A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper feature writing, Sam Eifling

By Quill

Hollywood, Fla., is renowned for its unique population — even the strange blend into normal in that little area of America. Never a wallflower, however, Joe LaRue stands out.

At 6 feet 8 inches and a muscular 280 pounds, LaRue surprises people with his sport of choice — competitive eating. In 2004, LaRue was in his second year of professional competition and ranked seventh in the world.

“Hot Dog, Ho!” follows LaRue to the world’s most prestigious eating competition, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island. The profile touches on LaRue’s past, rich in addiction, and follows him through gorging exercises.

Joe’s training regimen is unquestionably gluttonous,” said Sam Eifling, New Times Broward reporter.

One night a couple of weeks before the contest, he grilled two dozen hot dogs, stacked them five to a paper plate, and lined the kitchen counter with the plates. He places a pile of paper napkins nearby because when he eats too fast, his nose runs, one of the many aspects of his body he can’t explain because it has always been that way.

“The most difficult aspect of humor writing is finding a balance in the tone,” said Eifling. “Ultimately, the source material was strong enough, and Joe LaRue so likeable, that I could present the facts in a fairly straight manner. Nothing destroys a joke faster than the author laughing at it.”

Eifling spent a month putting together “Hot Dog, Ho!” The 4,200-word feature traces the life story of LaRue, from a rough childhood to 20 hot dog’s in 12 minutes.

“I’m reluctant to predict that I’ll never write another long-form feature on competitive eating,” said Eifling. “That said, I don’t think I’ll write another long-form feature on competitive eating any time soon.”

The weekend after Nathan’s, LaRue was in Orange County, California, on his own dime, for a doughnut-eating contest. With time expiring and Don Lerman (the butter junkie) midway through his 28th doughnut, Joe crammed the last bit of number 27 and an entire number 28 into his mouth.

“At five, four, three, two, one, I was shoving two doughnuts in my mouth,” he says over dinner one night. “The news people, I could hear them go, ‘Uhhhhh!’ ”

Lerman beat LaRue by a quarter-doughnut in a one-minute tiebreaker.