Jeff Neville is not the kind of guy you could imagine being called “Abu the Gormandizer.” He doesn’t appreciate the handle. A retired police officer and father of two from Goodrich, Mich., Neville is a stout, jovial man, his round face framed by a pair of respectable specs and a freshly shaved head. Well into middle age, he’s modest in his ambitions: to make a decent living for his family working security at Flint Bishop Airport, to be a good husband and father, and to swallow as many deep-fried appetizers as possible in the course of 12 minutes. Despite his lineage, he’s not the kind of person who necessarily inspires the victory cry of “Abu,” the ancient Gaelic call shouted as Irish troops emerge from battle. But then, eating competitions bring out the strangest things in people.
“You can’t just stick a nickname on somebody,” Neville says of the moniker bestowed upon him by his friends. “It should be earned.” And the “gormandizer” part doesn’t sit well with him, either. “I said to them, ‘I am not a glutton.’ I mean, that really tore me up.”
It’s the week before the GameWorks Tex-Mex Roll Eating Championship, the first officially sanctioned eating competition held in Michigan, and as one of the event’s only local representatives, Neville has a lot on his mind: his public persona, his technique, his mortality, his place in sports history. That is, if you consider bingeing a sport, something of which even Neville isn’t so certain. “It’s a hobby is what it is,” he says over a modest serving of fries at a Big Boy one snowy night. “It’s a goofy hobby. But some people think golf is goofy, you know?”
The event is mounted by the International Federation of Competitive Eating — one of a handful of national eat-off organizations — and sponsored by GameWorks, the family-fun restaurant chain interested in promoting its signature egg roll-like appetizer, the Tex-Mex. The competition features a laundry list of big-ticket prizes (including a trip to Hawaii) and a roster of eaters from all over the country. The competitors are a formidable bunch, indeed, running the gamut from refrigerator-sized men like New York’s Eric “Badlands” Booker to rail-thin, wiry, mild-mannered sexagenarian Rich “The Locust” LeFevre, and the frat-boyish, face-painted, would-be superhero Tim “Eater X” Janus.
With peers like these, it makes sense that Neville would be concerned with his image, especially considering all the local media attention the event’s already attracted. Apparently, nothing makes better TV than a grown man stuffing his face. After all, Badlands Booker has a running stint on NBC’s Last Call with Carson Daly, not to mention a CD of “12 cuts of competitive eating hip hop” titled Hungry and Focused. (Songs include “The Ballad of Badlands” and “The All-Day Buffet.”) Neville, meanwhile, merely answered the call for entrants, was briefly interviewed by the federation, and then allowed to compete, sight — and chowing capabilities — unseen.
Perhaps the randomness of the selection process accounts for his modesty. “I’m lucky to be sitting at that table with those guys,” he admits. “I mean, these guys are eating machines. I’m like an eating toy compared to them. But they all started someplace.” An all-American cuisine connoisseur since childhood, Neville recalls witnessing the event that first gave him the eating-contest bug, which is also his ultimate goal: Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, held every Fourth of July at New York City’s Coney Island.
His wife, Kim, has a more existential explanation for her husband’s ambitions. “Every few years, he’s got to do something, or he’ll just get bored,” she says, noting that it wasn’t so long ago that he ran for county commissioner.
The day of the competition, Neville’s sister Jill Jackson sums it up as only a sibling could. “He’s a goon,” she says. Jackson and the rest of the fan club — an extended group of friends, family and co-workers who serve as a cheering section — have gathered in the atrium at Great Lakes Crossing, just outside of GameWorks, to see what happens with their neophyte gormandizer — or gastronomer, as some of the eaters like to be called.
“Hold my coat,” Neville asks his sister as he prepares to take his place on stage. “If you win, can I sell it?” she asks, deadpan.
The tension reaches a fevered pitch among the 200 or so onlookers as Neville sits down in front of his aluminum-foil covered mound of Tex-Mex Rolls, 20 to the tray. Chants of “Abu! Abu! Abu!” come from the crowd. Co-worker John Poisson punctuates the cheering with “Keep your hands and feet away from Abu!” and, when Neville is given a “Great Lakes Crossing” T-shirt to wear, “Use the shirt as an appetizer, Jeff!”
The timer starts, and the food begins to fly. Badlands stuffs his face like a chipmunk on steroids. It becomes readily apparent why LeFevre is called “The Locust”: With spindly arms, he dunks each roll in a pitcher of water cloudy with Tex-Mex detritus before slurping it down in one or two barely discernable bites. It’s truly a sight to behold, if you can stomach watching it.
“I’m sitting here, wondering why we’re cheering on gluttony,” Tracie Poisson says, an observation challenged by no one.
Meanwhile, Neville moves at a more relaxed, deliberate pace, dunking his rolls, shaking off the excess water, and chewing in a routine, methodical manner that seems downright polite in comparison. For him, it’s an endurance sport, and no matter the outcome, it’s clear he’ll emerge with his dignity intact. It’s down to the wire, and LeFevre orders his second tray of appetizers. Badlands and Eater X are close behind, the latter’s face paint appearing to crack under the pressure. In the final minute, Neville is on his eighth roll, while several eaters have already folded their arms and pushed themselves away from the table in defeat.
When the timer stops and the mastication subsides, three champions are announced, all of them out-of-state ringers. With 30 rolls consumed in the allotted time of 12 minutes, The Locust will be the flying to Hawaii; Eater X managed to down 24-and-a-half; the leviathan Badlands, a mere 23. They all wipe off and meet their adoring press, where a now breath-freshened Badlands praises amateurs like Neville. “You get someone up there who never did it, and it’s just their raw talent on display,” he says.
It’s the ultimate encouragement. Neville’s family may very well wish otherwise, but the man behind the mouth remains undeterred. “Watch for me on the circuit, ’cause I’ll be there,” he proclaims, receding into the crowd.
The International Federation of Competitive Eating is on the Web at ifoce.com. Michael Hastings is a freelance writer. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org