Saturday, July 5, 2008

The Mount Sinai of Mastication:
Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest

I skipped the fireworks this Fourth of July. Pyrotechnics would only pale in comparison to the fanfare and spectacle of Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. Part Coney Island sideshow and part sporting event, the contest served up an all-American tradition of celebrating dubious accomplishments.

Adeet and I arrived almost three hours early, only to discover a large crowd had already beat us to the sidelines. We stood for an hour behind the press area, lamenting our limited view, when police removed several barriers and allowed us close to the stage. Now I hoped we weren't too close.

George Shea, the event’s emcee and chairman of the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), recalled the old-school barkers of Coney Island's heyday. Sporting a boater and dapper suit, he demonstrated a flair for hyperbole as he welcomed revelers to the “Mt. Sinai of mastication.” He maintained a steady stream of carney banter, breaking character only to encourage donations to emergency food programs, after accepting a "check" for 100,000 Nathan's hot dogs made out to the Food Bank for New York City.

Musicians, trampolinists, dancing hot dog mascots, and even a marriage proposal distracted us from restlessly fixating on the giant countdown clock. Cheerleaders held our attention by firing T-shirt guns into the crowd, but the ESPN cameras that zoomed over our heads whipped up the most enthusiasm.

When Shea introduced the contenders, he enumerated the gluttony of their competitive eating careers—hard-boiled eggs, shoo-fly pie, oysters, cranberry jelly, Spam, jambalaya—ad nauseam. He flirted with the two female contestants, Sonya Thomas and Juliet Lee, and announced each competitor with exaggerated gusto. However, two men received the most attention: last year's victor, Joey Chestnut, and his main rival, former six-time winner Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi. Chestnut possessed the champion "mustard belt," but Kobayashi looked like the true hot dogger, with his mustard-yellow and ketchup-red hairstyle.

The eaters engaged in various pre-gorge rituals. Crazy Legs Conti pulled on a pair of gloves and stretched his jaw, while Pete Davekos tied on a bandana sensei style and waited stoically. Most of the contestants appeared relatively fit, though none possessed the physique of Juris Shibayama, who flexed his body-built muscles. Kobayashi hugged most of the competitors. I wasn't prepared for what came next.

After Shea led the crowd in a countdown, Kobayashi tore through buns with ravenous efficiency and shoved hot dogs into his mouth. Others had red liquid streaming down their arms as they devoured buns dunked in juice. Some jerked their heads back, forcing the food down and fighting the gag reflex, but Chestnut's entire body twitched. Crazy Legs' face took on an unhealthy pallor and the veins in Chestnut's forehead throbbed menacingly. Only Kobayashi looked as if it weren't an entirely unpleasant experience. His face didn't betray any pain, only a determined concentration as he continued cramming hot dog after hot dog. Although I hadn't eaten anything all day, I started to feel queasy.

The contest clearly centered around Chestnut and Kobayashi. Shea shouted out their scores as first Chestnut, and then Kobayashi, took the lead. When the ten-minute competition ended, each had devoured 59 hot dogs. After a quick consultation, Shea declared a tie breaker: the first to eat five hot dogs would go home the winner. Both men ate with ferocious speed, but as Kobayashi pushed the last bit of bun into his mouth, Chestnut had already finished.

I had rooted for the Japanese Kobayashi, fascinated by his cool demeanor and charmed by his hair color. He accepted the second-place trophy graciously and when his translator asked him if he had anything to say, he thanked everyone in English for their love and support. Unfortunately, he also lifted up his shirt, flashing his distended belly. Shea presented Chestnut to us as an American hero and led the crowd in chants of "USA! USA!" Chestnut held his mustard belt aloft, clearly relishing his second victory over Kobayashi.

As the crowd dispersed, Adeet and I made our way to the boardwalk. We passed the abrasive barker at "Shoot the Freak" and stopped at Gregory & Paul's food stand for lunch. Adeet ordered a slice of pizza, and as I considered fried clams and knish, I knew I had only one choice.

I managed to eat half a hot dog, which I washed down with lemonade (no dunking). Maybe next Independence Day I'll eat a whole one, after I cheer on Kobayashi to reclaim his mustard belt. That is, if I can stomach it.


Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest
Coney Island, NY
photos and video by Adeet Deshmukh


Anonymous said...

This was almost as good as being there! No--it was better, by far, than being there!I don't think I could "stomach it" (to borrow your phrase).

a ji o ji suno ji said...

Peace, Love & Good Chocolate,
English Bulldog Puppies