Three years ago, the former proprietor hereabouts immersed himself in the world of moist sausage and watched as a proud America reclaimed what is rightfully hers: the world championship for cramming hot dogs in one's distended mouth.
As mentioned yesterday, we headed to Coney Island for the epic Kobayashi-Chestnut duel. We can't imagine a better way to spend our Fourth of July. A confession: For the first time since we started the site, we accepted a press pass for the event. It was a tough call, but, frankly, we feel rather comfortable that our association with The International Federation Of Competitive Eating is not something that will force us to compromise our integrity in the future.
It was a full day, and we were there at 8 a.m. to document all the madness.
* * *
When we showed up at 8 a.m., we were surprised by the number of people already crammed against the gates for front-row seats. As far as "media" there, so far, it was only us and the lonely ESPN broadcaster, who looked a bit bewildered by all the festivities. He kept asking the CEO of Nathan's questions like, "Wait ... how many people are you expecting at this thing?" and "Do they really have to eat the vomit, if it comes to that?" We're fully expecting to see Theismann assigned to this in a few years.
Thirty seconds after this picture was taken, these headphones pinched us, propelling us forward and into the air.
The Fourth Of July must be the worst day of the year for Big Al's Chicago Hot Dog King, which is located directly across the street from Nathan's. We doubt the owner even bothered to come into work yesterday. Instead, he just sat at home, rocking back and forth, clicking the lamp on ... and off ... and on ... and off ...
After talking to a few early arrivals, most of whom were stoned college students we think were still up from the night before, we decided to go check out the least welcome people in Coney Island yesterday: The vegetarian protesters! They were not amused by our question, in our strained Harry Caray voice: "If you were a veggie hot dog, would it be OK to eat yourself?" We would have pushed it, but that guy in the pig mask had a hatchet. Later, some lady dressed up like a green bean had a scuffle with a meat eater in the crowd; someone tried to steal her sign, and she responded with a firm elbow to the ribs. Because she doesn't eat meat, though, her elbow shattered.
Realizing that showing up four hours early to a hot dog eating contest in which we already had reserved seating was a bit of a waste of time — though we bet we gave away about 10 cigarettes to the stoned college kids — we figured we'd at least taste the local merchandise. We'd forgotten how huge Nathan's hot dogs really are; even for hot dogs, they're massive. We ate this as fast as we could, though; it took us 36 seconds. We then couldn't walk for about 10 minutes. We're still having fissures today.
Around 10 a.m., with more crowd rolling in, the pregame festivities began. This was our first hot dog eating contest, and we were curious what kind of acts open for such a spectacle. It turned out to be "Reese." Reese is this pseudo-Lenny Kravitz wannabe who proudly introduced himself as "the guy who wrote the official team song for the 2007-08 New York Knicks." Now THERE'S something to put on your resume. Reese had unflagging enthusiasm — "Ya'll ready to see some hot dogs eaten up in here?!" — but the crowd wasn't into his signature brand of the worst parts of rap, soul and light rock. To either his credit or his detriment, Reese didn't waver when the only being listening to his pleas to "clap along with this one, ya'll" was a large furry hot dog mascot. You see that dog at all the clubs in New York; such a slut, and always fucking high.
We found ourselves distracted instead by this sign; Big Ben would be so proud, were he not busy bouncing his head off something.
Harold never listened when his friends told him that moving to New York City without a job was a mistake, that he was following his heart more than his head. But he knew the Big Apple was where he belonged. He'd show them; if he could make it there, he could make it anywhere. The city was just teeming with opportunity, wherever he looked, and if he kept his nose clean and his head down, worked his ass off and connected with the right people, the perfect job would just fall in his lap. Take that, Oak Lawn High School, Class of 1988. Who's laughing now?
We were treated to one last musical act; the band is The Gaskets, and we are not overstating a bit when we say that we have seen the future of rock and roll, and its name is The Gaskets. Two indulgent hipsters, a synthesizer, some Funkmaster dance moves and songs called "Cold Busted" — about your girlfriend (or mom) catching you masturbating — and "The High Five Song." We found these guys compulsively entertaining, but we might have been the only people in on the joke; the impatient crowd looked ready to dunk this skinny lead singer in water, shove him down their throats and then vomit him back up. But we're seriously fans. We can't quite do their set justice, so we will no longer try.
Then it was time for the great George Shea. One of the top dogs of The International Federation Of Competitive Eating, Shea is a true link to what makes Coney Island great: Unabashed hucksterism — Ufford from With Leather, who was out in the crowd, texted us to mention that he "would absolutely buy a monorail from this man" — rat-a-tat vocal cleverness and a showman's spirit. We couldn't possibly have found him more entertaining; he's the best part of seeing the event in person. The best part was his individual competitors introductions ...
... in which he wrote wonderfully literate and hilarious intros for each of the competitors. (There was an extended riff on the nature of man, hell and the inexorable winding of time while introducing the competitor who is a vegetarian except for when he competes in eating competitions. This makes complete sense to us, by the way; by the time he sees a hot dog, he probably can't help but eat 40.) Shea always introduced former champion Michael Devito, who announced the charitable contribution of 10,000 hot dogs to City Harvest. Unfortunately, the kids have to eat them in an hour.
Our favorite intro belonged to this guy, who was carrying a sign that said, "Hermoine Dies," in reference to all the speculation about the upcoming Harry Potter book. If he's right, we're gonna hunt him down and strangle him.
After a rousing, "America ... Fuck Yeah!" intro for Joey Chestnut, the real man of mystery arrived: Takeru Kobayashi, who we were informed was receiving acupuncture for his jaw just that morning. The man looked more confident than we were expecting. The stage was set. The competitors were at their stations. The hot dogs were placed on the table. The rousing intros had finished, and completely fired the crowd up.
And it really was a huge crowd, too. It was listed at more than 30,000, and that sounds about right. That's more people that have attended a Buzzsaw game in decades. (Unless they were playing the Cowboys, of course.)
Even though we could have done without the Thunderstix, it was a frenzied atmosphere. We never thought 30,000 people could be shrieking for such gluttony, but we will confess to being entirely swept in it. And then, with a flourish, Shea announced ...
... that this was just a fake intro, that the contest wouldn't be starting for another 45 minutes. Why? Well, ESPN, of course: now that they telecast it, they're in charge of the whole event, and they had to run 40 minutes of prepackaged bunk. So Shea sent all the competitors backstage, and the crowd was stuck with a massive collective case of blue balls. Shea tried to rev the momentum back up, with former champ Eric Booker rapping, and the Bunettes dance troupe lamely trying to look interested in a Gwen Stefani song, but it was clear he was just filling time. He even brought out ...
... the clogging group "Clogtastic." We appreciated the nod to Coney Island novelty acts, but, seriously, could we please get going? (Only these guys would have the intestinal fortitude to put on clog dancers 20 minutes before the biggest event of their year.) Shea was then trotted back outstage again, whispering not-quite-off-mike, "Hey, is ESPN freaking ready yet, or not?" and still trying to bridge the time gap. The crowd, restless, began to lightly boo, and it was clear this pained him. What was once a perfectly constructed event, with its own natural rhythm, now has the normal starts-and-stops caused by Lord God Television. He couldn't help himself, quietly grousing about ESPN several times. We're sure the television coverage is worth it in the long term, but it clearly hurt.
At last, we were off. If you saw it on television, you know it was gullet-to-gullet almost the entire way, but watching it in person really makes you realize just how much it puts someone through to do this to themselves. It was clear, though, that Chestnut was better, try as Kobayashi might to catch up.
Meanwhile, we sat next to this guy, Ed "Cookie" Jarvis. As much as we respect a guy who has a jacket made up entirely of a listing of his competitive eating achievements ... well, we wonder if this is the only day he wears this.
We came to the final madness at the end, when Kobayashi had his "reversal." ESPN might not show this to you again, but we'll give you this closeup, because we here at Deadspin always give you what you want.
There seemed to be some confusion after it was over about who had won, though it seemed pretty clear Chestnut was at least a dog ahead. We don't understand, however, how he suddenly was credited with three more hot dogs by the judges. We've yet to receive a coherent explanation for this, and we'd explore it further, but you know what? We don't really care all that much.
And thus, was a new champion crowned, a champion for America. We have reasserted our status as the world's Champion Of Gluttony. The universe is back in order. We had the opportunity to interview the competitors afterwards, but we demurred; we weren't sure exactly what to ask them. So, uh ... shit, man, that's a lot of freaking hot dogs you just ate. I mean, Christ.
We fought our way through the crowd to Nathan's afterwards, and, much to our surprise, the lines for hot dogs there were immense. We can't imagine why watching such a contest would inspire someone to immediately eat a Nathan's hot dog, but hey: What do we know? Besides, we had other things to do.
Because at the end of the day, the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Championships are all about making new friends. You should really see what happens when the mustard gets drunk.
Story originally published July 5, 2007