x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

1,001 Arabian bites: Eating for sport is a foolish game

Pie-eating contests at summer camp recalled with less-than-fond memory.

I have a hard time getting into televised sport. Unless I'm watching a baseball game from the stand, the word "ballpark" makes me think of hot dogs. Spain's World Cup victory reached me while I was in a Chinatown grocery with an excellent seafood selection and it got me thinking about tapas, Paul the Octopus, and pulpo a la gallega, Galicia's signature dish of boiled octopus with rock salt, hot paprika and punchy olive oil. Granted, I probably would have been similarly inspired if Spain had lost, but who's keeping score? Not me.

That hasn't always been the case. During the annual pie-eating contest at children's summer camp, I was always happier proctoring than participating. When the counsellor blew on her whistle, 30 or so eight-year-old girls with bound hands plunged face-first into their pies and began to chow. I stood nearby with my timer, an unofficial trophy-bearer absorbing every magnificent detail. Then, on one degenerate day in the mid-1990s, and for reasons I can no longer remember, my classmates and I staged our own pie-eating contest, involving 30 apple pies from the nearest McDonald's. The pies slid from their sleek cardboard cocoons - crispy, golden envelopes of starch-thickened apple filling, which when hot was like nuclear glue. It hurt, but I won. I also lost the ability to eat solid food for a week. That was the closest I ever came to competitive eating, or speed eating, before deciding it was a sport that wavered between foolish and offensive; a position I've loosely maintained ever since.

Man v Food is an American reality TV show with a mission to explore the culture of Big American Food. I can't bear to watch it; I tried once and ended up with sympathy cramps. And though I've driven through Amarillo, Texas, many times, I've never been tempted to pull over at Big Texan Steak Ranch & Motel to meet their famous 72-ounce steak dinner. If eaten in an hour or less, it's free, but the proprietors warn the foolhardy that this dinner "is only for the very hungry. Many have tried. Many have failed". I suspect the word "hungry" might be a euphemism, but I can't say for sure.

Being a successful speed eater appears to have little to do with appetite; leaner builds tend to excel because stomachs are more expandable when not immobilised by the fatty tissue surrounding them. Well-known professional eaters include Sonya Thomas, also known as "The Black Widow" of competitive eating, who weighs approximately 44 kg. The dichotomy of scarcity and plenty is seen throughout Arab culture, which, like many other cultures, thrives on hyperbole. For Arabs, hospitality is synonymous with the spirit of abundance, which can mean gastric exhaustion for the uninitiated. Learn to make excuses, learn to say no, but prepare to over-eat anyway; it's appreciated, even when your host is relentlessly coercing you into second helpings. Though I don't compulsively over-eat, I do compulsively try to reassure - and I've eaten my weight in conciliatory mouthfuls intended to placate an insistent host or anxious cook. Personally, I hate eating what and when I don't want to, feeling like my arm's being twisted into consuming something and the oppressive fullness that results from overeating. A culture as indulgent as ours places a high value on courtesy, but it also recognises and applauds self-control and we tend to elevate those who exhibit it. We're all equipped with common sense, but some senses - and stomachs - are bigger than others. Not all eating is about sustenance and not all is about pleasure; sometimes, it's just the path of least resistance.