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The psychology of metro Detroit competitive eating



There’s a great scene in John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. It’s in Chapter 17. The character “Doc” is musing, essentially, on how Americans love dares. He recalls how, in college, he needed to get away and forget his troubles, so he decided to loaf for a while by walking through the South. When people would ask him what he was doing, he’d tell them the truth of the matter, and they’d regard him as an oddity. But if he told a little white lie, that he was hiking through the South because his buddy had made him a bet that he couldn’t do it, he was treated much differently, given food and places to spend the night.

Props to Steinbeck for figuring the American character: Things you’d be regarded as a weirdo for doing are seen in a more redeeming light when it’s a wager or a dare. Dares are manly, and wagers are honorable, no matter how absurd or outrageous the terms of them are. That’s why, as Americans, we do things on a bet that nobody in his right mind would try — and earn respect for doing so.

Yes, it’s a grand generalization, but doesn’t it seem to come into play when you consider the surfeit of eating challenges in our region?

Take Hunter House (35075 Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-646-7121), where the top record, according to the employee we spoke with, is 25 doubles, by Dimitry Nawar. That’s an impressive achievement, even with Hunter House’s sliders. There’s at least 2 ounces of meat in a fully cooked double, and 25 of them adds up to more than 3 pounds of meat, not to mention buns and grilled onions.

But consider the psychological difference if our worthy contestant had just bellied up to the bar, ordered 25 doubles, and wolfed them down without that small side order of glory, without having his feat recorded on a laminated sheet of paper and posted on the Hunter House wall? Would he be a gladiator or a glutton?

The kind person at Hunter House put it as nicely as possible, but some of those winners are there to soak up booze. “A lot of them are younger guys who’ve had a little bit to drink and just want to be ‘Alpha Males’ and make a record or whatnot.”

He does note, though, that the unselfconscious set … really young people, as in kids … sometimes win without trying, as when a 14-month-old toddler ends up eating a hamburger, one fry, and half a shake.

OK, so let’s say you might not eat competitively for a mere sign on the wall, but would you try eating a fully loaded 1 pound burger for a T-shirt? That’s the bet at Big Beaver Tavern (645 Big Beaver Rd., Troy; 248-680-0066), regarding the Big Beaver Burger, which is two 1/2-pound patties layered with bacon, Swiss and cheddar, and sautéed onions, on a triple-decker bun with lettuce, tomatoes, and a pickle spear for $16.49. Eat the whole kahuna and you’ll get a T-shirt reading, “I ate the Big Beaver Burger.” (According to a server we spoke with, she’s never seen one finished, but has seen a customer wearing one, so it can be done.)

If anybody wanted to explore the psychology underlying eating challenges, we would recommend metro Detroit. Pound for pound, it seems our region abounds with a surplus of this sorts of challenge, including Mallie’s 10-pound burger, the 40-patty burger-eating record at Krazy Jim’s Blimpy Burger, the five-pound nacho plate (“Mount Nacheesmo”) at Tios Mexican Café in Ann Arbor, or the “Ass Kickin’ Grande Taco” at Rojo Mexican Bistro.

Many of the events linked to local festivals even offer cash prizes, so it isn’t always about glory. But that’s different; anybody can understand gold.

What’s your favorite eating challenge? Let us know!

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