High Steaks: The World of Female Competitive Eaters

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Molly Schuyler tears apart pieces of a 72-ounce steak during a competition, on April 19, 2015, in Amarillo, Texas. She ate three 72-ounce steaks, plus sides, in about 20 minutes. Sean Steffen/The Amarillo Globe News/AP

The server looks confused. In her hands are four plates, each loaded with a meaty sandwich and a heap of fries. But there are only two people at the outdoor table at Burgers and Brew in downtown Sacramento, California: me and a smallish woman in a black hoodie, her ears adorned with multiple studs, her skin pretty thoroughly tattooed. The server looks around, wondering if the food is for a table of four that has somehow eluded her. It isn't. The other waitress, the one who had taken our order, finally comes out to explain the arrangement: for me, a single chorizo burger with garlic fries; for the unimposing woman across from me, a steak sandwich, a Philly chicken-and-cheese sandwich and a cheeseburger with mushrooms.

Did I mention the mountains of oleaginous fries?

In the hour that follows, that waitress flits by our table several times to watch the slight woman (120 pounds, 5 feet 7 inches) across from me casually eating her way through the wall of grilled meat and fried carbohydrate before her. First, one sandwich disappears, then another, then a third. The waitress appears frightened, as if a rift in space-time were opening before her eyes, engulfing the food on our table. As we order our dessert milkshakes, I feel it my duty to offer context for the digestive performance taking place on the patio of Burgers and Brew.

"This is Molly Schuyler," I announce, pointing to the woman behind the stack of plates, on which not a sliver of french fry remains. "She is one of the best competitive eaters in the world." A woman, to be exact, whose curriculum vitae includes consuming 363 wings in one contest and 26 burgers in another. The Stellanator. The Death Pizza Challenge. The Goliath Burger Challenge.

Triumphs, all.

Schuyler offers the waitress a proposition: She will tackle the entire Burgers and Brew menu—which includes more than a dozen variations of hamburger alone—provided the restaurant covers her tab if she manages to (a) eat the whole thing and (b) survive. The waitress wisely demurs, mumbling something about talking to the owner. He would be wise to demur too.

Schuyler looks undaunted, maybe even a little peckish. "I could eat several more after this," she declares before drinking her chocolate milkshake, despite it being a little too thick for her taste. I can't finish mine, so she gladly polishes that off too. Throughout it all, she maintains a punky insouciance that masks something of a jock's fiercely competitive spirit.

Some athletes run. Others throw, jump, hit. Molly Schuyler chews. Her skill is to be, in her words, a "bottomless pit," to eat beyond the rational limit of need or enjoyment, to eat so much so quickly that it seems less sport than performance art, brilliant and pointless all at once, like running an ultramarathon in a Big Bird suit.

Schuyler is not yet as well-known as the most famous competitive eaters in the world: Joey Chestnut, Sonya "the Black Widow" Thomas, Takeru Kobayashi. But that could soon change. In April, Schuyler made headlines across the world, from The Washington Post to the Daily Mail, for what is surely one of the greatest competitive eating accomplishments of this young century: consuming three 72-ounce steaks (with sides that included shrimp cocktail, baked potato, salad and a roll) in about 20 minutes. That's a pace of about 11 ounces per minute or, put another way, a hamburger (buns and all) every minute, for 20 minutes straight. And don't forget the shrimp cocktail. If you think for a moment that you could do what Schuyler did, just ponder the shrimp cocktail.

The field of Schuyler's dreams was the Big Texan restaurant in Amarillo, which has for decades dared diners to eat a 72-ounce steak in under an hour—an alimentary accomplishment that would render the meal free and the eater a hero, at least in the Texas Panhandle. Schuyler took only 4 minutes and 18 seconds to finish the first of her three 72-ounce steaks during the April 19 event, which you can watch in all its magnificent surreality on YouTube.

Her three-steak carnage far surpassed hot dog king Joey Chestnut's performance at the Big Texan. She had, in fact, already trumped his best the previous year, meaning her 2015 feat broke her own record. Also competing in the April 19 event were two-man teams that included football players and professional wrestlers. Schuyler treated them all like bush-league eaters who should stick to backyard barbecues.

But that's not enough for her. "I gotta go back and do four," she tells me over dinner, speaking in a Midwestern accent that flattens her words, giving them a touch of humility. "Totally doable," she says with the utter confidence of an athlete in full possession and awareness of her powers: LeBron James with the ball in the fourth quarter of the NBA Finals, five seconds left on the clock.

The Big Texan, which has hosted the 72-ounce steak challenge for more than five decades, is owned by the Lee family. One of the proprietors, Bobby Lee, tells me he remembers the first challenge, held in 1960, when he was 5 and his father was running the joint, which then catered mostly to cowboy types. Since then, he has seen about five people per day try to summit Mt. Steak, with all too many of their dreams crashing down into a pool of vomit.

"I've never seen anything like that in my life," Lee says of Schuyler's performance, which earned her a $5,000 prize from the Big Texan. "I'd put her up against a lion or tiger any day." Grabbing the medium-rare cuts of top sirloin with her hands, Schuyler tore off hunks of meat and swallowed them without chewing. Lee, who describes Schuyler as "totally fearless," says he had both a paramedic and an oral surgeon on hand, in case she choked. "She is not even of this world," Lee says with awe.

Actually, Schuyler is very much of this world. She has four kids—three girls and one boy—the oldest of whom is 11 and the youngest of whom is 6. Her husband is in the Air Force, and it was his work that brought her to the Sacramento suburbs, which she describes as "miserable." At least eating for a living lets her travel and make money, so she doesn't have to work at Applebee's any longer.

Schuyler is a native of Nebraska, which she evokes with just two inarguable nouns: "corn and nothing." But it is home, and she yearns to return there one day. Schuyler started eating competitively about three years ago and signed with All Pro Eating in 2013. Her passion for the sport has a Midwestern simplicity: "It's free food. I love free food." And many Americans love watching her eat free food. The rise of competitive eating seems tied to our collective recognition that we are a gluttonous, wasteful, often obese nation. Competitive eating at once mocks and celebrates our awareness of how gross we have become.

Schuyler's parental duties set her apart from those competitive eaters unencumbered by the responsibilities of adulthood. "I'll skip a contest if my daughter has a dance recital," she says, and she'll only attend a competition if she thinks she stands a good chance of winning a cash prize. At home, she eats like the harried mother that she is. In the morning, it's coffee while she gets the kids ready for school; in the afternoon, a lunch of baby carrots as she runs errands; dinner is often "grazing" on the leftovers of her brood.

Schuyler is one of several women challenging the notion that competitive eating is a boys' club. In the top echelon of Major League Eating (which does not rank Schuyler because she does not have a contract with the organization), four of the top 10 eaters in the world are women. Foremost among them is Miki Sudo, who upstaged Thomas, "the Black Widow," at last year's Nathan's hot dog eating contest at Coney Island.

Sudo, whom Schuyler considers a friend, bristles at any gender stereotypes associated with competitive eating. "There's three men ahead of me," Sudo tells me, "but many, many behind me." Schuyler, though, admits that when she first started eating, she would lose time by repeatedly wiping her face, not wanting to have people see her engaging in "unladylike" behavior. It's doubtful Joey Chestnut ever had similar compunctions while cramming hot dogs down his gullet.

Sudo, like Schuyler, is in the 120-pound range; Thomas weighs even less, perhaps as little as 100 pounds, according to a 2014 estimate on her website. None of these women engage in excessive eating outside of competition: Sudo's diet, for example, includes healthful staples like grilled chicken, avocado and kale. As she points out, competitive eating consumes only some 17 days per year. The rest of the time, she is an "incredibly boring" eater.

Still, the binge-eating takes its toll. "There are days you feel like garbage, just absolute garbage," says Schuyler. Recuperation often involves a lot of sleep and water—the competitive eater's version of icing the arm after throwing a complete game.

"You're conditioning your body to do something it wasn't meant to do," Schuyler concedes. That may be true of all sports. Is the human body meant to run 26 miles? To smash into J.J. Watt? To watch sports is to serve witness to bodies transgressing the bounds of the ordinary, whether that involves Brittney Griner swatting away layups or Molly Schuyler swallowing cupcakes as if they were Pez.

While it is not likely that competitive eating is as dangerous as playing defensive end for the Dallas Cowboys, what little research that does exist suggests it isn't the most salutary way to spend your time. According to research published in 2007 in the American Journal of Roentgenology: "Professional speed eaters eventually may develop morbid obesity, profound gastroparesis, intractable nausea and vomiting, and even the need for a gastrectomy." The researchers, who appear to have conducted the most thorough medical survey of competitive eating in American medicine, caution, "Despite its growing popularity, competitive speed eating is a potentially self-destructive form of behavior."

Schuyler will continue eating as long as she keeps winning and making money. She'd also like to do a reality show while she's at it. When we met, in mid-May, she was looking forward to a corn dog-eating contest at a county fair, which she figured she would win easily. But she knows that there will come a day when she can no longer eat half a cow in the time it takes a normal human being to brush her teeth. And when that day comes, Schuyler will be ready. "It's only food," she says.