Diner: Big Appetites

Competitive eaters do their best to avoid reversals

Feb 1, 2006 at 2:06 pm
Woodrow J. Hinton

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Kevin "The Carburetor" Carr is belching again, his cheeks puffed out partly with air but mostly with noodles, chili and cheese. A Columbus-based competitive eater, Carr is sitting at a table in Skyline Chili in Clifton, demonstrating his eating skills. More precisely, he is hunched over a Classic 3-Way Chili, raising a forkful of noodles to his mouth and sucking them in with a wet slurp. It is a messy business. There are several forkfuls of sauce slowly congealing in Carr's beard. He shovels another load into his mouth, pulling out the noodles that simply refuse to fit. Then he shovels another load in, and then another, and another and another.

"I've been trying to lose some weight," Carr said earlier, as a waitress placed three steaming inverted 3-ways in front of him. "I've been on the Atkins diet, and this isn't exactly approved," he said.

"So, we'll see how I deal with all this starch."

He then pulls out a bandana with flames printed on it, ties it around his shaven head, and puts on a pair of wraparound sunglasses. Two paramedics are standing by, and Carr's wife and two children are watching from a nearby table.

Carr is wearing the official shirt he earned as a competitor at the 2005 U.S. Open of Competitive Eating, held last July in Las Vegas, and sponsored by Alka-Seltzer. He has a goatee that serves as a makeshift food trap and, predictably enough, he is a very round man. "I'm 5-foot-10 and I haven't weighed myself in a while," he says, giving a 3-way an exploratory prod with his fork, "but it's probably around 300 pounds."

"I've never eaten Skyline Chili fast, or competitively," he admits. "The thing that's going to trip me up is the cheese." He looks down at the chili again, appraising it one more time. "I've thought about cutting it," he says absent-mindedly, and then turns to his wife and asks, "Hey, honey, do you have a knife over there?"

And then it begins: Carr lifts a forkful of chili from the bowl and quickly stuffs it into his mouth. Sluuuurrrp! His brow is furrowed with concentration. He plunges the fork back into the chili, chewing furiously, cheeks bulging. He pauses to take a gulp of water. Carr is in the zone. It takes him about one-and-a-half minutes to finish the first 3-way, and another couple of seconds to pull the next one across the table toward him.

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According to International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) rankings, Carr is currently 40th in the world among competitive eaters. This puts him well behind some of the stars on the competitive eating circuit, such as Badlands Booker (No. 5: 49 glazed doughnuts in eight minutes); Cookie Jarvis (No. 4: 1 gallon, 9-ounces of vanilla ice cream in 12 minutes); and Dale Boone (No. 13: 84-ounces of baked beans in one minute and 52 seconds), who announced his arrival on the circuit at The Hibernation Cup finals in 2003, in Anchorage, Ala., with what the IFOCE called, "A solid performance in cannoli and a victory in pelemeni."

Last summer, Carr's U.S Open campaign was brought to an abrupt end by Sonya Thomas who, despite her 105-pound build, is capable of eating 80 chicken nuggets in five minutes. She is currently ranked second in the world.

"I went up against Sonya and got smoked," he says. "It was cheese fries. I ate about two pounds, and she ate four pounds. She's unreal. She'll eat through a Buick if she has to."

Meanwhile, back on Ludlow Avenue, it takes Carr another minute-and-a-half to finish the second 3-way. If he's pacing himself at all — and, frankly, he doesn't seem to be — it's to avoid what competitive eaters fear more than anything else: A reversal.

Reversal ( ri-'v&r-s&l) noun : Failure of the stomach to accommodate a sudden influx of food, causing already ingested food to exit the body at speed from the mouth.

As euphemisms go, reversal is a powerful example, simultaneously describing the event without once mentioning what it involves. In the competitive eating world, with first-prizes of $4,000 or more, a reversal is a disaster.

"It's disqualification," Carr says gravely. In fact, a reversal is a disaster in any world. A reversal, for instance, during a non-competitive eating demonstration at, say, a Skyline Chili on a recent Sunday afternoon, would certainly be a disaster.

"Reversals happen when you push yourself too hard," Carr said earlier. Now, as he takes another gulp of water and continues to shovel chili into his mouth, I want to tell Carr not to push himself too hard. Not today. Not here.

"They call it the reversal of fortune," he says. "It's sometimes called The Urge on the circuit."

Carr recalls the 2004 World Baked Beans Eating Championship, held in Centerville, Ind.: "Me and Cookie Jarvis both reversed on that one," he says ruefully. "I did a slight reversal, and Cookie was a few seats down. He heard me and did an even bigger reversal."

"The competition took a turn for worse," read an Aug. 8, 2004, article in The Palladium-Item, "when two professional competitors, Kevin Carr of Ohio and Ed "Cookie" Jarvis of New York, threw up in front of the crowd." Cookie Jarvis later told reporters, "I thought it was a burp."

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Carr, who likes to say he's been in training all his life, entered his first competition in 2003. "I did chicken wings in Cleveland," he says, "and I ate, I think, right around 80 in 12 minutes. That was my first contest. I did well."

After the contest, Carr was approached by IFOCE co-founder George Shea. "George liked what I was doing," Carr says, "liked my attitude." Shea offered Carr a contract with the IFOCE, which sanctions events and is distinct from — and rather disdainful of — the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, which has its own rankings and sanctions its own events.

Carr accepted. In May 2004 in Columbus, he competed in his first event as an official IFOCE eater, eating four pounds of noodles in 10 minutes, and reversing with nine seconds remaining: Disqualified.

As with any other sport, competitive eating has its own esoteric rules, rivalries, contractual obligations and sponsorship deals. On the books, there are eating records for more than 80 types of food, including asparagus (Sonya Thomas), cabbage (Charles Hardy), and sweet corn (Cookie Jarvis). There is even a figurative wall that eaters hit, which is no less daunting to those who encounter it than the wall a marathon runner must overcome to finish a race.

"The seventh- or eighth-minute mark of a 10-minute contest is rough," says Carr. "That's what separates the men from the boys — if you can eat past the wall."

Back at the table, Carr has finished his third 3-way. He is scooping a fourth bowl of chili into the weigh bowl of scales that, until now, have been stowed in a bag beneath his feet. The needle bounces wildly for a moment, and then steadies. Carr leans close to peer at the gauge.

"The unofficial weight is about 14-ounces per bowl," he announces. "So, just a little under three-pounds in five-and-a-half minutes, which is OK for a freshman effort, I guess."

Wiping his hands with a napkin, he checks the scales again, nodding slowly to himself.

"I feel pretty good about that," he says. "I didn't throw up, and that's always a good thing."

CONTACT CHRIS KEMP: letters(at)citybeat.com. You can also and visit his personal food blog at http://dailydinner.blogspot.com.