MAN ABOUT TOWN

A nibble at the world of competitive eating with a gyoza contest

At a gyoza eating contest in Little Tokyo, one thing to digest is how competitive eating can be excessive yet oddly revealing of the human spirit.

Love lettuce wraps. Love burritos. Love the crumbs you clean from the toaster just before it's about to catch fire. So when it comes to food, I am not picky.

I bust my tail — in the pool, on the trails — six days a week just to be able to eat everything within view. Otherwise I would have the same circumference as the late James Gandolfini.

As Mark Twain said, "Go to heaven for the climate, hell for the company."

Pick your reason, the 21st century will go down as one of extremism. We overdo everything. Work. Exercise. Even the size of our TVs.

Perhaps this is how we offset our fears — of terrorism, of job loss, of whatever it is you're fearing lately (the next Katy Perry hit?). Binge living: the answer to our runaway paranoia.

That's a big setup for a story on competitive eating, but I always like to add context; they teach that in journalism school, where the other thing I took away from long afternoons learning about semicolons is that you'll probably never make a living at writing. Turns out that was pretty true.

You are also, let me warn you, reading something written by someone with 30 pot stickers still swirling in his tank. They are also known as gyoza, these greasy little dumplings filled with mystery meat. Pork? Maybe beef. Perhaps a mixture: poeef. Sounds vaguely French. Poeeeeef, s'il vous plait.

It was my first eating contest. There were plates of gyoza in front of me, a little corduroyed around the edges from too long in the Little Tokyo sun.

"Just don't vomit, guys," some judge tells us. Hmm, so it's kind of a fancy joint?

My goal: 50 pot stickers in the allotted 10 minutes.

At the microphone is Sam Barclay, a straw-hatted host for Major League Eating, an outfit that organizes up to 80 such contests a year in the U.S. and Canada.

"Too many of us are broken souls," the wry Australian tells a crowd of 500. "We kneel by the side of the road, only to be covered by the dust of our enemies' hoofs."

Weird, huh? But amusing. I was kneeling by the side of the road just the other day, praying a little, coated in dust.

Around me today, some of the best in the biz, including Joey Chestnut, who's always winning that Coney Island hot dog challenge. No. 1 in the world, Chestnut has lots of people who would like to dethrone him, including me.

"That your real name? Joey Chestnut?" I'd asked a few minutes earlier. "It's a great name."

He said yes, though growing up it was difficult because classmates would poke fun: wing nuts, walnuts. Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.

"Kids are evil," he said, and I think most people would agree.

Every college dorm has a guy like Chestnut, 29, quick to smile and determined not to spend his life in some cubicle, determined against all odds to enjoy what he does — in this case, pounding food down his gullet. Somebody probably told him he'd never make a living at it either.

At last year's Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship, Chestnut ate 266 of these pot stickers — 10 pounds in 10 minutes — and until you try it, you have no appreciation for what a feat that is.

Competitive eating is everything your mother taught you not to do at age 3. Contestants smash the food into their mouths, then python the grub down their throats.

If fellow competitors start to hurl, one veteran warns, "just close your eyes and go to your happy place."

Just before we start, I notice a stray hair in my plate of 25 pot stickers — not mine, the hair is darker, with more product. Immediately, I go to my happy place.

"Begin!" yells the MC, so we do.

Look, this event is to eating what mud-wrestling is to Mozart. Excessive, not artful, yet oddly revealing of the human spirit. I downed 30 of the little suckers (and one human hair), right on the heels of Chestnut with 251 (and no human hairs).

Matt Stonie, a 21-year-old in skinny jeans who's majoring in (irony alert) nutrition, wins with a world record of 268, earning the $2,000 first prize.

If this isn't the next Vince Vaughn movie, I'll eat my hat. And your hat. And the cap of the old codger next to you.

But with his, I'll need a little extra soy.

chris.erskine@latimes.com

twitter.com/erskinetimes

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