After his wife left him, my cousin invited me to Roy's Chicago Doggery to witness a strange act. He had decided to sign up to eat Roy's Big Bad Wiener, or the Challenge Dog, a 22-inch, one-pound Vienna beef hot dog dressed with a minimum of three condiments, accompanied by a basket of fries and a one-pound milkshake. In 12 minutes and 27 seconds, he inhaled the combined four pounds of food, toppling the previous record set at Roy's by four minutes.
In the gravel lot afterwards, onlookers applauded his iron stomach. And yet just one month later, he would yield to a four-minute trounce himself at the hands of Stephanie Wu, an amateur competitive eater from Pleasant Hill, Calif. At the age of 40, Stephanie Wu is barreling through the world of competitive eateries, claiming 34 records in the last year since embarking on her goals in December 2009.
At a follow-up visit to Roy's, in Petaluma, I sensed a slight difficulty for owners Chris and Kate Badouin to describe Stephanie. "She's not a Belgium fart girl; she has class," explains Kate. I think of all the women I know that competitively eat, which is none, before Kate adds, "Maybe this is how she fits into the world. Wait. Nobody fits into the world."
Roy's Chicago Doggery is located at the Petaluma Livestock Auction Yard, on the north side of town. The day Stephanie ate up the record was auction day, a busy afternoon. Due to sheer size, Roy's contest dog is kept at an offsite location. Chris and Kate request their contenders phone in the day before an attempt so they can more appropriately stock the doggery; unfortunately, this request evaded Stephanie's discovery. Yet seeing as Stephanie drove two hours to contend, Kate generously vamoosed from the busy doggery, returning with the chauffeured hotdog in her truck.
Upon the hotdog's arrival, Stephanie withdrew her competitive eating accoutrements: a video camera and a scale. Then she sunk Roy's Big Bad Wiener into the galley of her belly, filming the ragtag-swallows of doggery mash along the way.
"Afterwards, she went into the parking lot and was taking pictures," explains Kate. "I followed her out there and started talking to her. She is so unique. I went home and looked her up. I wanted to follow what she was doing."
That evening, I discovered Stephanie's website, a massive compendium of haunting food challenges in the North Bay and beyond. Her website features greasy burger towers, lumpish 12-egg omelets, burritos surpassing my baby weight and a frightening six-pound, 25-inch pizza that Stephanie has attempted but failed eight times. Part documentation of incredulous activity, part investigation into the interminable stomach of a human, Stephanie's website inspired me to contact her. She agreed to meet me at the Hyatt Summerfield in Pleasant Hill.
My initial impressions of Stephanie were customary—inferred stereotypes of some overweight pseudo-epicure. Stephanie is a big girl, nearly six feet tall with a concomitant appetite. During our conversation, she frequently testifies to her weight, but in a subtle way that makes one's chest feel concave. What I found is that Stephanie unequivocally loves food. It must be difficult quantifying a plenteous love of food, I think to myself, but having naturally been an incredible eater since her earliest memories, Stephanie has almost overcome the burdens of her passion.
"I remember one time having dinner at a friend's house," she tells me, "while I was in elementary school—it was an American-chop-suey type of dish, though we called it 'goulash' locally—and I was not able to stop eating it and kept going for seconds, thirds, fourths, etc. I must have gone back at least five times for extras. I remember the parents were looking at each other strangely, wondering why I couldn't control myself."
In 1987, Stephanie attended the University of Rochester in New York, where she graduated summa cum laude. During our discussion, she makes several comments on her innate perfectionism, an attribute she's used in competitive eating. Stephanie's need to be perfect has helped her to develop a pedagogy for massive consumption. For instance, she notes that eating copious amounts of cabbage before a competition can balloon your stomach with gas, expanding its size in such a way to enable consuming mammoth portions of food. She also digresses into mastication mechanics.
"The best eaters out there don't chew, they swallow," she explains. "I tend to use the back of my tongue and press it against my soft palate as I'm chewing a little bit, and if the food is small enough, I can let it pass. If the tongue detects a piece that is too awkward, I don't let it pass because I don't want to choke to death."
She continues: "Chewing and swallowing is so instinctive, you learn as a little child how to do it correctly. That's hard to overcome, because it's a safety mechanism. You have to learn how to block that instinct and just chew and swallow. They say you should start out with yogurt or cottage cheese, soft items that if you choke won't kill you."
In all this eating, Stephanie has only suffered one injury: prickles from crab exoskeleton, difficult for even the "crabwise" to avoid during the heat of competition. There are serious bodily dangers associated with competitive eating, such as water intoxication, stomach ulcers, stomach paralysis, nausea, obesity and, of course, projectile vomiting. Most commonly, competitive eaters suffer from stomach cramps, diarrhea and lack of bowel movements before and after competing.
The world of competitive eating doesn't pay, either, unless you're a professional, and even then the salary is too paltry to support a comfortable lifestyle. Traveling to competitive eateries and losing can escalate your bill plenty. In October, Stephanie attempted a 72-ounce steak that, upon failing, ran her about $100. Her highest paying victory was $150. Considering those figures, Stephanie has no desire to go professional; she's content with her current day job selling air conditioning equipment online, being her own boss and consuming as much as her passion will permit.
Several days after meeting Stephanie, I inform my cousin that his record at Roy's has been decimated. His response? "I can't take that from her," he acknowledged. Then, smirking, he said, "If you get my wife to come, I will do it. I can beat her."
Roy's Chicago Doggery, 84 Corona Road, Petaluma. 707.774.1574. Stephanie Wu remains the only female contestant to have successfully challenged Roy's Big Bad Wiener. See her incredible achievements at www.stephaniesamerica.com.