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Why do we love watching eating challenges so much?

Ever since he watched a friend's brother eat a tub of margarine, Rhodri Marsden has both loved and hated eating challenges. What is it about them that keeps us so transfixed? And how mad does it have to be to grab our attention nowadays?

I’ve been eating food, on and off, for just over 43 years, and it’s time to reveal my findings: being hungry is annoying, and being over-full is annoying too. Striking a balance is key, and we’re aware of this at olive; we know that four roast chickens is too much for one person, so our recipes suggest quantities as a guide, allowing you to calibrate accordingly. If you happen to be freestyling without a recipe, plate size is a good alternative indicator; if your dinner doesn’t fit on the plate, you might regret eating it all.

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This is assuming, of course, that you’re eating for pleasure – a reasonable assumption, but not one we should take for granted. Because eating as a test of endurance has become embedded in our culture. Some people run marathons, some abseil down cliffs, others ram a kilo of bacon into their faces just to see their names chalked up on a blackboard in their local café. 

We could lay the blame at the door of Man vs Food, the TV series featuring Adam Richman sweating, sighing and belching his way through eating challenges. But I think we’re genetically predisposed to be fascinated by people eating too much. When I was little, my friend’s brother would eat a tub of margarine with a spoon if we dared him to. It was horrible to watch, but we kept daring him anyway. Last year, while I stood watching a speedway event, people in the crowd were challenged to drink four litres of milk as fast as they could. A tiny, slim woman won the challenge effortlessly, thrashing the competition. The crowd roared in appreciation, while simultaneously thinking to themselves ‘my god, that was disgusting’.

Adam Richman doesn’t do eating challenges any more. But while he’s turned to a vegan diet and has lost 25 kilos, YouTube has brought us plenty of young pretenders. Furious Pete guzzles catering-sized quantities of ingredients (1kg feta cheese, 3 bottles of lemon juice) and has hundreds of thousands of viewers. Bob Eats chomps on raw squid for a more select, sophisticated audience. But where can food challenges go from here? How to satisfy an audience becoming weary of seeing people consume burgers the size of a car tyre? The answer might come from Essex. Jon Neaves, a 28-year old ‘professional idiot’ from Chelmsford, has been undertaking food challenges as the ‘Essex Animal’ for quite some time, now, but with very little acknowledgement or acclaim. There have been 109 of them filmed for his YouTube channel, but the viewer count is tiny. He’s putting himself through hell for very little reward.

Perhaps in desperation, he now appears to be upping the ante. ‘What I’ve been doing,’ he says in a recent video, ‘is buying Tropicana orange juice and not drinking them. I’ve been hoarding them for a year.’ He then attempts to drink 21 bottles of out-of-date juice. ‘I could end up in hospital,’ he says, getting through 14 of them before admitting defeat. At the time of writing, only 562 people have watched this video. But Jon isn’t giving up. Other recent challenges include a tube of Colgate toothpaste (75ml, Cavity Protection) and ‘Chalk And Cheese’ (combining a block of extra hot Mexican cheese and a very fat stick of chalk.) ‘Kids, don’t eat chalk,’ he says. ‘It’s stupid.’

In 1978, Frenchman Michel Lotito decided, on a whim, to eat a Cessna 150 light aircraft. It took him approximately two years, and he ended up in the Guinness Book Of Records. But the YouTube generation doesn’t have that kind of patience. They need the instant gratification of seeing someone eat grasshoppers, or candlewax, or maybe both together, in a couple of minutes. Without wishing to put ideas in his head, Jon Neaves might be that man. [PS: we have no recipes involving Cessna aircraft, grasshoppers or candlewax. Next week we’ll get back to the topic of food. Promise.]


Like this? Then try more of Rhodri’s features…

International Carrot Day – what’s it really all about?

We’re with @WeWantPlates: let’s put an end to food served on wooden boards

World Nutella Day and Maltesers Teasers: we’ve all gone crazy for chocolate spread!

National Chip Week: we’re a nation obsessed with chips!

The most ridiculous Valentine’s Day ideas

Jammie Bakes: we want to be excited about you!

The Great British Pie Quiz

Why isn’t there a cheese emoji?

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