It’s that time of year again — when I have to figure out what channel ESPN is on my cable box. Yes, it’s the annual Independence Day Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. The only other time I’ll tune into the sports network is during the National Spelling Bee.
Spoilers ahead in addition to details that might spoil your appetite.
It was a true photo finish in the world of competitive eating on this most patriotic of holidays. Forget the Olympics. The Hot Dog Eating Contest is what decides international dominance between the great nations of America and Japan. This honorable rivalry has been going nigh on 10 years when the first Japanese citizen hopped a plane to snatch the Yellow Mustard Belt from American hands.
The past six years in a row, that citizen has been the svelte Takeru "the Tsunami" Kobayashi, whose 53 3/4 HDB (hot dogs and buns) record at Coney Island was smashed in June at a regional qualifier by San Jose college student Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, who downed 59 1/2 HDB.
If that record weren’t enough of a threat to the title, there’s been buzz that Kobayashi wouldn’t compete this year because of an arthritic jaw. Was this merely a ploy to lull Chestnut into complacency? Not so. Apparently, Kobayashi has been in pain ever since he had an impacted wisdom tooth removed, but thanks to the wonders of acupuncture and an indomitable spirit, he was back in biting form today.
But before delving into the action, let’s pause to consider: was alternative medicine the only remedy? As in other athletic competitions, would drugs have been frowned upon? Are performance-enhancing drugs actually detrimental to gustatory athletes? Do you have to be able to feel the food in your mouth to perform efficiently? Is there any sort of enzyme booster? Methinks the IFOCE needs to address these issues.
As the 12-minute contest began, Chestnut pulled ahead early on, easily averaging five HDB ahead of his closest competition, Kobayashi, who didn’t show any signs of his jaw injury. Both competitors demonstrated various eating styles to advantage:
Chestnut: General chipmunking (face stuffing) with the signature Chestnut shake to activate his abdominal muscles and aid digestion.
Kobayashi: Chipmunking, clearing (stuffing and swallowing), separating bun from dog, and Solomoning (snapping hot dog in two and eating them side-by-side)
By the halfway point, Chestnut’s lead had shrunk to about two dogs, and it looked like endurance and determination would be the key to winning. The other competitors weren’t even close, although Pat Bertoletti (who had stolen the jalepeno title from Chestnut) made a good showing.
Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, the highest-ranked female IFOCE athlete, didn’t even break the Top 5, although as always, the commentators pointed out her poise and grace as she stuffed her delicate face. Fun fact: Thomas once ate a 10th of her body weight in cheesecake in 10 minutes. The only other female competitor was the similarly heavy 105-pound Juliet Lee.
As the competition wore on, every minute, every half minute, nay every few seconds seemed to make a difference. By the nine-minute mark, Chestnut had set a new Coney Island record when he cleared 54 dogs and was still eating strong. With only 2.5 minutes to go, Kobayashi pulled up even, cheek to cheek as it were, with his rival.
By the last minute, the lead yo-yo-ed back and forth. It looked like Kobayashi would just barely hold onto his championship belt when the unthinkable happened: a reversal of fortune.
Cupping his hand valiantly over his mouth as the crowd counted down the last seconds, Kobayashi baptized the spray zone through the gaps in his fingers. As he scrambled to hide his shame and stuff the soggy bits of bun back into his mouth, the crowd eagerly awaited the final decision of the judges, who asked to view the tape.
Usually, a reversal of fortune is an automatic DQ for the competitor. Would Kobayashi’s efforts be all for naught or would he be docked a few HDB?
In the end, Chestnut scored his first and most significant victory over Kobayashi, eating a record 66 (again folks, that’s 66) HDB to his rival’s 63. Third place finisher, the mohawked Bertoletti, only downed 49.
It appears that Chestnut, the 23-year-old phenom who trains by eating cheese fries, has lived up to his promise. He first had a break-out performance in 2005 with fried asparagus, then continued to kick gustatory ass and take names with Waffle House waffles and Krystal burgers (so sorry, Black Widow) and even traveled to Japan to steal the gyoza-eating title. Now he’s brought back the Mustard Belt to American soil.
As another July 4th passes and the spirit of our founding forefathers lives on, I leave you with a few words:
USA! USA! USA!