clean. Whoever completes this stomach-churning undertaking first, wins. The cow tongues can stretch up to 1.5 feet long and brains weigh just under one pound. Bon appétit, mon zombi!
Flocktoberfest MoonPie Eating Contest
The birth of the MoonPie is a slightly fabled story with varying narratives, but here’s the gist: In 1917, a traveling bakery salesman, Earl Mitchell, pitched the concept to a local bakery in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after conversations with coal miners on their desire for a snack “as big as the moon”. Mitchell told the bakery exactly what to make—a round pie, four inches in diameter, layered with marshmallow and graham cracker, dipped in chocolate. They made it, people loved it, and now there’s an entire MoonPie factory popping out these sweet treats in Chattanooga to this day.
The MoonPie eating contest is eight minutes of solid concentration—a race to down as many of these Tennessean sweets as possible amid the bait and tackle at Bass Pro Shops’ annual Flocktoberfest. Take the time to enjoy the sights of Memphis, home of Graceland, soul music, and some fantastic BBQ.
Smoke’s Poutinerie World Poutine Eating Contest
Poutine is like a Canadian version of American cheese fries—but so much more. Delicious and fatty, it's totally necessary after a night on the town or a tough day at work. The Canadian history of poutine is a little spotty, but there is some consensus that the dish originated in the dairy town of Warwick, Quebec, around 1957. It is now so popular you can find it on menus throughout the world.
In 2017, Carmen Cincotti was named champion after eating more than 9 kilograms of poutine in 10 minutes.
PHOTOGRAPH BY ZOU ZHENG XINHUA, EYEVINE/REDUX
The original recipe of poutine is comprised of fries, cheese curds, and gravy. People also get creative and add their own variations to this basic list of ingredients, including bacon bits, pulled pork, mushrooms, veggies, you name it. Smoke’s Poutinerie is a poutine restaurant chain that offers a variety of different poutines for different palates. Their poutine eating contest is 10 minutes of fries-to-face action for a grand prize of $6,000.
Western Days Festival Tamale Eating Contest
As neighbours, Texas and Mexico have shared history, cuisine, and culture. Historically populated by the Apache and Comanche peoples, Texas was once a hostile land for outsiders. To encourage settlement by their own people, Mexico lifted tariffs on foreigners. This tactic worked so well it led to a series of battles for control of Texas by Texans—both Anglo-Saxon and Mexican lineage—and the Mexican government. Texas officially became part of the United States in 1846, but Mexican influences remain.
With this history, it comes as no surprise that Lewisville’s Western Days Festival celebrates all things Texan, including the tamale, an ancient Mexican and South American food comprised of corn dough, either sweet or savoury fillings, wrapped in a cornhusk or banana leaf, and steamed until cooked. The Western Days Festival’s tamales are made with pork and served unhusked to competitors, who have 12 minutes to down as many as they can. Ándale!
RELATED: 10 INTERNATIONAL FOOD FESTIVALS
Reykjavík, Iceland—The Food and Fun Festival features an international chef’s competition and local guest-chef collaborations at Reykjavík’s best restaurants. It’s a chance to see how this small island nation has made the most of its luscious lamb, fisheries, and burgeoning dairy farms. Between meals, make sure to nab a pylsur—Iceland’s famously succulent hot dogs. (March)
PHOTOGRAPH BY BRAGI THOR JOSEFSSON