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Photos By Shane Wynn
He faced the stands in Canal Park as a crowd of 1,200 vibrated with energy. They cheered and admired his professional technique and precision of movement. This was his home turf, and he wouldn’t lose to the guy from Pittsburgh — he owed it to this town and to himself.
He came from a small town and worked his way up to the big leagues, but a premature retirement and feuds with his manager stunted his progress to the top.
With the grace only a seasoned veteran could muster, he held the tool that would lead him to glory, to prove to all who doubted him that he was back and better than ever. A spike of adrenaline rushed through him as he made his first move — a bite.
And so began the 2008 National Hamburger Festival’s eating contest, where competitive-eating legend and hometown hero Dave “Coondog” O’Karma proved victorious over Pittsburgh foe, Pete “Big Plate” Maurizio.
>> “Well, do you want the lie or the truth?” O’Karma asks before explaining both the true and false origins of his nickname, Coondog.
The story he tells everyone is that as a baby, he sat in his high chair and snatched the spoon out of his grandpa’s hand, prompting his grandpa to proclaim, “This boy eats more than my coon dog!”
In reality, O’Karma, 56, wanted to be a surfer in high school and came up with the name because, well, it sounded cool. Later, he came up with another moniker — the Dean of Cuisine — because it, too, sounded cool.
And he became a competitive eater because … it was fun, of course.
A world-record holder in consuming obscene amounts of pineapple, donuts and corn on the cob, O’Karma developed an interest in eating competitions by watching TV’s “Houlihan and Big Chuck Show” with his friends when he was 13. After a stint as reigning champion in their Pizza Fight of the Century, O’Karma competed until 1974, when he retired for 27 years. He returned in 2001 to guzzle hot dogs for Nathan’s Famous in New York and has worked as both talent and manager since.
At 6-feet-2-inches and 195 pounds, O’Karma isn’t the obvious image of a competitive eater. His energy level is borderline manic, and he walks a couple miles every day. And even though he can practically unhinge his jaw to choke down foodstuffs in record time, O’Karma does enjoy quality food, which he proved in 2004 and 2005 when he produced award-winning sauces at the Buffalo Wing Festival (Coondog’s Pineapple Jerk sauce and Coondog’s Buffalo Hot Nut sauce).
“When Coondog came back from the Wing Bowl in Philadelphia, he ate so many bad wings so quickly, he wanted me to tell him where to go to get the best chicken wings in the Akron area to get his passion back,” says friend and former Beacon Journal food editor/restaurant critic Jane Snow. “We ate chicken wings from Rootstown to Strongsville. But we weren’t downing 25 at once.”
>> O’Karma auditioned to host the Travel Channel’s “Man v. Food” TV show (where the host seeks out restaurants with extreme eating challenges), and he even made it to the final four, which was held in the “orgasmic” restaurant from “When Harry Met Sally.”
Though he didn’t get the job, he’s clearly proven over the years that he has a high threshold for discomfort — and “that’s something you need more than anything” for competitive eating. “Obviously, I don’t know what it feels like to be nine months pregnant with your water about to break, but I think I sort of do,” he laughs.
Though O’Karma knows going into a competition that pain is inevitable, his distaste for losing helps him push through. Still, he appreciates the concern people might have regarding the healthiness of competitive eating. In particular, he’s opposed to the common practice of training for competitions by eaters drinking gallons of water to expand their stomachs.
“I’m not against people figuring out a way to do it with a technique or a style,” he says. “It’s not like weight training, which makes you look good and makes you healthier. [Mass water consumption] makes you a better competitive eater, but it doesn’t make you healthier.”
O’Karma puts his roles as a dad and a husband first, so as much as he likes to win, it won’t be at the expense of his health. And while many might see competitive eating as a choking and obesity hazard, O’Karma believes the most dangerous part is when competitors take it all too seriously.
“It attracts people with low self-esteem,” he says. “Someone who was kind of good at basketball in high school but not quite good enough — and the idea of being a champion at anything is still psychologically big for them. There doesn’t have to be prize money, they just want the title. I think that’s crazy. So instead of a fat slob, you’re a ‘champion’ eater.
“When I’m eating normally, I slow down a lot, and I stop when it starts to hurt,” he says. “In a competitive eating contest, I don’t care if you love what you’re eating, after a few minutes, it all starts to taste like mud. It’s a fight between the common sense part of your brain and the competitive spirit. But I’m not an overeater — I’m not a big fat guy.”
O’Karma’s competitive eating organization, All Pro Eating, promotes only picnic-style eating, where competitors aren’t permitted to dip, dunk or mash food, or use liquid enhancements. These requirements are meant to promote a healthier competitive eating environment (i.e. slow down eaters) and to maintain the integrity of the food itself — or, as O’Karma puts it, “eat it the way the food gods made it to be eaten.”
And … because it’s fun, O’Karma and All Pro Eating co-founder Arnold “Chowhound” Chapman create personalities for their competitors — just the way O’Karma remembers when he was 13. “We make it more of an entertaining event, like WWE,” he says. “Our guys have some personality, and they add a little shtick. It’s worked — we’re still in business, we’re doing good.”
>> One of the many things O’Karma is known for is inventing the turkey flop twist, an eating technique used to earn the record he’s most proud of: five pounds of corn on the cob in 7 minutes.
The details of the technique have been kept confidential — until now.
“You extend the lower jaw out, literally grind the corn off the cob on your bottom row of teeth, and flop your elbows up and down like a turkey to twist the cob around,” explains O’Karma. “You have to be a great athlete with a high pain tolerance — I wouldn’t recommend it to just anyone. Most do it typewriter-style.”
It’s also not uncommon for competitive eaters to develop particular habits; O’Karma tends to rock from side to side as if stretching his stomach to make room. He compares the rhythmic process to running, where athletes search to find their stride.
It also helps to not hate what you’re eating. O’Karma has gobbled everything from hamburger to oysters to eggs to corn on the cob to bull testicles. His favorite food to eat competitively? Pineapple.
On the other hand, he also discovered just how difficult it is to consume large quantities of one of America’s favorite breakfast foods: bacon. “I competed in the World Bacon Eating Championship in St. Louis — and it’s like eating cardboard,” he says. “It’s actually very hard to eat because there’s a lot of chewing involved and drinking liquids doesn’t break it down.”
These days, O’Karma actually prefers to emcee or referee events. He also published a volume of poetry called “Wit and Whimsy of a White Trash Jesus.” And in 2006, Jason Fagone documented O’Karma’s career in the book, “Horsemen of the Esophagus.”
Though competitive eating has brought O’Karma a bit of fame and fortune, his advice for aspiring eaters is this: Do something else. Don’t rely on digestive prowess to bring success.
However, O’Karma acknowledges that being a competitive eater does have its advantages.
“It’s like being a sixth grader,” he says. “You can’t live your life as a sixth grader, but it’s fun to go back for a little while. I’ve been able to take my family to a lot of places — Japan, New York, Hollywood. Competitive eating has allowed me to do stuff with my family I wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.
“It’s a powerful, addictive thing to get junk fame — if anything, I’m a glutton for that,” he says. “And I didn’t get just 15 minutes — I got three or four hours.”
Coondog’s Worthy Adversaries
Corn on the cob
Devoured: 5.1 lbs. in 7 minutes
Coondog witticism: “Corn on the cob was special. An eating world record the day of the event. A land speed world record to the bathroom the next morning when nature called.”
Krispy Kreme donuts
Devoured: 12 in one minute on the “Steve Harvey Show”
Coondog witticism: “They shot the eating scene two times. The first run, I had 15 down in a minute and a half — when they decided to cut and start over. The second run was a minute, and I was praying it was a keeper because I was getting pretty full.”
Devoured: 5 lbs. in one minute 58 seconds
Coondog witticism: “Pineapple is training food for me. I did this stunt to qualify for Wing Bowl in 2003. I could easily do six pounds in under two minutes.”
Devoured: 45 in eight minutes 10 seconds
Coondog witticism: “At the time, this was a Guinness world record. And the last time I ever ate a hard-boiled egg. After the feat, I suffered from PTES — Post Traumatic Egg Syndrome.”
Sweet potato pie
Devoured: 13 in one minute
Coondog witticism: “Sweet potato pies were my first contest, first victory — when the eating genius of Coondog was revealed to the world!”
/ Writer Brandi Shaffer is still astounded by Coondog’s gastronomical pyrotechnics as she’s a firm believer in small, manageable bites. She lives in Streetsboro and is the associate editor of “Club & Resort Business” magazine.