Errol Morris Captures Competitive Eating Champion “El Wingador”

You might know Errol Mor­ris from his doc­u­men­taries like Fast, Cheap, and Out of Con­trol, on emer­gent sys­tems in top­i­ary gar­dens and naked mole-rat colonies; The Fog of War, on the shad­owy career of Robert McNa­ma­ra; and Gates of Heav­en, on com­pet­ing pet ceme­ter­ies (which no less a crit­i­cal author­i­ty than Roger Ebert has called one of the great­est films of all time). You might remem­ber Mor­ris’ inter­view-dri­ven tele­vi­sion series First Per­son with fond­ness — and, giv­en its episodes on ser­i­al-killer groupies, cry­on­ic head-freez­ers, and pro­fes­sion­al high-school stu­dents, per­haps a dash of dis­be­lief. If noth­ing else, you’ve almost cer­tain­ly seen Mor­ris’ com­mer­cials for the likes of PBS, Volk­swa­gen, and Miller High Life. In the last few years, he’s put out a new film, Tabloid, a book on the rela­tion­ship of pho­tog­ra­phy to real­i­ty, Believ­ing is See­ing, and many a post on his New York Times blog. For Errol Mor­ris fans, these are hearty times indeed.

As the newest addi­tion to this Moriss­ian abun­dance, the ten-minute doc­u­men­tary El Wingador pro­files five-time Philadel­phia Wing Bowl cham­pi­on eater Bill “El Wingador” Sim­mons. To win the Wing Bowl, you must sim­ply eat as many chick­en wings as pos­si­ble in the short­est amount of time. Such a man­date stretch­es the def­i­n­i­tion of “eat” to its break­ing point; the trick, as Sim­mons tells Mor­ris, is to train your jaw and esoph­a­gus not to chew, per se, but to bite and swal­low, bite and swal­low, bite and swal­low — “don’t wor­ry about chok­ing.” For a man like El Wingador, eat­ing, like any every­day activ­i­ty tak­en to the lev­el of elite com­pe­ti­tion, makes demands that would strike out­siders as grotesque: con­sum­ing eleven pounds of food per day, putting in hours-long ses­sions with base­ball-sized wads of Toot­sie Rolls, shov­el­ing down hand­fuls of sear­ing-hot piz­za cheese, gnaw­ing on rawhide bones meant for Ger­man Shep­herds. And some­times even insid­ers seem flum­moxed by it all: asked if he would real­ly con­sid­er his reg­i­men an eat­ing dis­or­der, Sim­mons replies, “It’s got­ta be a dis­or­der, ‘cause it’s crazy, man.”

As a seem­ing­ly mar­gin­al sub­cul­ture with its own rules, cus­toms, hier­ar­chies, and per­son­al­i­ties, com­pet­i­tive eat­ing would seem to com­fort­ably inhab­it Mor­ris’ wheel­house; it wouldn’t have sur­prised me if he’d opt­ed to make a fea­ture-length doc­u­men­tary about it. But even in the brief min­utes with Sim­mons El Wingador offers us, we glimpse enough of this world and its lead­ing lights — the young hot­shot Joey Chest­nut, the eeri­ly skin­ny Sonya Thomas and Takeru Kobayashi — to sus­pect that the sub­stan­tive dif­fer­ences between com­pet­i­tive eat­ing and “real” ath­let­ics may amount to less than we’d assumed. One might make a solemn point here about star­va­tion in the devel­op­ing world even as the Philadel­phia Wing Bowl puts deca­dent ancient Rome to shame. But it gives me just as much pause to pon­der the unset­tling lack of dif­fer­ences between cram­ming chick­en wings down your throat in the cen­ter of a roar­ing sta­di­um and most oth­er forms of human endeav­or.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Watch Errol Mor­ris’ Trib­ute to Stephen Hawk­ing, A Brief His­to­ry of Time

Errol Mor­ris: Two Essen­tial Truths About Pho­tog­ra­phy

“They Were There” — Errol Mor­ris Final­ly Directs a Film for IBM

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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