Table Manners: Competitive Eating

By Darrel Bristow-Bovey.

I was walking with my wife through the Sabine Hills in Italy and we stayed a night at an agriturismo – one of those organic farmsteads that give you a room and a bed and a meal of food grown on the farm. They’re very proud of the fact that everything is grown on the farm.

We sat down to dinner and the hostess placed a bowl of olives on the table and pitcher of water with slices of yellow lemon and a vase of flowers.

“The flowers are grown on the farm,” she said.

“Huh!” I said encouragingly, although to be honest I wasn’t that impressed by this news. Flowers have to grow somewhere.

“The olives are also grown on the farm,” said the hostess. I ate one and tried not to cry aloud at how horrid and bitter it was. It was like chewing a tumour. I poured a glass of water to try rinse the taste from my mouth.

“The lemons are grown on the farm,” said the hostess.

“Is the water also from the farm?” I asked. My wife kicked me under the table.

“Yes,” said the hostess smugly.

“Oh, is there a spring?” asked my wife.

“No, we get it from, what you say? The tap,” she said.

There was another couple, German, staying at the agriturismo that night, which we discovered when they were seated at a table right next to ours. She seemed inoffensive enough, but he and I glanced at each other and something ancient and instinctive passed between us. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of seeing another person and just knowing instantly that you and he are destined never to be friends, that in fact you could imagine hunting each other to the ends of the Earth in some grisly deadlocked blood feud, abandoning all other cares and interests and happiness in the single-minded hunger to defeat him? That was me and the German guy.

It was a big, empty dining room but our tables we were seated maybe twenty centimetres apart. I tried to surreptitiously shift our table further away, but it made a loud scraping sound and they looked over while I made a show of frowning and looking around to see where that noise was coming from.

The hostess returned and brought both tables a basket of bread.

“Made here on the farm!” she said.

We ordered a bottle of the farm’s white wine.

“We will have a bottle also,” said the German man. He glanced at me superciliously. “And a bottle of red too.”

“Did you hear that?” I said to my wife in Afrikaans. “White and red. Did you see the look he gave me? What’s he trying to prove? I’m going to order a bottle of red as well.”

“Why are you talking in Afrikaans?” she said. “You know I don’t understand Afrikaans.”

The German broke off a piece of bread and chewed it teutonically. He said something to his wife in German and she giggled. What was he saying about me? Nothing good, I’ll bet.

“Look how fast he’s drinking that wine,” I said in Afrikaans, basically to myself. “Every time he finishes a glass he looks across at me. He’s challenging me! And look at all the bread he’s eating. What’s this guy’s problem? Eating and drinking isn’t a competition, dude.”

“Why are you eating that bread?” my wife said. “You don’t normally eat bread.”

It’s true, I don’t normally eat bread at the table, but when a challenge is laid down by a stranger in a strange place, it would take a man less stupidly South African than me not to reply. Also, I needed something to absorb two bottles of wine.

“I’ll have another basket of bread, please,” I said to the hostess.

“I too another basket of bread,” said the German guy.

I glared at him. He glared at me. We both poured ourselves more wine. Our wives were starting to exchange concerned glances.

“Maybe save some room for dinner,” my wife suggested. “There’s beetroot carpaccio and goat’s cheese tart, and pasta with sausage and artichokes. They make the sausage here on the farm!”

“Excuse me,” I said to the hostess, “can I have a third basket of bread?”

The German guy couldn’t speak because his mouth was filled with crust, but he waved for another one too. We eyeballed each other across the twenty centimetres of no-man’s-land, breathing heavily while we waited for our baskets to reload. He had speed of bread-eating, but I had the bulldog spirit of Never Surrender. I’ll say this for him, though – he was a brave foe.

“I’m sorry,” said the German woman to my wife.

“No, please, don’t apologise” said my wife. “He’s done this before, with a guy from New Zealand.”

The rest of the evening is a blur. War is hell, and the brain shuts down the horrors it has seen. When the hostess finally denied us more bread we went onto the pasta. It was like taking heavy bombardment. When the hostess tried to tell us there was no more pasta, the German guy bellowed. “No! There is more! You make it here on the farm!” and then I laughed at that and he laughed and then we remembered we were at war and got serious again. There was more wine. I don’t know how we ended up in that tree.

The next morning the Italian sun rose golden over the misty Sabine valleys and over the ravaged battlefield of my body.

My wife was up already, lacing her walking shoes. We had fifteen kilometres of hill tracks ahead of us.

“Oh god,” I moaned.

“You were very brave last night,” she said, but I can’t swear she wasn’t being sarcastic. “I hope you and your friend had a good time.”

“He’s not my friend, he’s my enemy,” I gasped through the pain of all that bread.

When someone is as stupid as you, her face seemed to be saying, there’s not much difference between a friend and an enemy.

“Did I … did he … who won?” I managed to ask at last.

She looked at me the way women have looked at dumb-ass men since men were first invented.

“Honey,” she said. “No one ever wins in a war.”