On U-Md. competitive eating team, a battle to become big mouth on campus

February 18, 2011

Phil Fiore's party didn't bother sitting down for dinner Thursday, because sitting just slows you down. Instead, the five guys stood inside the College Park eatery Ratsie's as five 14-inch cheese pizzas, five dozen hot wings and five cups of water were brought out from the kitchen.

"It's going down!" somebody yelled as the food was placed in front of the five contestants in a face-stuffing race organized by the University of Maryland's competitive eating club team.

Yes, there is now a Terrapin eating team, with a constitution, a staff adviser and more than 40 members, along with a motto: "Feed the Turtle." Coming soon: Eatin' Terps uniforms with elastic waistbands and a turtle mascot clutching a piece of pizza?

Cooked up by Keith Solomon, a junior environmental engineering major, the group was granted club status by the university in November. It is one of the first teams of its kind; the University at Albany, a New York state college, appears to have been the pioneer in turning collegiate gluttony into a sport.

"We just thought it was a cool idea, something fun," said Solomon, a lanky, laconic 20-year-old who said the idea dated to his freshman year, when he periodically blew out expiring meal-plan points on pizzas, wings and other fodder for speed-eating showdowns with friends.

Some students dream about making the dean's list. Maryland's competitive eaters dream about eating 10 pounds of Jimmy Dean sausage in 10 minutes. (Then, in a corresponding nightmare, they're hammered by critics for wasting food and celebrating over-consumption when people are going hungry.)

At Ratsie's, after an official countdown, Fiore, a sophomore marketing major, began to destroy the competition by destroying the enormous meal: One by one, he folded slices of the large cheese pizza, dipped them in water and jammed them into his mouth while rocking in place.

"Chew, chew, swallow! Chew, chew, swallow!" the guys in the crowd chanted.

Fiore powered through the pizza and began on the wings, gnawing the meat like a rabid dog. The veins in his neck bulged as his Lambda Chi Alpha bros exhorted the tall, trim kid they called "The Fury" to chew harder, faster, stronger.

It looked like a pledge-week hazing ritual. Theresa Johns, one of the owners of Ratsie's, shook her head and turned away. "Such an abuse of good food," she said.

After a speedy, sloppy 41/2 minutes, Fiore's food was gone - all but the discarded bones and the oily, orange glaze that covered his face. He flexed his biceps under the fluorescent lights.

"I could eat more," he declared.

Matthew Bavosa, an eating-club member with hands the size of oven mitts, was quietly - and slowly - eating one final piece of pizza in the corner. "I just want to know that I can finish an entire pizza in 10 minutes," the senior communications major said. He did, wolfing down something like 2,300 calories in that time.

"Amazing - and disgusting," said Mickey Katz, a marketing manager for CampusFood.com, a virtual food court for college students. The company sponsored the Ratsie's event and dispatched Katz from New York to compete against the kids. Katz, who is lactose-intolerant, didn't eat half as much as Fiore or Bavosa. "It's a lot harder than it looks," he said. "My face hurts so much. And my stomach probably will soon."

Some spectators moved in to finish what the competitors hadn't. "Yo, you didn't slobber all over this, did you?" somebody asked Katz while pulling apart the uneaten half of his pizza.

That Maryland has an officially recognized competitive eating team should not, in and of itself, be a shock, said freshman John Cline, who joined the team because he's long loved to eat copious amounts of food. (For his 16th birthday, he ate 16 cheeseburgers at McDonald's, he said.)

"Anyone who has a particular interest can start a club for it," Cline said.

The school has a grilling club, for instance, along with a juggling club, a tango club and something called "the Cornhole Club," for the bean-bag tossing game - "to perfect the art of cornhole while having fun with fellow Terrapins." There are dozens of club sports at Maryland (lacrosse, paintball, ballroom dancing, Wushu); for Harry Potter nerds, there's the International Quidditch Association.

"There's even a club that's the exact opposite of us," Solomon said with a grimace, referring to Jelly for the Belly, a campus group that collects food from students with extra dining credits and delivers it to homeless people across Washington.

Breaking: Jelly for the Belly's founder, Hayley Niad, will not be joining the competitive eating team anytime soon. "It is a central premise of their organization to consume far more food than physically necessary," she said in an e-mail. "I personally find it hard to appreciate the sport of overeating when I have directly encountered individuals only 10 miles away who suffer from under-eating." She added that she's opposed to "competitive eating as a whole" - the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, Major League Eating, etc. - and not just the campus club.

Solomon is sensitive to the criticism. His mother, Rhonda, said in an interview that her son was hurt when somebody posted a comment online "that said 'how can you start this club with world hunger?' I know Keith felt very badly when they posted that. And he's started talking about doing the competitions as charity events. But I would hope people would have a bit of a sense of humor and recognize what being in college is about."

Despite the critics, the eats go on. Plans are underway for an intercollegiate meet in College Park on April 16 against teams from . . . well, that's not yet clear. Solomon is working with a collegiate branding and marketing firm that is trying to recruit people on various campuses to launch their own eating teams, which would then join a league.

And one day, maybe, a national championship meet, Solomon said. "If we won, there'd probably be a riot. At Chipotle."

At Ratsie's, Fiore basked in the glow of victory. Or maybe that was his face turning green after jamming down all that food.

"My stomach is grumbling, saying, 'Why did you do this to me again?' " he said.

Fiore has long dabbled in competitive eating: Two years ago, at Saphire Cafe in Bethesda, he inhaled 81/2 cheese steak sandwiches in 15 minutes to win the Whiz Bowl, where he actually beat a professional. He's an elite eater - the big mouth on campus.

(So far, no female students have signed up for the eating club. )

"It's ironic," his girlfriend, Tara Gerke, said. "I'm a dietetics major." She's also in the food and nutrition club. Opposites attract? "He enjoys competing, but I don't know how healthy it is," she said. Most of the competitions "are disgusting." But still, she spent the 41/2 minutes of the contest cheering Fiore on.

Now, it was time to celebrate. "He's probably laying down," she said. "And I finally get to eat."

J. Freedom du Lac is the editor of The Post's general assignment news desk. He was previously a Local enterprise reporter and, before that, the paper’s pop music critic.
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