How competitive eating became the most American sport there is

Photo via Flickr/drpavloff

How competitive eating became the most American sport there is

History + Culture

How competitive eating became the most American sport there is

A few months back, I was sitting around drinking with some of my wife’s old friends, and they mentioned National Corn Dog Day, a holiday designed to coincide with the first Saturday of March Madness, in which one eats lots of corn dogs and tater tots, drinks lots of beer and watches lots of basketball. The holy grail of the day is the “Triple Double,” which is when, by the time the basketball games end at around midnight, you have eaten 10 corn dogs, 100 tater tots and have drunk 10 beers. They mentioned how hard it was, and I, two sheets to the wind, got a bit arrogant.

“That does not sound difficult.” I said, as they recorded on their cell phones, “and I will do it – with ease and aplomb.

It is a smart rule of thumb to not write drunk checks your sober ass can’t cash, or, at the very least, to not write those drunk checks on camera so they can be played back to you over and over. With my integrity on the line, I decided to actually give it a try, and come the first Saturday of March Madness, I found myself shoveling corn dogs and tater tots down my throat, and washing it down with beer. It ended up being one of the dumber things I’ve ever done.

It is some consolation, in retrospect, that by participating in this stupid, stupid activity, I was taking part in a long American tradition of eating too much out of either pride or (literally) toxic machismo.

The first American settlers did not necessarily find hospitable land, and many people starved. If you couldn’t feed yourself with what you eked out on your farm, you were screwed. For quite some time after, if you were poor, you ate just a little. If you were successful, you got fat. So in early America – as with pretty much all of the rest of the world until the 20th century and the rise of fast-food culture – obesity was something of a status symbol. 

The most famous of the rich fat men was probably Diamond Jim Brady, the son of Irish immigrants who became a gilded age millionaire selling railroad supplies. Brady became even better known in his life for eating an absurd amount of food. For breakfast, according to writer Joe Mariani, Brady would start “with a hefty breakfast of eggs, breads, muffins, grits, pancakes, steaks, chops, fried potatoes and pitchers of orange juice. He’d stave off mid-morning hunger by downing two or three dozen clams or oysters, then repair to Delmonico’s or Rector’s for a lunch that consisted of more oysters and clams, lobsters, crabs, a joint of beef, pie and more orange juice.” And then he’d have a similarly huge meal for dinner.

The centerpiece of American gluttony today is the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, which my family watches every year to kick off our Fourth of July festivities. The event has hazy roots – the legend is that four immigrants got into a debate about who was the most patriotic at the Nathan’s Hot Dog stand at New York’s Coney Island in 1916, and decided that the winner would obviously be the person who could eat the most hot dogs. It is almost certainly apocryphal, as the competitors supposedly included crooner Jimmy Durante and Mae West’s father, neither of whom were immigrants, so if it existed back then, it existed as an informal competition between friends.

Photo via Flickr/Stephanie

The competition as we know it probably started several decades later, but it was just a blip on the national radar until the arrival of Takeru Kobayashi, the tiny Japanese man who doubled the previous records by eating 50 HDBs (“hot dog buns”) in 10 minutes, without experiencing a “reversal of fortune” (projectile vomiting onto the crowd). Kobayashi was the first real superstar of the competitive-eating circuit, and his arrival marked the moment that competitors changed from large men who just loved to eat to thinner, in-shape men who actually trained by eating tons and stretching out their stomachs.

Kobayashi’s arrival also kicked off something of a hot dog eating arms race: the record is now held by competitive eating’s Peyton Manning, the likable and insanely hungry Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who has eaten 72 HDBs in 10 minutes. With Chestnut’s arrival, Major League Eating, the sport’s FIFA-like cartel that had been trying to sign Kobayashi to an exclusive contract, blackballed the Japanese star and effectively forced him out of the sport. Kobayashi was arrested in 2010 after trying to storm the Nathan’s stage in spite of his ban. The controversy – along with the absolutely insane lives of competitive eaters, who are all deeply committed to an extremely unhealthy and also not-very-profitable sport – is covered in the amazing 2014 documentary Hungry.

Photo via Flickr/Michael

Competitive eating could not be more authentically American – it is excessive, dangerous and pointless; it is shrouded in patriotic fervor and comical machismo; and it is impossible to look away from. 

It took Nathan’s and Kobayashi to turn competitive eating into a semi-legitimate, fully-weaponized sport (there are 80 to 100 competitions a year, where eaters down everything from deep-fried asparagus to tiramisu) but Americans have eaten too much as a hobby since the first Thanksgiving, and it has seeped into our culture.

Think of the pie-eating contests at local fairs, as immortalized in Stand by Me. Think of the pointless alpha male dares like the 50 hard boiled eggs in Cool Hand Luke. Think of the restaurants that promise free meals or your name on the wall for accomplishing some outrageous eating task, a la Ron Swanson on Parks and Rec. Eating too much in one sitting runs bone-deep for Americans, so it is no surprise, perhaps, that those of us with a bit too much testosterone in our veins (and not quite enough brains in our head) eventually decide to put our stomach elasticity to the test.

My single-day foray into the sport nearly broke me.

The thing is, over the course of seven hours, five corn dogs and 50 tater tots is not too insane. It’s an unhealthy day’s eating, but it’s not crazier than say, what you’d eat at an average Thanksgiving or Super Bowl. Ten beers is also not really a big deal over that time, if you space it out. But by the time, at 9 at night, that I’d consumed eight corn dogs, 80 tater tots and eight beers, I was feeling a little wobbly. At this point, though, I was too close to not finish the challenge, so by 11:30, I’d eaten all I needed to in order to complete the legendary Triple Double, and I was not okay.

By 3 in the morning, I was screampuking into my friend’s 2-year-old’s toilet. For the next eight hours, I was curled in a fetal position, sweating in spite of the cold, wondering why I, a 31-year-old father of one, had done something so stupid. I couldn’t eat for another two days.

I am a person who loves food. It is the sort of thing people think when they meet me: “He seems like he likes food.” And it’s not just me: foodie culture in America has been growing steadily for several decades now, with people like Anthony Bourdain, Tom Colicchio and David Chang showing us that all food, cheap or expensive, can be delicious. But for every No Reservations or Ugly Delicious, there’s a Man vs. Food or a Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.

Take it from me, America, and what I learned while heaving at 3 AM through a child-sized toilet seat: go for quality over quantity.

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