America smells heavily of sweat. Sweat and old takeout—a lingering, clotted odor, a hybrid of a gas leak and authentic home cooking. This is my first time smelling or seeing the country. I arrived three days ago, Heathrow to JFK, having never crossed the Atlantic before. Now after a long and hot subway ride, I'm at Coney Island, where the Deadspin editors have arranged for me to pick up credentials for the Nathan's hot dog contest, July 4, this nation's birthday. Deep breath in. Here goes.
The crowd is huge, restless, and braying; the weather is blistering. The contest is framed against a giant, semi-derelict amusement park, like something from Tim Burton's Underland, in which strains of fairground music mingle with the din of fast-food merchants. It's all a little like the Medieval Mayday carnivals we have, but without the Morris dancing or projectile vomiting.
As I'm bundled into the press pit, Soulja Boy's music starts thumping from the speakers onstage. Hip-twirling Bunnettes in silver hot pants are greeted by largely male whistles. A burly rapper with a faltering delivery joins them, and then a dwarf, clad in the Stars and Stripes and sweating profusely. Nick Cannon makes a fleeting appearance—a fellow bystander tells me he is famous—before the audience, now properly fired up, is treated to trampolining "sky-riders," acrobats, and a strange salsa-burlesque dance medley. I'm hit by a flying pink Pepto-Bismol beach ball. Pepto-Bismol is an official sponsor of the event.
Is this about food? I'm bewildered and alone. Then I realize this is how it's done: Nathan's is a spectacle of American nationalism; the competitive-eating element is simply the very lean middle between two large, all-inclusive buns. The wacky ringmaster, George Shea, wears a straw hat and spurts grimace-inducing, hyperbolic commentary. "She's so skinny she's almost two-dimensional," he says. Regarding defending champion and world record holder Joey "Jaws" Chestnut: "His DNA is the blueprint of an archangel's." The audience loves him.
The idea of competitive eating isn't simply alien on our side of the Pond; it's absurd. Our own bespoke minor sports include "Hunt the Thimble" and "Wellie Wanging," but this—a "sport" that strains the masticatory muscles, that promotes gluttony and nausea simultaneously—is like a hearty Sunday lunch gone horribly wrong.
Yet here it is. This year, for the first time, Major League Eating is hosting a separate competition for female eaters, to keep the more diminutive chompers like Juliet Lee and Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas from being overshadowed in the mixed heats. The cash prizes are equal, as at Wimbledon: $20,000 promised to each winner, men's and women's.
The list of the competitors and their achievements, to my untrained eye, is not imposing so much as assertively odd, a one-way ticket to Weirdsville: cannelloni, poutine, cow-brains, shoofly pie, pickled jalapeños. Even hot dogs are turned into an alien object, tallied by acronym as "HDB," for Hot Dog and Bun. The ironies are so heavy they must be deliberate. When not eating her weight in fast food, Larell Marie Mele, nicknamed "The Real Deal," is a personal trainer. Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti is a culinary-school grad and a Chicago chef. Bob "Notorious B.O.B." Shoudt is, between MLE events, a vegetarian.
"If it's got a governing body and people participating, it's a sport," Bertoletti tells me afterward. I joke that he probably never wants to see a wiener again. "Why wouldn't I?" he says. "Hot dogs are delicious. In fact, I feel like another one."
The women's division contestants emerge, one by one. Most are tattooed. Last to appear is 2010's top female finisher, Thomas, who holds the women's world record with 41 HDB. Her petite frame and beaming face are at odds with Shea's voice-over: "Here comes the Messenger of Death herself."
Three minutes into the contest, it looks as if Juliet Lee might be the one to seize the new Pepto-colored prize belt, rather than Thomas: they're neck and neck, 15 to 14. "More hot dogs!" the man next to me chants, as Thomas shovels them in, tilting back her head to ease the trajectory. One girl, stricken by hiccups, drops out.
Five minutes in, Thomas has found her rhythm, and Lee is falling behind. Am I being drawn into this? Thomas wins cleanly, with 40 HDB, one short of her record. She crowd-surfs as the security men chuck roses onto her. I'm yelping and hollering like the rest.
By the time it's the men's turn, I'm unashamedly relishing Shea's patter: "Are you ready to sip from the volcano? To make love to the dragon?"
"Yes!" I scream, perhaps a little too loudly.
The men's round is serious stuff. Each contestant has two judges to note any excess scraps and to anticipate any "reversal of fortune." Like the women, these men aren't the behemoths one might expect. The scrawny six-time Takeru Kobayashi, who transformed the event in 2001 by smashing the 50 HDB mark, is absent because of a contract dispute—the press is trading rumors about his off-site protest-eating plans—but his legacy is obvious in the builds of the competitors. One 18-year-old finalist is a Justin Bieber clone. B.O.B. wears a hefty medallion as he makes his entrance. Aaron "A Train" Osthoff comes on, rather endearingly, with his camera phone.
Finally Chestnut arrives—a fairly ordinary-looking guy, though Shea announces that his "stomach is a cauldron." The men stare at their hot dogs like jackals at prey, psyching themselves up. And then, like that, they're off. Bertoletti is bloodied with ketchup in the first minutes. There are three Chinese contestants, all leisurely considering their buns, as if slightly confused by the fuss around an all-you-can-eat buffet. Three minutes in, Bertoletti is tailgating Chestnut, 24 to 25 HDB. Chestnut eats like a raging beast; Bertoletti is serene, plugged into his iPod. As with the women's contest, the outcome becomes clear halfway through. I find myself calling out "Jaws!" with a throaty, faux-American accent. Final result: 62 HDB in 10 minutes. "He's half-man, half-God." I hear ya, Shea.
After the furor dies down, the euphoria of the day deflated to the crumpled inflatables underfoot, I ask "Notorious B.O.B," who came fourth, for a quick post-mortem of the contest. He divulges his new, never-before-attempted method of alternating between 10 hot dogs and 10 buns. It didn't work too well. "Explains why no one else was doing it," he says.
Shoudt is frustrated. For some reason, at Nathan's, he just ‘"can't seem to get enough hotdogs down," he says. His performance here was a "light snack," he says.
Next up is Bertoletti, the runner up, his hair in a Mohican. Mowhawk. "Are you from England?" he says. "I love your black pudding." He talks at some length about his gastronomical interests. I zone out and gaze around. A hot dog mascot is trying to chat up a Bunnette. The ketchup-bespattered stage is slowly emptied.
"But you have pie-eating contests in Britain don't you?" Bertoletti says. "Isn't that kinda the same?"
"They're nothing like this," I say.