“Are you ready? Because I’m starving!” shouts lifestyle influencer Ferdinand Beck, mugging for the camera in a “Plant Based Athlete” tank as he prepares to eat 10 vegan burgers in a row. “I’m actually looking forward to the first one — mmm! And the second one, the third one and then…” He flexes a bicep, his face looking resigned as he finishes with, “How much salt will I eat today? Ugh.”
For obvious reasons, Beck is one of the very few vegans dipping their toes in the world of competitive eating. The two worlds look incompatible at a glance. I mean, veganism is a dietary choice known for its healthfulness, even if not all its adherents choose it for reasons of health. Meanwhile, competitive eating is a sport that merrily commands its participants to deep-throat hot dogs until they either puke or win.
Hot dog eating contests need vegans like a fish needs a bicycle, no?
When it comes to competitive eating in America, the most famous competition is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which claims to draw over 40,000 attendees every year and awards its victors a $10,000 cash prize. For contrast, the 2019 Vegandale Festival’s Vegan Hot Dog Eating Contest had more of a county fair vibe — 10 participants competing for $100 to see who could eat a single vegan dog the fastest. The most famous and successful Nathan’s competitors train, labor and even win the occasional endorsement on the strength of their gobblings (case in point: 2019 first place eater Joey Chestnut’s line of condiments). They’re basically athletes.
The Vegandale eaters, on the other hand, were more of a motley crew. One competitor never removed his toddler from his shoulders while snarfing down his vegan dog. These folks are there to enjoy the fair with their families, rather than forever etch their glorious names in the annals of sports history.
As you may have guessed based on everything I’ve ever written about food, I’m not a vegan myself. No judgment! Some folks love animals, some love their health, some love the environment and others love swallowing popcorn chicken by the fistful while marathoning Love Island at 1 a.m.
On that basis then, you might think that I’m more of a Nathan’s girl than a Vegandale one. In reality, I’m no great fan of any food-eating contest. Remember that tiresome period in 2013 or so, when all of a sudden every food had bacon in it? Even chocolate bars were no longer chocolate bars; they were Lumberjack Paul’s Fucking EPIC Not Yo’ Momma’s Whiskey and Bacon Candy XXX-Perience (Please, Somebody, Call the Law!). As MEL’s Miles Klee once described it, “Although it was assumed that pretty much every American loves bacon, some guys — and they were mainly guys — had to love it more.” Competitive eating has always felt like that for me: Yet another way to take food, which never hurt anybody, and turn up the volume on it until it’s no longer recognizably food. Just like the Epic Bacon Period of our shared cultural memory, competitive eating asks the question, What if a meal was incredibly stressful and bad for you?
Still, competitive eating is big business, and it makes sense that some vegans want in on the action. There are multiple leagues, contests televised on ESPN and celebrities in the field — particularly Japan’s record-setting Takeru Kobayashi, competitive eating’s first modern star. And YouTube has now democratized competitive eating as it does for all things, so that anyone can become a star in the field. Canada’s Furious Pete and L.A.’s L.A. Beast prove that you don’t need to win any hot dog eating contests to make a name for yourself as a competitive eater — you need only have a webcam and a shtick.
In fairness, too, it’s exhilarating to watch Kobayashi eat. His grace and focus are remarkable. His closest competitor, the aforementioned Joey Chestnut, works more frenetically, bobbing in place while he swallows; Kobayashi’s hands, mouth and throat are as smoothly in tandem as an assembly line. Generally speaking, these guys eat like guinea pigs, shoveling entire hot dogs into their cheeks and holding them in place so that they can shove in more hot dogs before they finally swallow. And what always surprises people is that they’re mostly thin, even muscular. Not one person at the Nathan’s table looks like you’d assume a person who professionally eats dozens of hot dogs at once would look — which has become a trope in its own right (and part of the reason why eating disorders are rampant in the competitive eating world).
Ferdinand Beck and his vegan-burger-eating competitor Benny are both muscular, too, but it’s a muscularity that you can see coming from a mile away. They’re also an unmistakably healthy sort of hot (same for their cameraman Axel). So much so that one can’t comfortably guess their ages from looking at all those unlined faces full of color and vitality. Looking at these apple-cheeked lads, I wonder what my life could be like if I ever deigned to do, like, a sit-up. After a brisk bike ride, Axel lightheartedly says, “Cardio sucks,” and I’m like, “Brother, you of all people have no idea how much cardio sucks.” I also say “cardio sucks,” but usually about walking up the subway stairs.
There are two basic types of eating contests: 1) eat as many, say, hot dogs as you can, usually in a set amount of time; 2) or eat a set number of hot dogs in less time than your fellow competitors. Beck and Benny have chosen the first type and supplied 20 vegan burgers from McDonald’s for the task — 10 for Beck, 10 for Benny. (The current hot dog eating record belongs to Chestnut, who put away 75 dogs at this year’s Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Seventy-five!) “I hate food challenges where you eat as fast as possible because you don’t enjoy it,” Beck laments at the start of his video. He wisely, though, says nothing about how much he plans to enjoy eating 10 McDonald’s burgers in a row, even at a leisurely pace.
Beck and Benny don’t eat guinea-pig-style like their Nathan’s predecessors. They eat normally — normal-sized bites, normal-paced chewing, normal-paced swallowing. They don’t time themselves, but the contest certainly appears to take ages. It’s the difference between watching an NBA game and spying on your neighbor while he shoots hoops in his yard. It’s neither graceful nor athletic, which is especially funny because these guys are so athletic — a full minute of this video is just Beck working out and flexing in an otherwise empty gym. Hell, these guys even chit chat while they eat. Inasmuch as this is a contest at all, it’s clearly a low-stakes one.
Another thing that surprises me about vegan competitive eating is how closely it follows the “epic bacon rules.” Everything’s there but the meat. These are men’s men who happen to be vegan, who address each other as “vegan savage” and say things like “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.” I wouldn’t dare say that this attitude is incompatible with veganism, but it’s fair to call it surprising. What do we meat eaters think of when we think of vegans? Hippies, punks and maybe our own guilt surrounding our attachment to meat — certainly not ripped young studs jokingly trash-talking each other’s inability to shotgun vegan burgers.
But that’s exactly what attracts fans like Mike, 29, who hails from Slovenia and is officially Beck’s biggest fan. He has been a vegan since December 2011. “At that point,” he says in an interview for Beck’s channel (hilariously dubbed “Vegains”), “there were not many vegan YouTubers. I had the chance to see how the community developed from the bottom-up. Vegains introduced veganism to men in the bodybuilding community.”
When I ask him about the logic of a vegan eating competition, he reminds me that not all competitive eating is created equal. “Eating contests, AKA who can eat more as quickly as possible, aren’t a healthy thing to do regardless of the diet. But I personally have a huge appetite — 4,400 calories per day, all year round,” he explains. “If a meal doesn’t have at least 1,000 calories, it’s not even a meal for me! I’m a big guy with a fast metabolism and an athlete.”
Put this way, the vegan McDonald’s burger challenge starts to look like small potatoes. Even if the boys do finish all 10 burgers, they still haven’t hit 4,400 calories, which does seem like a reasonable daily amount for an athlete who trains six days a week to consume. Again, these aren’t Nathan’s numbers, but who says they have to be?
What veganism is about for most of us who don’t participate in it is idealism. It’s an idealism that we’re often jealous of, even those of us meat eaters who mock vegans and joke about eating a pound of beef in front of them. Some people are vegans because they’d rather abstain from meat than participate so directly in cruelty to animals; others, because they want to reduce their complicity in the wreckage that raising livestock (particularly cows) inflicts on the planet. Even the meat eaters who despise veganism probably agree, at the most honest core of their being, that these are worthy goals.
Plus, with limited exceptions, everyone can be a vegan. I probably can’t: I have Crohn’s, which wreaks havoc on one’s gastrointestinal tract and turns certain foods into in-body landmines that detonate to great digestive agony — including, in my case, the majority of meatless protein sources. Others have illnesses and disabilities of their own that make veganism difficult, or else they live in food deserts where it’s all they can do to slap together a hot meal at all, much less one that substitutes seitan for bacon. But all things considered, it’s possible to eat fulfillingly as a vegan. So veganism isn’t only idealism for those of us who don’t partake of it, it’s guilt-inducing idealism. It’s something good that we could do but don’t.
Garish displays like Beck’s vegan burger-eating challenge tell a less aspirational story about veganism — that it’s precisely the same as non-veganism, just with different foods on the plate. Fans like Mike don’t love Vegains because it makes veganism special, but because it makes veganism achievable, friendly to the existing material of their lives. Veganism can follow the same epic bacon rules as carnivorism! It can be decadent, goofy, excessive! It can be men mocking each other’s burger-devouring skills even if the burgers are made of beans or mushrooms instead of beef. It can look pretty identical to eating meat if it wants to.
The question is, should it? Or more to the point, should any eating look this way?
Neither Beck nor Benny makes it all the way to 10 burgers. They both start looking rough around number four, sweaty and slow in their movements. In fact, what they really look is drunk — there’s none of the focused intensity that you see in their carnivorous competitive-eating counterparts. Competitive eating may be about excess, but it’s also about skill and athleticism. This video is just a celebration of excess, with a winking “isn’t it naughty to eat this much?” attitude pervading the whole thing. And for all that, they only make it through six vegan burgers apiece! Why celebrate excess if you’re not even going to be truly excessive?
Beck closes the video from his bedroom, having taken to his bed with a nasty food coma. He claims that the way he feels after eating six vegan burgers is the way most people feel every day because they eat meat. In his defense, I’ve taken to my own bed with the post-cheeseburger vapors enough times in my life to see his point. But in meat eaters’ defense, I don’t think most people eat six vegan burgers in a row every day, so this particular feeling belongs to him and him alone.
I’m harping a little. These guys seem likable the same way that taxidermied animals in little outfits are likable, or a vacation in Branson, Missouri — totally charming, if you’re into that sort of thing. The truth is that I admire vegans, even the ones who eat nothing but French fries and Oreos, because they’re still devoting themselves to something I can’t. Veganism already sits removed from the lifestyle choices that I’m able or willing to make, and so a bratty little part of me wants it to be extra removed, extra idealistic, extra good.
But whether I like it or not, sometimes vegans are going to be goofballs the exact same way that meat eaters are. So I can either accept that with dignity, or eat 10 vegan burgers in a row myself to prove a point to nobody in particular.