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Wiener-Binging at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest
by Andrew Blake
Everyone I knew got a phone call that week. “I got ‘em,” I said, with the enthusiasm of a man with fifty-yard line tickets to the home opener. But this was not football, and I was surely not a man. “I got the passes; press passes, man. It’s fucking hot dogs!”
I was going to Coney Island for the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest, an annual competition held by the wiener chain in conjunction with the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). It a late night trek from Toledo to get there. My car might not make it, and I couldn’t afford it, but I had been joking about attending this not-so-gourmet gala since last summer, and goddammit, I will risk both safety and solvency if it means I get the last laugh.
Coney Island sneaks up on you like a birthday. I expected some illustrious amusement park on the sea, with clowns, dancing and the whole shebang. Instead, I got the shithole of Brooklyn. The park, a scattering of ring-toss games, fried dough stands and the occasional ride, lies just adjacent to the ramshackle boardwalk. among bumper cars and lemonade shacks, one finds a souvenir stand with fifteen-dollar disposable Kodaks and sweatpants with touristy phrases stamped across the ass.
At the corner of this monstrosity is Nathan’s. The cameramen at the Travel Channel must be cinematic geniuses, because for the granddaddy of all hot dog stands I was expecting a bit more. Regardless, I had just finished a 700-mile pilgrimage. I wanted a hot dog.
Today was the day for Coney Island. The corner of Surf and Stillwell had hosted the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest for years. The legend goes that two immigrants held the first dog-off at this stand in 1916 to see who was more patriotic. Back then, the record was thirteen in twelve minutes. Odds were that that figure would be outdone by a factor of five today. Truly, our nation’s progress is something to behold.
For several blocks, traffic was halted and rerouted. Hundreds of New York’s finest were centralized over a few square blocks to keep everyone in line. I had arrived a good two hours before festivities were scheduled to go underway, and if twelve straight hours of driving was not enough, it was going to be at least another hour to land affordable parking. But the enthusiasm exuded from passersby made up for the lackluster amusement park. Sporting homemade T-shirts and American flags, the throng made its way to the stage. Worrying that I might have misread the press invitation, I ran to Nathan’s to see what I was missing. It was a hot dog—a man in a hot dog suit, that is, dancing a hot dog dance to a man playing guitar and singing a song about hot dogs. I drove twelve hours for this, and today was my country’s two-hundred-somethingth birthday. I almost shed a tear.
We made our way to the Nathan’s counter, but protestors and picketers cluttered our path. PETA members needed to remind us that meat was murder. Watching vegans rally for their cause at a hot dog contest reminded me of slamming on my horn in front of a school for the deaf. The difference was that when I did it, I knew I was being a dick. Not to mention that hot dogs are little more than a byproduct, just a way for the meat industry to sell off the garbage that’s left after stripping a pig of all its delicious muscle tissue, using every part of the animal just like the Indians did. PETA also seemed to think that if people cannot afford to eat, it is just silly to let people gorge themselves for sport. And there is that whole meat is murder thing, again. Well, meat is awesome, and it wasn’t long before the gluttonous mob tore down their signs and chased them out. We didn’t need them to tell us we were pigs. Gross, decadent excess was the reason we were there.
I was greatly in need of some vitamin M to offset the caffeine that had kept me afloat since Binghamton. For around three dollars, I bought one of the most mediocre wieners I’d ever had. The bun was stale, the dog tiny. How someone could chow a few dozen baffled me. I counted over forty employees on the clock at 10am, most under the age of twenty. There is nothing quite like seeing four dozen teenagers serving hot dogs in the morning. It had been mere moments, and I had already found something weirder than a thousand people watching a man dance in a hot dog suit in front of a big fucking roller coaster.
Things really began to heat up after hot dog man left. A young male/female duo took center stage and tapped for the growing crowd. The group, Clogtastic, had nothing to do with hot dogs, or pretty much anything. Regardless, they received much more applause than anything else that morning. “Write that down!” said my fellow BEAST staffer. “Clogtastic! You don’t want to forget Clogtastic.”
The professional eaters were introduced a while later. They had all met strict qualifications and were for the most part veterans in the field of competitive eating. Sadly, most veterans were under the age of forty—apparently, mass hot dog binging does not lead to a longer life. It seems that most vets are retired, dead, or have taken on more lucrative careers in the competitive eating field. “Hungry” Charles Hardy still holds records in sushi and cabbage, but today he was on hand as IFOCE Commissioner. Eric “Badlands” Booker, the first American to do 30 HDBs (that’s IFOCE lingo for Hot Dog and Bun) was on the stage today too, but he was there to rap. He performed a handful of tunes, most about food, repeatedly plugging his website. These two men proved that there is life after satiety, even if it’s just rapping about soup. Badlands had been my favorite in the sport for a few years, and he is probably yours too: If his hot dog hip hop does not make him a household name, you can just search online for “black guy in a helmet eating a hamburger.” Yeah, that guy.
IFOCE cofounder George Shea introduced each participant to the crowd with the flair of a circus MC. Each one seems to have some sort of gimmick. Tim “Eater-X” Janus wears face paint that must be a straight up homage to the Ultimate Warrior, while world bacon champ Crazy Legs Conti claims to be the “Houdini of Cuisini.”
As the competition grew closer, the introductions got longer. Reputable men with plentiful titles dealing with every food imaginable took the stage, and the last two were clearly the reason 50,000 people had assembled in front of Nathan’s. As the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” blared loudly enough to be audible for half a mile in all directions, Shea introduced Joey Chestnut, “The disciple to a new prophet, a prophet to a new god, a new god whose only commandment is dominance!” San Jose native Chestnut had broken the world hot dog title just a month earlier with 59 ½ HDBs, but that meant little today. World-famous Takeru Kobayashi of Japan still held the Nathan’s yellow mustard belt, and it was this contest, the one held in the same spot on Coney Island on Independence Day for practically a century, that mattered.
The crowd booed and cheered at roughly equal volume when Kobayashi took the stage. Some wanted nothing more than for America to reclaim the title, while others cheered the man’s impressive, inhuman record. Kobayashi is the Gretzky of eating. He once finished nearly 18 pounds of cow brains. As far as hot dogs go, the only beast to ever go face-to-face with Kobayashi and win was a 1,089lb Kodiak bear. I wanted to hate Kobayashi, but it was just too hard. I discontinued my cheers of “U.S.A! U.S.A!” when the humble Japanese boy smiled to the crowd. He was all muscle despite his small frame, and his persona hinted at the heart of a lion. Kobayashi can barely speak a word of English, but his dominance of the American crowd was uncanny. They ate up every shimmer in his teeth as he smiled over the crowd. He flexed his abs, waved, smiled. I remembered why I was there. Fuck the troops; I was there to support Joey.
Kobayashi had cited his mother’s recent passing as an excuse for lack of training this past Spring. Even more recently, within the past month, he had claimed arthritis of the jaw. He had said days earlier he could not fit more than two fingers into his mouth, but with the aid of an acupuncturist he was ready. Chestnut, who needed to hold his world title as well as claim the belt for America, did not buy into the hype. He said he knew his opponent was going to give one hundred percent, and he was ready for it. In preparation, Chestnut had not eaten in two days, but drank a gallon of water a few hours before the competition. Despite Kobayashi’s “condition,” Chestnut knew he had some serious eating to do.
Chestnut took the lead almost instantly, first by a dog or two and then by more. A third of the way into the competition he was up by five HDBs, but it was not long before Kobayashi caught up. While Japanese flags were brandished over the crowd, supporters of Chestnut, keeping true to the American stereotype, were loud, retarded dicks, myself included. Chestnut had already cracked the Nathan’s record at 54 HDBS with three minutes left, but seconds later Kobayashi caught up and tied the match. Into the final minute, both competitors were tied with 60HDBs apiece and not an eye moved from the pair, standing only inches apart at center stage. Some had given up more than five minutes earlier, hanging their shameful heads. With the chance of bringing the belt home for the first time in nine years, Chesnut and Kobayashi were the only two that mattered.
Before Kobayashi there was Kazutoyo Arai, also of Japan. It had been years since an American’s name graced the hall of fame billboard outside of Nathan’s, and with a running chance of giving the title to Chestnut this time, the possibility of returning the yellow belt to America was entertained as being “the greatest moment in American sports” by ESPN as the final seconds of the contest were broadcast live. Finding the strangest possible simile for the event, Shea related the event to Bowie’s 1969 hit, “Space Oddity”:
“You’re enjoying it, then suddenly you realize how sad it is—Major Tom is not coming back, he is out in that tin can… he says to his wife, ‘I love you very much;’ she knows, but it is very sad… Major Tom is not coming back, but the belt may be coming back to Brooklyn.”
The contest was so close that it was hard to tell for oneself who was winning. The scores were displayed to the crowd via cards held up by the “Bunnettes” (think Coney Island girls who failed the Hooter’s interview), who by far surpassed my expectations by being able to count past fifty. Sure enough, the girls scattered and struggled to hold up correct scores as the final seconds came to a close. From a spectator’s point of view, the match was even as the whistle blew at 63 each, but from watching from home knew otherwise. Kobayashi had spewed the equivalent of no less than three post-chewed wieners into his hands with less than a second left on the clock, and as per the rules, began to slurp the slobbery mess out of his tiny palms. Shea yelled to Kobayashi, “Thirty seconds! You have thirty seconds to get it down!” but to the judges, a penalty of at least a few HDBs was in order. Once they’d taken into account Kobayashi’s “reversal” and tallied up the detritus off the table, a victor was chosen.
After twelve long minutes, Chestnut was declared the winner of the 2007 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Contest. After 66 HDBs, Chestnut continued to entertain the crowd, posing for photos, doing interviews and never even sitting down for a breather, let alone heading for the restroom—a true titan. His 66 beat Kobayashi’s final tally of 63, and set a new world record. I left the hot dog zone to check out the circus sideshow. Kobayashi and Chestnut would be battling it out just days later to see who could eat the most Pizza Hut P’zones. God Bless America.
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