Competitive eating leads to full stomachs… and proposals?
Wed, Nov 11, 2009 (1:32 p.m.)
Photo: Allison Duck
When did pie-eating contests go from backyard activity to competitive sport? These days there are eating contests for just about anything: birthday cake, steaks, oysters you name it. When Steve Martorano, owner of Martorano’s restaurant at the Rio, stopped to think about all the things that could be eaten en masse, he got an idea.
“I was debating whether to have a cheese steak eating contest or a meatball eating contest,” Martorano explained. “We’re really known for our meatballs, though. Gourmet magazine said we have the best meatballs in the world in 2007.”
This seed sparked the idea for the first ever Martorano’s Masters Meatball Eating Championship. The event, sanctioned by Major League Eating, was the first of its kind, because it required participants to use a fork rather than their hands to shovel the food into their faces. This greatly altered the eating technique, but the sanctioning body felt it was necessary to give proper respect to the restaurant’s famous meatball recipe.
“It’s my grandmother’s recipe with veal, beef and pork and a lot of Italian love,” Martorano said, refusing to hint any more at the delectable recipe, “You got to wait for my book to come out on the first of January. It’s called Yo Cuz, It Ain’t Sauce, It’s Gravy.”
One eater who didn’t need to be told the difference between sauce and gravy was the top ranked competitive eater in the world, Joey Chestnut. The man who downed 68 hotdogs in 10 minutes this summer explained how he developed a love for and ability to eat competitively: “I grew up in a big family and my mom made big Italian dinners. My little brother saw that I could eat more than anybody and he signed me up for my first contest, and after that I was addicted.”
Chestnut managed to consume 50 meatballs in the allotted 10 minutes, setting a new world record in the meatball division. On the scale, that’s 6.35 pounds of Martorano’s meatballs. Second place finisher Pat “Deep Dish” Bertoletti was only one meatball behind Chestnut, while Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas came in third with 42 meatballs.
Henderson resident Rich “The Locust” LeFevre came out of retirement to take on these top ranked eaters in his hometown. He first hit the competitive eating scene in 2002, after gaining attention for his annual tradition of eating a massive steak at the Big Texan Steak Ranch in Amarillo, Texas.
“They have 72-ounce steaks there for dinner, and if you eat it in one hour then it’s free. I ate two of them in one hour on the Donny and Marie show.“
As if that feat isn’t impressive enough in its own right, The Locust is 65 years old and only weighs 127 pounds.
So, where does it all go? LeFevre said that he never trains for these competitions. “I have a natural ability to eat a lot. Not necessarily eat fast, but a lot,” the former third ranked competitive eater in the world pointed out.
All the contestants who voiced their opinions on the quality of the meatballs seemed to agree, Steve Martorano makes one tasty meatball. LeFevre has competed in meatball eating competitions before but attested those, “weren’t nearly as good as these are.”
Fellow local Ron Koch agreed. After eating about four pounds of Martorano’s meatballs, Koch proclaimed, “I have been all over the world and they are some of the best meatballs I’ve ever had.” More surprising than his ability to consume bowl after bowl of meatballs was what he chose to do after finishing the competition. After descending from the meatball-eating platform and rejoining his girlfriend, Lisa Cubbison, in the crowd, Koch promptly got down on one knee and proposed. The stunned Cubbison accepted the proposal and a beautiful custom ring Koch created for her.
Though he didn’t propose to anyone, competitor Eric “Badlands” Booker revealed he was also left a little starry-eyed by the competition. “I love Martorano’s meatballs,” the New York native said. “There was a moment when I was up there and I got what we call the “Willy Wonka effect.” You’re eating the meatballs and they’re so good that you lose concentration. I’m thinking, ‘Yo man, I’m in a contest. I had better step it up.’”