PHILADELPHIA (Reuters Life!) -- At 5 a.m. on a freezing January morning more than 15,000 Philadelphians crammed into a sports arena on Friday to witness the city’s annual festival of gluttony and lust.
It’s the Wing Bowl, a competitive-eating extravaganza in which 27 men try to eat the largest number of chicken wings in 30 minutes.
They are assisted by legions of bikini-clad young women called “Wingettes”, and encouraged by a baying crowd which stayed up most of the night to take part in the spectacle.
Jonathon Squibb, a 23-year-old computer technician from Berlin, New Jersey, won the event and a $30,000 Mini Cooper after eating 203 wings without getting sick.
Squibb, who was unknown in competitive eating circles, beat better-known participants including the favorite, “Damaging Doug” Canavin of Philadelphia.
The Wing Bowl, timed to air live on the morning show of the WIP sports talk radio station that sponsors it, has become a major event in Philadelphia on the Friday before the Super Bowl. It was started in 1993 as a consolation for fans of the Philadelphia Eagles football team which usually fail, as they did this year, to qualify for the national championship.
Organizers can’t explain why thousands of people endure freezing temperatures to attend the Wing Bowl.
“It isn’t hard to understand, it’s impossible to understand,” said Al Morganti, the founder of the event and co-host of the WIP morning show.
At least part of the appeal for the mostly male audience seems to be the Wingettes, who need little encouragement to bare parts of their anatomy and encourage female audience members to do the same, while being projected on giant screens around the arena.
As live rock music and pouting Wingettes pump up the crowd, contestants enter the arena on a series of floats that vie for the most outlandish or sexually suggestive presentation.
Michael Berger, a New Jersey flooring contractor who calls himself The Eating Machine, defeated hundreds of other eaters by putting on a preliminary “stunt” that qualified him for the final. He wowed the judges by eating 32 ounces of mayonnaise in 1 minute, 30 seconds, a feat that gave him odds of 4-1.
David Spector, a 20-year-old student from Rutgers University, qualified by eating 10 whole lemons in five minutes while playing the saxophone.
Despite the humor, eating is a serious business as 27 men in T-shirts sat at long tables stuffing wings into their faces and taking rapid sips of water and trying to keep the food down, with not all succeeding.
For spectator Chris Bunodono, 38, it was his 10th visit to the Wing Bowl. He said he just loves to come and be part of the occasion.
This year, in an attempt to take the event back to its roots, only local amateur eaters were allowed. Professional outsiders such as Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, who won four times, were excluded.
Faith Casciano, 55, mother of contestant Michael Casciano, aka The Caveman, supports her son out of loyalty not approval of the event.
“The gluttony is not anything that a mother should really be proud of,” she said. “I would rather he did other things with his life, but if this makes him happy ...”