Wing Bowl: Chicken eating with a difference
- 16 March 2014
- From the section Magazine
Filling a 25,000-seater stadium, Philadelphia's annual chicken wing-eating competition is hotly contested by some of the "best" eaters in the land. But the Wing Bowl is so much more than a spectator sport - it's a night of debauchery.
It's 5am and everybody's already drunk.
The Wells Fargo stadium has only just opened its doors, but most people here have been standing vigil in the parking lot, passing beer cans back and forth out of the boots of cars.
"It's the Wing Bowl," my host Nick tells me. "It's the Mardi Gras of Philadelphia."
Two teenagers pass out tablets of the stimulant Adderall to "stay awake".
Once inside the stadium, the lights are so bright it's easy to believe it's day.
Everything here is branded - from the Lexus Club and Cadillac Grille, accessible only to those with special passes, to the Cure Insurance Club for the rest of us.
Nick buys us slices of pizza so enormous it takes two full plates to contain them.
Whatever is on top tastes nothing like cheese.
The contestants are paraded, one by one, each with a gladiatorial pseudonym - Mann of Pie, Oink Oink, Wing-a-Tron, The Bear.
Their 25ft (7.6m) high images are beamed on to enormous Jumbotron screens.
Each entrance is styled to perfection, each contestant carefully costumed, each flanked by an entourage of strippers.
Yet I soon realise that the strippers are not the only women in the stadium expected to bare all for the crowd's amusement.
You see, at the Wing Bowl, the eating of the wings is hardly the main event.
As the competition rumbles on - 30 minutes of wing-scoffing separated by a few commercial breaks - our eyes are on the Can Cam - a camera that picks out the chests of individual audience members and broadcasts them on the gargantuan JumboTron screens.
The more wings consumed, the more aggressive it gets.
The first few women broadcast are expecting it.
They cheer and pull up their shirts the moment they see themselves on screen.
A few have even worn specially coloured bras in anticipation.
But the camera, and the crowd, turn unforgiving.
The women chosen by the Can Cam are no longer the designated strippers, or those actively courting the lens, but ordinary punters - women in sweatshirts and knit caps making every effort to be left alone.
One woman notices herself on the screen and titters awkwardly, trying to wave the camera away.
The audience starts heckling her, but the camera doesn't move.
The boos grow louder, and at last she realises it will not pan away until she does.
Half a second of her breasts, and the camera grows bored, moving on to the next victim.
Only in the final rounds of the competition does the audience's attention shift toward the wing-eating itself.
One of the contestants -Tiger Wings n' Things - has reached the verge of vomiting.
Barbecue sauce smears across his face; some has dribbled down to his beard. He retches but manages not to open his lips.
The camera is on him now. It will not look away.
Everyone screams together: "You heave, you leave!"
The Jumbotron starts up in slow motion, replaying regurgitations past.
One, from 2011, is the crowd's clear favourite - pink spew no less revolting at 26,000 frames per second.
Tiger Wings n' Things tries not to look, but it's too late.
His vomit, when it spirals from between his fingers, is almost dainty - nevertheless, it's enough.
The crowd is ecstatic.
Soon, a leader emerges.
Molly Schuyler, a slender square-jawed woman, sporting multiple ear-piercings and a red and black bandana, breaks the world record when she eats her 348th wing.
She is the only woman and the only contestant without a costume or a campy pseudonym.
Her fingers jerk from the bowl to her mouth with mechanistic speed. The other contestants are bestial, managing to seem hungry even after several hundred wings. But Molly is a machine.
Our neighbour, Frank - an 18-year veteran attendee - provides her backstory.
"You know, that girl ate a 72oz steak in two minutes and 44 seconds. Can you believe that?" He beams at us and goes on cheering.
We've forgotten the Can Cam. We've forgotten the strippers. Schuyler's is the only face on the screen.
"A housewife from Nebraska."
That's how they announce it when she wins.
Nobody asks her to expose herself. We're all too busy screaming her name.
She wins $22,000, a medal, and a championship ring.
She has eaten 363 wings.
The moment the applause is over, we all force our way out.
"Totally debauched, right?" Nick doesn't even try to hide his glee. "It's like Hell on Earth."
A crowd elbows past us. I ask Nick if people are rushing to work.
"The strip clubs all do free breakfast today," he scoffs. "Everyone knows that."
How to listen to From Our Own Correspondent:
BBC Radio 4: Saturdays at 11:30 and some Thursdays at 11:00
BBC World Service: Short editions Monday-Friday - see World Service programme schedule.