On a sunny June weekend on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall, nine contestants sidle up to a table full of paper plates. Each plate is piled high with hot dogs, and in a few moments, these brave people will shovel as many as they can down their throats, for a chance to compete at what may be the Super Bowl, Olympics, and World Cup of competitive eating, all wrapped up in one bun — the annual Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, in New York's Coney Island.
At the D.C. event, the stage sits beside the stately neoclassical facade of the National Gallery of Art, and there's a "splash zone" of plastic set up between the competitive eaters and the crowd, to protect onlookers from any liquids headed their way. (There is no ketchup, mustard or relish on the table, by the way — just cups full of water, in which some contestants will dunk their hot dogs and buns, for easier consumption.)
The clock starts, and a 10-minute countdown begins. The competitors open wide, ramming hot dogs into their mouths to a soundtrack of furious techno music. Some of the contestants look queasy, and as a straw-hatted announcer gives a play-by-play, he observes "this is what makes a patriot, ladies and gentlemen."
The decisive winner today — with 35 franks in his belly — is Gideon Oji, who's 31 and originally from Nigeria. His victory here means he'll soon be competing live on ESPN against reigning hot dog champ Joey Chestnut at the July Fourth Nathan's event, vying for the gilded "mustard belt."
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This year will be Oji's 8th time going back to the big dance at Nathan's. He moved to America in 2008, right around the time Chestnut began his nearly uninterrupted decade-plus streak of wins, downing as many as 76 hot dogs at a time. Oji says he thought "I could do that," and though he hasn't yet edged out Chestnut in hot dog consumption, he has eaten 10 pounds of baked beans in less than two minutes, and guzzled more than a gallon of green chili stew in six minutes, among other stomach-defying accomplishments.
Oji towers over most of his competitors, at 6 foot 9 inches, and he once played college basketball. But he calls competitive eating a "spiritual" experience, more challenging than shooting hoops. "Your body will be like 'Stop doing that to me' but you have to keep going for the competition."
A short history of competitive eating
The urge to compete by stuffing one's face is a tradition celebrated around the world today — and it's a sport with roots far deeper than the founding of the United States. "There are a lot of different cultures that have invented eating contests independently at different points in history," says author Jason Fagone. "In the Americas, you can go back to Indigenous peoples and read accounts of eating contests taking place at potlatch feasts."
In his 2006 book, Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, Fagone writes that eating competitions also feature in Greek and Norse myths, and "there's historical evidence of rice contests in Japan, beefsteak contests in Britain, mango contests in India."
Want the full story on this beef? Listen to the Consider This episode that dives even deeper to the history of competitive eating
Historical records also attest to a famous 17th-century farmer named Nicholas Wood, aka The Great Eater of Kent, who, legend has it, once ate seven dozen rabbits in one sitting.
Eric Grundhauser, who wrote about Wood for Atlas Obscura, says much of what we know of this celebrated glutton comes from the English poet John Taylor, who walked into a pub and saw Wood enjoying a meal of "60 eggs, a good portion of a lamb, and a handful of pies."
Taylor became Wood's de facto hype man, and even devised a plan to take Wood to London for paid shows:
Taylor's plan would have had Wood perform daily feats of overeating at the city's Bear Gardens, which at the time hosted animal fights. Among the suggested meals to give the "most exorbitant paunchmonger" were a wheelbarrow full of tripe, as many puddings as would stretch across the Thames, and an entire fat calf or sheep.
Taylor immortalized the farmer's appetite with his pen, but as Grundhauser writes, the live spectacles never happened — Wood's career ended when he "lost all but one of his teeth after trying to eat an entire mutton — shoulder bones included."
An American tradition is manufactured
Here in the United States, competitive eating has found a particular foothold in the American zeitgeist — even becoming entwined with ideals like patriotism. (Recall the proclamation "this is what makes a patriot, ladies and gentlemen.")
"We do it broader and bigger," Fagone writes. "We unabashedly marry the public-gorging impulse to our most sacred American rituals (the catching of the greased pig followed by the pie contest followed by the reading of the Declaration of Independence on the Fourth of July)."
Within the community of pro eaters, there is a longstanding myth that the Fourth of July hot-dog-eating contest can be traced back to four immigrants who battled it out to prove who was the most patriotic. Fagone says that's apocryphal, "but I've always thought there might be some bigger truth there: you consume an enormous quantity, and then you're okay, you've passed the test, Welcome to America."
Fagone argues that the sport, and its popularity, blends a number of American tendencies into a single spectacle: a hunger for large quantities of food, a passion for competitive sports, a love of risk and gambling.
"Eating is one of the great psychic preoccupations of our species - it's right up there with sex and death," says Fagone. "I mean, eating is this animal act that we all participate in to some degree, and this is the most animal version of it."
For the nearly 2 million viewers who tune in to the Nathan's Hot Dog competition, watching the action on a TV screen allows one to witness the gluttony from a safe distance — no splash zone needed. It's as if there's "a pane of safety glass between you and the danger," says Fagone.
But if you step back from the spectacle to think about what this pageant of mastication might mean more broadly, he says, "it does seem symbolic of the outsized American appetite for everything — and not just for food, but for resources, power, money, you name it. It's kind of a Rorschach test for how people see us."
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