Monday, November 7, 2016

Competitive Eating: A Local History

By Kelli Huggins, Education Coordinator

In recent years, competitive eating has become a popular and widely-recognized activity (some would say sport) with professional organizations and contests with major prize money. The 4th of July hot dog eating contest sponsored by Nathan’s Famous on Coney Island is a televised annual spectacle that features contestants downing inhuman amounts of processed meats. But, while taken to extremes now, competitive eating is nothing new. For example, in Elmira over the past 100+ years, there have been eating contests featuring raisins, crackers, corn, bread, cake, fried cake, pancakes, ice cream, clams, hot dogs, doughnuts, eggs, lollipops, apples, candy, milk, sandwiches, and peanuts, just to name a few.
Local corn eating contest, 1921
American eating contests got their start at county fairs and community gatherings. For most, pie was the food of choice. Pie eating contests were popular in Elmira from as early as the 1890s. Sometimes the contests would be only for youths or they would be separated by gender (yes, ladies-only pie contests were popular). In other contests, everyone participated together.
Pie contest, Elmira Heights, 1955
 Pie contests were a centerpiece of local company outings and were the source of the most anticipation and drama. For example, at a September 1920 American-LaFrance annual gathering: “In the tug-of-war contest the most disastrous event of the afternoon occurred. P.D. Zeippto, a man upon whom friends relied to carry away the laurels in the pie eating contest, lost a tooth. Zeippto, while resting upon the ground, placed the end of the tug-of-war rope in his mouth. Someone pulled the rope and with it came one of Zeippto’s teeth.” The contest continued, minus Zeippto, and “All four contestants during the contest suffered from acute attacks of lockjaw” from the quantity of huckleberry pie.
Advertisement, 1926
That same month, at the American Sales Book Company picnic, “the most disastrous event of the afternoon came in the pie eating contest. Murphy was far in the lead in this game and was nearing the center of his third cocoanut pie when someone pushed his head. Flanden then took the lead in the race and easily won by eating four pies- an apple, one custard, and two rhubarbs in less than three minutes.”

The other most popular food for eating contests was watermelon. Watermelon contests, while frequently open to all competitors, did often have racist connotations and built upon the post-Emancipation stereotypical racial symbolism of the fruit. As late as the 1930s, these contests were advertised as only open to African American boys or they pitted black children against white children.
Contest recruitment, 1901.
Most contests were more light-hearted, however. When the Hoyt’s Musical Revue was at the Lyceum Theatre in 1918, they arranged special events, including a spaghetti eating contest to “learn who the champion spaghetti eater is in Elmira.” In 1925, cracker contests (which involved eating a bunch of crackers and whistling a tune) were so popular, the newspaper printed contest instructions. The YWCA hosted caramel and marshmallow contests in 1930 as part of their Halloween celebration. A 1933 Kiwanis meeting featured a “ludicrous banana eating contest” between Fred D. Crispin and Osmond G. Wall.

The heyday of competitive eating in Elmira seems to have peaked in the 1920s, but it remained popular through early 1950s. Understandably, there was a decrease in that type of activity during the Great Depression. Likely, if there was extra food available, it would have been seen as poor taste to make such a spectacle of gorging oneself. By the 1910s and 1920s, contests sometimes featured branded products (like the original Nathan’s contest in 1916) or a 1920 Nabisco eating contest in Elmira.
I will conclude with my favorite instance of competitive eating in Elmira, which also happened to be a city-wide endeavor. For Good Friday, April 10, 1925, local bakeries worked together to make 56,936 hot cross buns. The goal was for everyone in the city to have all of them eaten by midnight. By 3pm, 31,726 had been eaten. I’m not sure if they hit their goal or not.

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