The hot-dog days of summer

Sonya Thomas proves she can eat with the big boys, strapping on a hot-dog belt. Photos: Neil Abramson for Major League EatingSonya Thomas proves she can eat with the big boys, strapping on a hot-dog belt. Photos: Neil Abramson for Major League Eating


I once asked the late Sir John Gielgud why he appeared in such a crummy movie as Satyricon.

“My dear boy,” he said, “one can’t play Hamlet every night.”

Or resist participating in an ancient Roman orgy-cum-food-fight, where, as the philosopher Cicero noted, “One slave wipes the spittle, another one cleans the puke.”

Ah, the glory that was Rome.

Feeling the need to be vicariously debauched this summer, I attended my first Food-Gorging Competition. Hizzoner the Mayor gave a speech, offered several awful puns, then sighed, looked to the sky and muttered, “Who wrote this shit?”

On the actual jour de fête, refusing to besmirch my press credentials, I joined 40,000 Great Unwashed in Coney Island. They were the breathless Romans in the Coliseum, but lions were replaced by dogs (hot). The devouring was similar, but the dogs had to be swallowed in 10 minutes.

It was televised on giant screens, with a breathless commentator who egged on Californian Joey “Jaws” Chestnut and a slim lady known as The Black Widow. They and the other competitors sat at 30-foot-long tables with (what looked like) thousands of boiled sausages drenched in gargantuan cauldrons and started stuffing themselves.

Like Japanese cartoon monsters, they could have been eating buildings and airplanes instead of sausages with a grand finish, with the favourites bolting down 68 and 45 hot dogs respectively (though hardly respectably). In keeping with gender equality, each took home $10,000, departing with words of advice.

Said the Black Widow: “The only thing that needs work is your state of mind.”

Sonya Thomas proves she can eat with the big boys, strapping on a hot-dog belt. Photos: Neil Abramson for Major League Eating

Sonya Thomas proves she can eat with the big boys, strapping on a hot-dog belt. Photos: Neil Abramson for Major League Eating

Said Mr. Chestnut: “I run like a madman several times a week.” He said he fasts and stretches his stomach with milk, water and protein supplements.

If the hot-dog eating contest makes mincemeat of the name “gourmet,” historians might not appreciate that there are archives to the competition, kept by the austere-sounding Major League Eating, the sport’s governing body.

Chairman George Shea takes enormous pride in this celebration. “Coney Island has not been this hot since lines formed around the block to enter the Steeplechase,” he said. “It appears that we are entering another golden age for Coney Island.”

The golden age will take place in four years, for the centenary of hot-dog eating. Nathan’s hot dogs started things when they opened their shop in 1916.

Four American immigrants competed. The winner, with a paltry 13 dogs’n’buns was an Irishman. This led to an epidemic of contests, starting when a famous baseball player competed against an ostrich to eat the most pasta. The Jazz Age continued with similar contests, mainly the results of inebriation and good cheer.

And hot dogs? They languished on the sidelines. Who needed such a plebian treat when champers and bourbon was rolling down from Canada?

In the mid-1990s, the hot dog was resurrected. The aforesaid public relations exec, Shea, gave his new client, Nathan’s, the opportunity to fly to the halcyon of bad taste once a year. The event was boosted with the full apparatus of media, politicos, patriots who trooped to Coney Island—and with imagination. What started as a single frankfurter contest has now turned into a bonanza of food-stuffing contests that would make the vomit-inducing Satyricon banquet resemble a picnic of cucumber sandwiches.

Not only that, but Major League Eating branched out to produce from sea to shining sea. Think of a Georgia onion-eating contest (25 onions consumed in three minutes), California asparagus (almost nine pounds in 10 minutes) and a pig-foot eating contest (no, I never got the stats). In San Antonio, Texas, is the most grueling of all: a jalapeno-pepper eating contest. Having lived in Southeast Asia for many years, I am not averse to heat. But somebody last year took 275 peppers in his stomach in 10 minutes. (In theory, he walked away with $6,000, but “walk” might not be the operative word.)

These are the digestible foods among the 100-odd contests officiated on by Major League Eating. Other contests simply will not be listed in The Senior Times. Even our very tolerant publisher has a limit.

Thrice in my life I have temporarily abstained from food. First beef, after seeing a cut of meat taken from a barely dead cow in Morocco.

I desisted from consuming New York pizza after the ambrosial delights of Neapolitan pizza, but soon resumed. (To paraphrase Gielgud on Hamlet, you can’t have Neapolitan pasta every night.)

And since July 4, I have looked with fear and loathing at the lowly hot dog,

What about the debaucheries of elegant and refined Montreal? Could they produce a poutine-gorging contest??

“Gods, goddesses, man and womankind, I fear,” noted the mythical Greek philosopher Esophagus, “would boggle.”

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