By Pei Shan
Former top competitive eater Ed “Cookie” Jarvis shown here with eating legend & Good friend Don ‘Moses” Lerman in 2001
He has wolfed down almost seven pounds of linguini within six minutes in New York’s Little Italy, devoured a 76-ounce steak in less than 14.5 minutes at an upstate steakhouse, and gobbled up 91 pork dumplings in Chinatown in less than ten minutes.
And those are only three of the 33 contests that Ed “Cookie” Jarvis has won in his 10-year competitive eating career, most of which were held in New York, the hub of the sport.
“There’s no food here that I haven’t conquered, really,” said the former United States number 1 and World number 2 in Major League Eating rankings — the leading international eating circuit. “You have a lot more contests here, a lot more food to play with, and different avenues for eating.”
It is astounding, sometimes frightening, what the human body can achieve in sports, and Jarvis’s feats demonstrate that competitive eating is no exception. Rivals and pundits of the sport estimate that the 44-year-old Long Island native has probably won more titles than any other eater in recent history, earning him the reputation as the Michael Jordan of eating. “Cookie was very impressive,” recalled a fellow eater, Don Lerman. “There was a matzo ball contest and one of those dumplings is the size of a baseball. Everybody was cutting them up, and he was swallowing them whole.”
But the sport has also come to exemplify the very culture of excessive indulgence that has produced the famously overweight American society battling obesity. Once a competitive eater’s blessing, Jarvis’s colossal size — a protruding belly flopping over his waistline, topped off with a stubbly double-chin flanked by cheeks that a capable of expanding to accommodate fistfuls of food — has gradually weighed down on him as he reached his middle-age years. If anything, Jarvis’s story is one of betrayal: a body previously relied upon for victory now giving way and riddled with health
As his personal trainer Anthony Pelliccio cautions: “Intense consumption of food is a risk with tremendous consequences attached.”
Standing at six feet, six inches weighing a current 375 pounds, Jarvis looks both like a scruffy Santa and a buffet owner’s worst nightmare: a man built simply to eat. Early on in his competition days, the former recreational body builder walked into Bed, Bath & Beyond asking for the biggest spoon it had. What it gave him was something of “a mini shovel,” as Jarvis puts it — four inches in length and about three inches across, which he easily fits in his mouth.
“How do you think professional baseball players do it?” said the former cabinet builder who founded and operated five businesses over the last 16 years, including a real estate agency and an energy consulting company, all of which rake in $200,000 annually. “They know which bat works better. Me, I had my spoon.”
As he trailed his finger along the utensil’s edges during an interview in his 12-room house that he and his wife, had had built for their family of four on his native Long Island, Jarvis noted fondly that it had “battle scars on it” where his teeth made dents. This was a spoon that had won many a contest, from ice cream to dumplings to Russian pelmenis. “This is the ultimate eating tool.”
Some wins come with cash prizes between $500 and the occasional $25,000. Others simply leave eaters walking away with the pride of victory. “That’s certainly not enough to maintain my lifestyle,” said Jarvis, noting that most top-ranked eaters in the world have daytime jobs like him. “I want a house, I need my two cars, and eating for a living is just not sustainable.”
Consuming such high volumes of food came at a cost: all those calories from approximately 12 competitions annually — each contest having up to ten qualifying rounds — caused him to balloon to 525 pounds at his peak 2006. Even after having dropped over a 100 pounds since then, the floors of his house still shudder when Jarvis seats himself.
“I loved competing,” he said of his passion for eating. “I wanted to win and I wanted to be number one.”
It all began with watching a matzo ball eating contest on television in 2000. At the time, Jarvis was a 34-year-old cabinetmaker taking up his father’s business. The contest gave him the idea that eating would be something he could do well. “Who wouldn’t want to be paid to travel for contests and to just eat?” he asked, knowing the answer.
The next year, just before Jarvis started intense competitive eating, he and his wife of over 12 years, Elyse — a striking woman at six feet two inches — had their first child, Amanda. His new family got to travel the local New York eating circuit as Jarvis went for contest after contest.
“I always wanted to be there for him, but it was tough bringing a young kid,” said Elyse.
Jarvis claimed his first MLE win in 2001 with 2.8 pounds of fries in eight minutes, a victory he dedicated to his father, who died suddenly just days earlier from kidney failure. When Elyse was expecting their second child in 2002, she was reluctant to let her husband go to Las Vegas for the Battle of the Buffets, determined that he not miss the birth.
“But he went anyway, and came back to Long Island, two days before I delivered,” recalled Elyse, a 43-year-old teaching assistant for children with special needs. “He got lucky.” Jarvis celebrated the birth of his son, Max, with a win in Vegas.
“I think I subconsciously named him after one of my favorite contests called Max & Mina Ice Cream, which I had won with a world record the year before,” he confessed. Max, now eight, said he wants, among many things, to be an eater and “famous like daddy,” but Jarvis is reluctant to train his son at such a young age.
“Training’s tough; it’s not something for everyone,” he said. “I always tell people, ‘Don’t try this at home.’”
By “this,” Jarvis was referring to how he used to go to buffets and stuff himself with 13 pounds of food to stretch his stomach. The more he ate, the better he became at eating more. He progressed to drinking 2.5 gallons of water at a go in replacement of packing in food. “You’d be peeing like crazy, which wasn’t fun,”he recalled. He also developed techniques that helped get the food down more quickly. For instance, he said, ice cream was eaten with the spoon facing downwards to avoid “brain freeze;” cannolis were softened in warm coffee to facilitate swallowing, and chicken wings were ripped apart in one precise jerk.
“You just pop the wing and you go —wheet,” he said, baring his teeth in a ripping motion as demonstration. “It comes right out in one piece. It’s called the umbrella technique.”
Jarvis attributed his wins to always having a strategy, compared to his rivals who concentrated on the quantity of food they were trying to consume. “I would figure out the best way to eat a specific type of food,” he said.
But the eater had no strategy against gaining weight as he competed, which he acknowledged “is definitely a big problem of the sport.”
The lack of rules governing the frequency of participation did little to help. George Shea, chairman of MLE, said it is “very tricky to monitor what people eat” and how often they compete. “How do you tell an eater to stop what they’re doing on a Friday night and not eat that second slice of pizza?” he asked. “How do you make a judgment on that? What about the average Joe in a football game?”
So eaters kept competing and pushing their limits. In 2005, Jarvis was diagnosed with diabetes and forced to “retire from the sport” the following year, a departure he took in stride as an end to a successful career “with no regrets.” Elyse was relieved remembering that “it was gross watching him compete sometimes,” like the incident in 2004 where Jarvis threw up after a contest and said he noticed that the pieces coming back up were “half-sized hot dogs.”
The couple had met and fallen in love at the New York Tall Club International, a social organization for tall people that both had joined to find prospective tall partners. Won over by Jarvis’s romantic gestures — he often folded paper roses for her — Elyse said yes when he proposed some six months later. At the time, she didn’t know that she would soon become one of his most ardent supporters as he rose up the competitive eating ladder.
But she said she had always worried about her husband’s eating and was “kind of glad” he slowed down. Yet just when all was going well with the break from competitive eating and Jarvis began harboring thoughts of returning to the sport once he had shed some weight, he discovered he had thyroid cancer in February.
“There were five big tumors, and I found out by accident when I was going for a diabetic checkup after I had lost some weight. You couldn’t find it before because my neck was so much fatter,” said Jarvis with a chuckle. A couple of feet away, his wife rolled her eyes.
“No one had noticed it earlier,” he said. “I know when I was eating, toward the end, I was having a hard time swallowing. The sad part was I had doctors go like this” — and he grabbed his neck with a meaty hand — “and nobody ever picked it up. They told me I was fine.”
The good news was that it was treatable: after surgery to remove the tumors and 19 lymph nodes, followed by one dose of radiotherapy, Jarvis was declared cancer-free, with an eight-inch scar across his neck as the only reminder. The bad news was that his doctors thought it was dangerous for him to even consider making a comeback to the sport. But how do you tell a man who loves eating and relishes competing to completely give up what has, over the past decade, consumed him and his family?
“It was his life, and it was a bit insane,” said Elyse. “He got all these trophies, he was the kids’ champion. He loved it.”
Barely six months after surgery, Jarvis entered a Manhattan chicken wings contest in October, winning it by devouring 53 fried wings in three minutes. Elyse said he still enjoys the attention the eating gets him.
“The media, the competitions, the fans,” she mused. “Besides, he’s always been a big eater in general. He basically inhales food, it’s who he is.”
The family’s world has revolved around Jarvis’s huge appetite and eating success for years. Max and Amanda are on a first name basis with some of the world’s top eaters, like former World Number 1, Takeru Kobayashi, fellow American record-holder, Eric Booker, and Sonya Thomas, the tiny, 105-pound South Korean woman who beat Jarvis to top the U.S. rankings before he retired. T-shirts emblazoned with his wins are printed by the hundreds every year and worn by friends, family, and even the children’s bus drivers.
“My dad’s famous so, you know, everyone knows my dad’s famous,” said Amanda, who is fifth-grader at Dogwood Elementary School in Saint James.
It is not just his eating capacity that is of large proportions. Everything about Jarvis is big. Four years ago, he moved his family from Nesconset to their mini-mansion of a house in Saint James that he said better accommodates his trophy collection, and his gym. One of his greatest obsessions is with his oversized fish tank. To the casual eye it looks exactly like the sort of thing travels see in international airports and chic hotel lobbies. It is a watery showcase with fish the length of a man’s arm and named after pro eaters Jarvis said are friends and colleagues.
Jarvis said he has big dreams for his two children whom he wants to be able to do everything he never got to do, including a college education, which his parents could not afford.
For much of his life, being bigger than most people had often been an advantage. But not anymore. Battling diabetes, as well as having a bout with cancer, Jarvis said he now faces a challenge tougher than any mountain of dumplings or hot dogs.
For the sake of his health, he said wants to lose another hundred pounds by the end of next year.
“I had to make a choice — to be healthy or not be healthy,” said Jarvis. “At some point you gotta stop, or you treat yourself worse.” There was a momentary pause before added softly that his mother lost her legs because of diabetes, and is now struggling with terminal kidney cancer.
“I don’t want to fall into the trap that my parents fell into,” he said. “I don’t want to burden anybody with my health.”
He said that cancer had made him more aware that his body was suffering from his eating habits and decided “the competitions are not a priority anymore.”
Instead, Jarvis has been working with Pelliccio or the past year. He is concentrating on light resistance training, cardio and his diet.
“There was obviously a lot of concern at the beginning because when you get a client like that, you have to be very cautious about how much weight you’re losing and how fast you’re losing,” said Pelliccio. “He’s actually very athletic, but when you have somebody as big as that, even exercises can be a risk. You need very close supervision.”
Once a celebrity with devoted fans that would travel from Las Vegas to see him eat in California, Jarvis is now receiving a new kind of attention. His poor health and recovery have been the topic of eating forums and even the talk among his old rivals. Some, like longtime friend Richard LeFevre, are worried that a return to the sport would only be detrimental.
“It’s a different game now,” said LeFevre, noting that training has evolved and it would be harder to challenge the younger competitors. “He would have to decide if it’s worth the risk. He retired at the top of his game, he has so many titles and has already achieved so much.”
Others, however, like Lerman and Thomas want him back.
“He’s a fighter, and the sport needs colorful characters like him who can step up to the plate, pun intended,” Lerman said.
As for Jarvis, once the weight is down — “definitely by the end of next year” — the eater thinks anything is possible.
“Eating got me addicted to winning,” he said. “It was like being on drugs. You need to win, and once you win this many, it’s hard not to think about it
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