Hang on, folks. I’ve just received word. Molly Schuyler has landed. She is on her way. I repeat, she is en route.
I’m coming to you live from the grounds of the Great Pumpkin Farm on a sparkling October Sunday in Clarence, New York, about 20 minutes outside of Buffalo. I’m bearing witness to the culmination of the farm’s fall festival, but the culminating will be hard to come by without the undisputed reigning pumpkin pie-eating champion of the world.
A series of folding tables, draped in material that’s more sheeting than cloth, stand end to end along a stage at the back wall of a building made of concrete and siding and not much else. Volunteers criss-cross the floor with walkie-talkies and stacks of paper plates.
Schuyler had a mix-up with her flights, they explain. She had to take the red-eye from her home in Sacramento. She’s late, but they’ll wait.
Finally she walks in, sunglasses on, phone in one hand and Starbucks in the other. The contest can now begin.
Competitive eaters are local celebrities in whatever location happens to host them. A small group gathers around the slender 5’7″ Schuyler, whose bleach-blonde hair is tied back to reveal a shaved head beneath. Each ear contains 10 piercings, give or take. Her nose has only one or two.
“I have a cracked tooth,” Schuyler tells the group.
She opens her mouth. “See? Iz hack zhere.”
Fast-forward one hour and Schuyler stands onstage, smack in the middle of a righteous mess. The tooth didn’t seem to present much of an obstacle. Having traded a cardigan for a bright orange T-shirt, she is flanked on either side by a ponderous assortment of dudes. Together they peer out through a trashscape of water bottles, pie in various states of decay, crumpled napkins and many, many paper plates.
The plates are the unquestioned lords of the trash. Each held one slice of pie. Whoever has the most plates in front of them after 10 minutes wins $1,000. An emcee counts through the stacks, starting with the Joes and moving to the pros. When he reaches Schuyler, the number to beat is 34.
The crowd counts along. They blow past 20. People whoop as they approach and pass 30, a mark only three other competitors reached. A full cheer erupts as 34 comes and goes. The tally finally stops at 44. That’s five-and-a-half pies in 10 minutes. And still champion.
For those in the know, it was a foregone conclusion.
“Usually what you would think of in the competitive eating world is some big huge guy wolfing down food,” Schuyler says. “[With me] you have a more petite girl in the contest who can eat 10 times more.”
Afterward, Schuyler has more energy than her 38 years and recent achievement might suggest. She frequently flashes her trademark grin, a massive, toothy affair full of mischief, excitement and a hint of a snarl.
Forget that July 4 hot dog-eating contest on TV, and forget that Joey Chestnut guy who always wins it. Schuyler is no simple feel-good story. She is largely unknown to the wider world. But this mother of four and former Applebee’s waitress is the dark queen of competitive eating.
She Doesn’t Chew
Growing up in Minnesota, Schuyler (pronounced SKY-ler) routinely outdueled her brothers at the buffet. But it ended there, owing to its rather limited range of practical applications.
In college, she double-majored in sales/marketing and business management, but soon after, as she puts it, she “got married and had too many kids.” Her husband, who is in the Air Force, became the breadwinner as Schuyler stayed home to raise the family.
Still, they needed extra cash. Applebee’s had flexible scheduling. She took the job but, uh, didn’t like it much.
“People are cheap,” she says, “and they don’t tip.”
She entered her first eating contest on a lark. The food: bacon. She won the contest. She won free bacon. She was tickled to death. And that was before she learned you could win money, too.
“A couple minutes every once in a while, and I could make more money than a couple shifts at this other job? What’s the point of working hard? I might as well work smart,” she says.
A few years later, she holds world records for pizza, hamburgers, hot chicken, fried mushrooms, bratwurst, and pumpkin pie, among other things. Videos of her feats have gone viral, including one where she takes down a 72-ounce steak in three furious minutes, then absently munches fries as she waits for her time.
Her top achievement is likely the record she set last year by downing an astounding 501 chicken wings in 30 minutes during last year’s annual Wing Bowl in Philadelphia. Sadly, Wing Bowl organizers recently pulled the plug after 26 years, removing one of competitive eating’s richest prizes ($5,000 and a car) and the event many eaters considered even more prestigious than the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Schuyler is one of only a few full-time competitive eaters. Schuyler says she earns “enough to survive,” with some contests even covering her travel. She is someone people will literally pay to see.
“She’s just incredibly fast,” says Brandon “Da Garbage Disposal” Clark, also a professional eater. “There’s no words to describe it. I look over and it’s like Houdini. It’s amazing how fast it disappears.”
How does she do it? She follows a normal diet outside the 15 or 20 competitions she does each year but maintains stomach capacity by training with water. In one session, she can put down upwards of three gallons.
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
But she has another, not-so-secret weapon that’s even harder to emulate: She doesn’t chew.
“I’ve been doing that since I was a little kid. I never chewed,” she says. “My mom and dad used to yell at me about that. … I go straight in and swallow it whole.”
It makes her so much faster than the men that she almost styles on them during contests, pausing to wipe her mouth or crack a joke or comment on the food (“Hot!”).
Plenty of people see her as the top challenger to King Hot Dog himself. She and Chestnut are friendly and talk regularly; Schuyler says people ask her “all the time” about a head-to-head battle.
To be clear, no one disputes that Chestnut is amazing. In last year’s July 4 contest, he put away 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Still, there would be no clear-cut favorite between them. Everyone else is arguably vying for third place. Schuyler won’t make any proclamations herself; others will.
“I think overall she’s more accomplished [than Chestnut],” says Dan “Killer” Kennedy, a competitive eater and friend of Schuyler’s. “She can do a higher volume; way more experienced. I’d love to see it head-to-head. I’d take Molly in every food but hot dogs. Hot dogs are his specialty. But with practice, I bet she could battle him pretty good.”
So why don’t they get it done? There’s a big obstacle. Major League Eating, a promotion that helps oversee the contest, is a colossus in the sport. To take part in the hot dog contest, eaters must sign a contract with the company, a contract some suggest can be restrictive. Major League Eating competitors cannot participate in events outside that circuit. So when you flip on the hot dog contest, you’re not seeing the best competitive eaters in the world, full stop. You’re seeing the best competitive eaters who have signed with Major League Eating.
“It’s a great contract,” Schuyler says. “[But] I couldn’t go do certain contests because I’ll get in trouble. I have small people that I need to take care of. I need to make money.”
Major League Eating did not respond to a request either for comment or an interview with Chestnut.
Woman vs. Man vs. Dog
The paper plates are just paper plates again. Volunteers rake them into garbage bags along with the rest of the aftermath. Trophy hoisted and interviews complete, Schuyler and a few buddies, all of whom just competed in the contest, huddle up. There’s Kennedy, goateed with a backward camo cap, who owns a body shop in Pennsylvania. And there’s Clark, Da Garbage Disposal, a thickly built and thickly bearded gardener from Illinois. And there’s a newcomer to the circuit, Joel Hansen, an affable Canadian fitness model.
You read that correctly.
“Competitive eating gets a bad rap,” he says, spreading out his arms. “Look at me. I stay lean.”
I’m not sure what’s coming next, but I have a feeling it’s something. Sure enough, Schuyler turns toward me.
“I’m gonna go back to the hotel and take a nap,” she says. “Then you wanna meet us for a food challenge?”
A food challenge is a close cousin of the eating contest; think “finish it and it’s free.” Before we break for the afternoon, I have to ask. It’s a touch indelicate, but I wouldn’t be doing my job as a hardcore news journalist if I didn’t ask. Pumpkin pie plus a food challenge…well, it’s a lot. Do competitive eaters ever do any, you know, refunding?
Schuyler raises her eyebrows, then shrugs.
“I can’t speak for other people, but just because you ate four pounds of food doesn’t mean it’s going to go out,” she says. “Hey, I can’t speak for other people. I don’t do it.”
There you have it.
A few hours later, I’m first to arrive at Mooney’s, an unsuspecting pub in Depew, New York, that’s soon to be shaken from its Sunday night reverie. I tip off the bartender on what’s coming. She’s younger, says she’s fairly new in the job. She’s not entirely sure how to process what I’ve told her.
“Hold on,” she says. “I need to check the rules. … I’ve never seen anyone do it before! … I don’t know if we have any T-shirts. … Do they know that if they don’t finish, it’s $26?”
Not long after, in they sweep: Clark, Hansen, Kennedy and Schuyler, Depew’s newest local celebrities. They proceed through the bar and into the rear dining room. They push tables together and set up video cameras for their respective channels on YouTube, which is the lifeblood of the sport. People turn their chairs. A server, who seems to be the veteran of the bunch, steps forward.
“Can we do the challenge?” one of the eaters asks.
“You can’t all do it together.”
“Oh, that’s cool. We all want our own.”
They probably don’t even have their wallets on them.
The Mooney’s Moses Challenge involves a sub roughly the size of your average carry-on bag. The thing weighs six pounds. If you finish in 45 minutes, it’s free and you get a T-shirt, subject to availability.
According to the menu, the record is nine-and-a-half minutes, held by a 240-pound English mastiff.
The sandwiches arrive, and they’re terrifying. Steak knives hold them together instead of toothpicks. Adding insult to injury, there are fries, too. The eaters get their waters and Diet Cokes and offer opening remarks to their cameras.
Someone says “go,” and they tear in. Kennedy’s cheeks are puffed like a squirrel’s. Da Garbage Disposal has his head down, face inches from the plate. Hansen’s laying back a bit but still working. Schuyler is like Saturn devouring his son, eating by the fistful.
A bathroom break would have meant missing it. Schuyler takes care of the last handful and calls for time. She finishes in 4:15, cutting the record in half and then some. So to recap, that’s a six-pound sub with fries and 44 slices of pumpkin pie in the span of 12 hours and fewer than 15 total minutes of action.
A few seconds later, Da Garbage Disposal finishes at 4:32, and Kennedy not long after. Then, finally, they relax, wrapping their vids and checking their phones. Schuyler grabs them all some napkins. They tease the unfailingly cheery Hansen for eating his sub in a way that reminds them of a normal person.
At one point, Da Garbage Disposal raises his head, a bit of coleslaw still in his beard.
“We beat the hell out of that dog.”
The group gets a little more expansive, pun intended. They want to talk about competitive eating. They understand why some people don’t like it but can’t hide a desire for wider acceptance.
Yes, they concede, competitive eating gets pretty gross. It is gluttonous. It can be wasteful. Is it something a doctor would endorse? No, it is not. But as undeniable as those things may be, equally undeniable, they say, is the fact that high-level competitive eaters are doing something amazing. And it can be done relatively responsibly.
“Competitive eating is like football or basketball, and you might think it’s not, but it really is,” Schuyler says. “You’re pushing your body to the point where it hurts, and you’re trying to build something greater than what you had before. And there’s endurance, and it’s hard. It’s work. It’s not easy.”
In a country that pays considerable lip service to individualism, Schuyler is about as individual as it gets, even, or maybe especially, if certain segments can’t help but grimace in disgust at the very thought of it all.
The bartender pops in for an update; someone fills her in. She looks at Schuyler, who gives her a grin. The bartender is silent for a moment.
“Dude,” she says. “I’m proud of you.”
Scott Harris is a feature writer for CNN.com and Bleacher Report.