Friday, July 28, 2006

Is lunch ready? Hot dog!

I don’t consider myself a jock by any means but I’m a firm believer in sports participation. I work out actively at my health club, play tennis, golf and am willing to try just about anything that doesn’t involve heights, the possibility of drowning or getting large objects thrown at me (read: Dodgeball). More important, I encourage my kids to actively participate in athletic pursuits, also known as “sports.”
However, after flipping on ESPN this past weekend, I may point them towards learning a musical instrument, drama, the chess team or some non-athletic pursuit.
The reason for my sudden repulsion with “sports” is that ESPN, the 24-hour SPORTS network, was televising the World Hot Dog Eating Championships from Coney Island, New York. The rules are simple: eat the most number of hot dogs in 12 minutes and you win. There are cash prizes awarded which, I’m sure, are used to pay medical premiums.
By the way, I was watching a rebroadcast of the event. Apparently this was such a riveting spectacle that ESPN was showing it again. The Super Bowl, the world’s most watched event period, is only shown once. But throwing hot dogs into the mix and is worth multiple viewings in the eyes of cable executives.
I had heard of these people who dub themselves “professional eaters” and even saw the reigning hot dog champion, a meek looking, Japanese punk rocker type named Takeru Kobayashi, appear in an ESPN commercial. Wearing a headband and looking remarkably similar to that kid who stood in front of a tank during the Beijing uprisings o a few years back, Kobayashi eats three hot dogs in the network cafeteria while one of ESPN’s plastic, perfectly-coiffed anchors looks on bewildered. The commercial was funny but I still find the whole idea of competitive eating repulsive, particularly in light of the horrible famine problem that persists in our world. Millions of people in Ethiopia and the Sudan desperately need food; what they DO NOT need is cable for they should never be forced to watch this sordid excess of gluttony.
Nevertheless, I was transfixed when the show came on. It was 11 p.m., my kids were asleep and I had eaten dinner about six hours previous. I was not hungry – merely curious.
The World Hot Dog Eating Championship occurs on July 4 because, according to Nathans’s Famous COO Waynbe Norbitz, “it epitomizes the spirit associated with summer each year.” Of course it does Waynbe, if that’s your real name (my spell checker disagrees). After all, what better way to celebrate our nation’s independence and freedom from tyranny than with a massive waste of food? The only thing missing from the event was the “Trump” logo.
Unfortunately, Trump didn’t move fast enough on this contest. Nathan’s Famous, which also owns Miami Subs and Kenny Rogers Roasters, won the bidding rights. No word yet on whether the company is planning a “world subs eating contest” or a “world roasters eating contest” but I’m sure the suits in charge are eyeing Christmas morning as a possible date because “stuffing your face with chickens epitomizes the spirit of giving and celebrates the birth of our Lord.”
What kept me from pressing the TV remote in search of better cable fare, like watching Titanic for the 84th time, was the excitement surrounding this alleged “sporting event.” Nathan’s and ESPN had pulled out all the stops to put hot dogs right up there alongside March Madness in terms of spectacle. Numerous cameras were positioned, not only to capture the contestant’s every chew, but also to pan the crowd, consisting of THOUSANDS of people who weren’t invited to any Fourth of July festivities in their neighborhoods. And no ESPN event is complete without an ANNOUNCER. For this event, ESPN rolls out some guy named Paul Page who, according to Wikipedia, has “called” the event for two years. Page’s background is in motorsports announcing and he has called several Indianapolis 500s for ABC, ESPN’s parent company. I can only assume Page’s reassignment is due to the fact that he’s losing his edge or he has some serious dish on a high-ranking ESPN executive and therefore must be kept on the payroll.
Nevertheless, professional that he is, Page brings a veteran announcer’s enthusiasm to the event, which has not been without controversy. Through the years disputes have erupted over whether contestants started too early or had actually finished entire hot dogs. That’s why the event employs “judges” who must peer into the mouths of contestants and pray nothing comes out.
Oh, I almost forgot to mention that an ANALYST assists Page in the broadcast booth. “Perfect,” I thought as I sat in my La-z-boy. “I need a color man to explain the intricacies of jamming hot dogs down a gullet. Besides, what if Page can’t see all the ACTION? Another set of eyes will no doubt help.”
One by one, the roughly 20 contestants were introduced to thunderous ovations from the crowd. Two things struck me as I watched them take their positions. First, all were of average build, including the ladies (Yes, women take part in this event too and I’m sure there are men out there who find them attractive. This may have something to do with the fact these women are eating hot dogs). I expected at least one contestant to look like that guy from the Guinness Book of World Records who tipped the scales at over 1,000 pounds, wore overalls the size of a military tent, and was buried in a piano case. No, these contestants looked like they could easily say, “I’m full” after two dogs.
Second, many of the contestants had impressive resumes. Apparently hot dogs aren’t the only food worthy of a championship. Joey Chestnut, a 22-year-old engineering student at San Jose State, holds records for pork ribs (5.5 pounds in 12 minutes), waffles (18.5 in 10 minutes) and jalapeño poppers (118 in 10 minutes). The latter probably earned Chestnut the “bathroom” record (15 trips in 10 minutes) but I couldn’t find any documentation of this.
Suddenly, onto the stage strode the aforementioned Kobayashi, who is something of a God in the eating world. Nicknamed “Tsunami,” Kobayashi had won the event five years running, eating a total of 246 dogs and change. His best year was 2004 when he consumed 53 and a half. The previous year was his lowest total. Only 44 and a half. Perhaps he had eaten too big a breakfast that morning.
Unlike most sporting events held in America, there is no intimidation factor in competitive eating. No stare downs or trash talking. Kobayashi speaks no English but I was hoping Chestnut would at least add a little flair by hurling a few “yo mamma so fat” insults at his Japanese rival. Then again, what would he say? “Hey Kobayashi, yo mamma so fat she eat hot dogs as a sorbet.” If Kobayashi understood English, he would probably have smiled politely, bowed and thanked Chestnut for honoring his family.
Finally, the contest began and announcer Page was forced to begin his 12-minute workday. Under his watchful eye, I learned Kobayashi was on “world record pace” but Chestnut was closing fast. The “analyst” educated me on “chewing technique,” something that competitive eaters experiment with much the same way that Tiger Woods experiments with his swing. Supposedly doing chewing exercises increases jaw muscle strength. After all, who wants to go to the beach in summer with a flabby jaw?
In spite of Chestnut’s best efforts, Kobayashi soon jumped to a “two dog lead,” armed with only a glass of water. Kobayashi’s champion technique involves folding the bun slightly and dunking the dog before consuming it. This had to repulse the folks at Nathan’s. “Ah, there’s nothing like a hot dog from Nathan’s Famous. Lathered with mustard, sprinkled with celery salt and immersed in water. Mmmmm good!”
By the way, condiments were nowhere in sight during the competition. Neither was beer for that matter. Why have a hot dog eating contest if you’re not going to eat them the right way? Personally I think the contestants should have to grill the dogs over a scorching pile of charcoal before consuming them. Nathan’s does not agree.
In a THRILLING finish, Kobayashi retained his title and bested his world record by a quarter of a dog. Chestnut was a close second with 52 dogs consumed. I was repulsed that I was still watching but I had to watch the end, namely an interview with the champion. That’s right, Page actually had to stand next to Kobayashi and ask him questions through a translator. As far as I’m concerned there are only two questions one should ask somebody who has just eaten 53 hot dogs.
1) Are you going to throw up?
2) Are you going to throw up on me?

Page, professional that he is, asked neither. Instead he peppered Kobayashi with questions about “the wall,” an apparent reference to a moment in the contest which every eater experiences. Eaters hit “the wall” when they feel they just can’t eat another hot dog but have to fight through this absurd feeling in order to continue. I would have hit the hot dog wall just watching the employees at Nathan’s Famous bring the hot dogs to the table. I have hit the wall with other foods simply while preparing them. Kraft Macaroni and Cheese comes to mind. My kids love this stuff and we serve it to them at least once a week. But I don’t eat it because that would mean consuming a packet of bright orange powder that the engineers at Kraft call “the cheese mix.” It looks like something astronauts eat.
Kobayashi, a little short of breath but looking none the worse for the wear, patiently answered Page’s questions and then left the stage, presumably to stick his finger down his throat. Chestnut seemed dejected but vowed to return next year and wrest the title from his Japanese foe. I turned off the TV, went downstairs and ate a cracker. It was satisfying.

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