During the 17th century, English poet John Taylor wrote about a man who had dined on seven dozen rabbits in one sitting. As the Great Eater, Nicholas Wood appears to have been a local hero. He could eat “some 60 eggs, a good portion of a lamb, and a handful of pies” at a single meal…and still be hungry.
Here, the Great Eater is downing a duck, feathers and all:
We could say that Wood was rather similar to today’s competitive eaters.
Today’s Competitive Eating
Fast forward to Brooklyn, NY in 1916. Legend tells us that each of four immigrants wanted to prove he was most patriotic by beating the others in a hot dog eating contest. And thus began Nathan’s Famous July 4th tradition that this year had Joey “Jaws” Chestnut win by guzzling 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
While world famous eaters like Takeru Kobayashi (aka Kobi), Joey “Jaws” Chestnut and Matt “Megatoad” Stonie compete, there are thousands more who hope to become famous. The food they eat ranges from bowls of kale to bushels of kolaches (a Czech pastry) and chicken wings and tacos. The prize money at local contests typically is somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000.
Like any sport, competitive eating requires technique. But until Kobi (Takeru Kobayashi) showed up in Brooklyn, people were just eating their normal way, only faster. They gulped down a hot dog and a bun, drank some water and started all over again.
Kobi though was not your typical speed eater. Trained as an economics student, he was analytic. The hot dog was the easy part. The bun though needed to be slippery to glide down your throat. His solution was to separate the two. As hot dogs slid down his throat, he squeezed the buns into moist balls after dipping them in water. Moist, the buns went down much faster.
You can see below that when Kobi first competed on July 4th, 2001 he revolutionized the sport:
Here is how Kobi does it:
Our Bottom Line: Competitive Market Structures
An economist might say that multiple competitors and thousands of contests make the competitive eating market resemble perfect competition. Add easy entry and exit and a somewhat identical product with a low price, and you wind up with competitive eating on the left side of this market structure continuum:
So yes, since the 17th century, there has been a competitive eating market.
My sources and more: A recent Sporkful podcast reminded me of the economics of competitive eating. Looking for more detail, I discovered an overview of the industry in this Marketwatch article and the graph from the Economist. A fun topic, its economics range from market structure to creative destruction and thinking at the margin.
Please note that several sentences from this post were previously published in an econlife entry.