By the time we trudge through an ungodly amount of traffic everyone has to pee but we’re forced to again wait behind a band of drunk, middle-aged perverts at the bank of port-o-pottys and once I finally enter the rancid temporary waste depository I’m surprised by the utter darkness and I can hear the faceless drunken wailings around me and I realize that it’s only 4:30 on a Friday morning and I wonder why I’ve placed myself in this all too real wasteland. The event is Wing Bowl — an annual chicken wing-eating competition held in the largest indoor arena in Philadelphia by the largest sports radio station in one of the most sports-crazy cities in America. But to characterize Wing Bowl as an “eating competition” would be not just an understatement but a falsehood, for the actual eating contest is no more than a side show — the background noise in what has become the city’s biggest party of the year.
We arrive at 4:30 a.m., an hour-and-a-half ahead of the 6:00 a.m. start time, but many people have been here for hours. The first person in line to enter the Wachovia Center when the gates open at 5:00 — a small red-faced man in his late 20s who refuses to give me his name because he claims to be wanted in three states — says he and his buddies have been driving around since 1:00 a.m. He’s been to seven straight Wing Bowls but when I ask him why he keeps coming back he admits it’s not for the spectacle of gluttony but for “the other part of the chicken, the breast.”
Of the more than 20,000 attendees at this year’s Wing Bowl, the majority are just like this man. They are working class men somewhere between the ages of 25 and 45 who lied to their bosses to take off work and came to South Philadelphia for a morning of drinking and smoking and drooling at the bare breasts of the strippers and desperate drunk women who keep the masses of salivating fat white guys at bay by flashing both tops and bottoms and, if the crowd is particularly lucky, by making out with each other while 20,000 guys watch on the Jumbotron.
The arena is half-full when the event begins at 6:00 a.m. Wing Bowl kicks off with each competitor parading around the floor of the Wachovia Center in a homemade float. This process is excruciatingly long as the announcement of each eater is followed by that eater, his entourage and a handful of strippers (named “Wingettes”) crawling around the arena while the 610 WIP morning radio show team comments on their chances as if this were a serious sporting event. The crowd barely pays attention to this parade, opting to examine the stands for any woman willing to show her boobs at the mercy of a couple hundred horny drunk guys chanting, “Show your [bleeps]!” to the tune of, “Let’s go Red!”
Wing Bowl doesn’t really get going until just after 7:00 when the only two eaters anyone has ever heard of, El Wingador and Joey Chestnut, enter the arena. El Wingador is the hometown favorite and Wing Bowl Hall of Famer who dominated the event before outsiders (eaters not from Philly) were allowed to enter in 2004. He came out of retirement this year with the sole purpose of dethroning the hated Chestnut.
Chestnut, the competitive eating legend and returning Wing Bowl champion from San Diego, was booed unmercifully as he entered the arena. Philadelphia, if you remember, is the city that booed both when Santa Claus came to town and as Michael Irvin lay motionless on the field at Veteran’s Stadium, so you can imagine the reception the cocky young outsider got as he stepped in front of 20,000 drunk Philadelphians. Chestnut is also hated for not having to perform an eating stunt to get into the competition. To earn a spot in Wing Bowl each competitor must perform an eating stunt in the weeks leading up to the event. For example, The Natural ate one pound of peanut butter in four minutes, Dan the Cop drank 12 ounces of maple syrup in seven seconds, Dr. Bigtime ate one dozen Krispy Kreme donuts in one-and-a-half minutes and Wing Kong ate five pounds of Spaghetti-Os in one minute 14 seconds.
Wing Bowl is unique in that the climax of the event occurs before any wings are consumed. The climax of Wing Bowl 16 occurred right after the national anthem, during which everyone just kept babbling in drunken slurs and various sloppy drunk guys would yell, “Show us your [bleeps]!” at the poor young woman singing. It was all downhill from there. The actual eating consists of two 14-minute halves and one two-minute final. But by the time the second half rolls around many of the spectators are passed out on their seats, the bare breasts of the same mediocre looking drunk girls begin to lose their punch after an hour of exposure and everyone seems to realize that watching fat guys eat chicken wings isn’t all its cracked up to be.
Walking out of Wing Bowl into a dreary Friday morning a man yells, “We [bleeping] lost again!” People start to realize that Joey Chestnut has once again dominated the event with a record 241 wings, and a crowd of Philly sports fans all too used to losing adds another disappointment to the list.
Wing Bowl, and I mean that in the broadest sense of the spectacle, could only exist in this particular time and place. Strip down the niceties, tear down the façade of political correctness, and you are left with Philadelphia at its most naked — unapologetically fat and perverted and disgusting for all to see. The bottom of the social barrel migrates to a small plot of land in South Philly to deliver a big “eff you” to the world. This holiday stands for debauchery, for broken bottles covered in vomit, for smoking in the non-smoking section, for savagely objectifying women without a shred of guilt, for donning an Eagles jersey and shot gunning beer after beer while the rest of America is tightening its tie and sipping its coffee. And all this takes place, as one community college kid in a baggy black sweatshirt and baggy black jeans put it with a proud smile, in “The worst city in the world!”