When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.
— George Carlin
I stood at the kitchen counter, enjoying a hardboiled egg. Onto each bite, I spooned a bit of kalamata olive spread, a tasty substitute for salt. My zen-like moment was interrupted by the flattened, tinny sound of a man speaking over the white noise of a cheering crowd. “What are you listening to over there?” I asked. The sound stopped abruptly, and then David emerged from his corner of the condo. “You have to see this,” he said, walking toward me, clutching his newest toy.
“Is it a picture of a meerkat wearing a tuxedo?” I said, getting my hopes up.
“No, not exactly,” David answered, shaking his head. “When are you going to start making those yourself?” He pointed to the egg in my hand.
“When are you going to stop asking me that?” I snapped back.
“When you learn to appreciate the joys of cooking,” he said with a smile, knowing full well that my kitchen prowess extends no farther than the buttons on the microwave.
“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again.” I paused to pop the last bite of kalamata-covered egg into my mouth. “I’m not going to boil my own eggs if I can buy them hardboiled. I look at that egg I got for 50 cents and I see 20 minutes I don’t have to spend over a stove and a dirty pot I don’t have to clean. Now, did you want to show me something or did you want to keep beating the crap out of Humpty Dumpty?”
David stepped beside me and held up his iPhone, which for him is more of a portableYouTube watcher than a telecommunication device. He would never think to play a video clip on his 23-inch monitor, but on his swank and svelte 3.5-inch “TV,” he’ll watch anything from Weird Al Yankovic’s White and Nerdy music video to two sea otters holding hands in an aquarium. He tapped the screen with his finger to resume play. The noise returned, and I saw two young men standing side-by-side, shoving things into their mouths. The video to capture my love’s attention was footage of the most recent Nathan’s hot-dog-eating contest. Five of the nine or so minutes of the video had already played, but when David went to back it up for me, I stilled his hand. “That’s okay, beh beh,” I said. “I get the idea. Just let it play.”
The camera focused on two of the competitors, an American guy named Joey Chestnut and a Japanese guy named Takeru Kobayashi, who I soon learned was the hot- dog-eating champion, unbeaten since 2001. The announcer narrated excitedly as the two beef bingers busted through Kobayashi’s record of 50-something hot dogs and buns. “Oh, man, that’s disgusting,” I said, after the camera zoomed in for a close-up of Chestnut guzzling a sip of something and then shoving a bun into his already stuffed face. The announcer’s voice took on a feverish pitch, his words increasing in speed and volume: “Look at the jowl movement on Joey Chestnut! What a valiant effort!”
I looked at David. “Valiant? Did he just say that?” The announcer was shouting now: “This will be the greatest moment in the history of American sports if Chestnut can bring the belt home to Coney Island!” The greatest moment in American sports? I was baffled. Twenty seconds later, when Chestnut took the title, having eaten 66 hot dog and buns in 12 minutes, the announcer said something so absurd, so ludicrous on so many levels, that it actually hurt my head when I heard it: “He may indeed have righted the course of our nation. Chestnut is a true American hero. This is an emotional win, a great day for America.”
“Are you shitting me?” I said. “Did he just… Oh, man, I think we need to have a sit-down and reacquaint ourselves with the definition of the word ‘hero.’ You don’t just go throwing that around for every guy who crams a record amount of wieners down his gullet.” I happened to glance back down at the small screen just in time to witness the slow-motion replay of Kobayashi spewing liquid and soggy bits of hot dog bun. “Yup,” I said, defeated. “That’s gonna stay with me.”
For weeks now, the video and what it means have haunted me. Hoping to quell my obsessive demons, I sought to learn more about the whole competitive-eating phenomenon. I found a website for the International Federation of Competitive Eating. In the “About” section, it reads, “Competitive eating is among the most diverse, dynamic, and demanding sports in history…and stands alongside original athletic pursuits such as running, jumping, and throwing.” All I could think was Really? My understanding of a “contest” was that it was an event in which people competed to prove superiority at something that required physical or mental skills. There are contests of the brain — likeScrabble and crosswords — that show how smart you are; and contests of the body — like triathlons — that show how strong and agile you are. The eating contest, reminiscent of a couple of drunk guys attempting to flaunt their ability to do the most shots of J…ger or eat the most handfuls of wasabi, seems to prove only the extent of one’s foolhardiness.
I wondered what other kinds of contests could produce real American heroes, competitions that proved one’s extreme aptitude in an everyday task. A contest for women in which contestants apply makeup while driving their car through an obstacle course? A TV-watching competition for men in which the thumbs of the “athletes” blaze as they race to be the first to run through all 300 cable channels? No matter how hard I thought, nothing I came up with was as asinine as “who can eat the most hot dogs.
“I love to watch those,” said my friend Jen over dim sum, after I’d made a comment about the slippery shrimp shumai being a prime food item for the next eating contest. “It’s so hilarious to me. Here you have these freaking foul humans shoving stuff in their faces — it’s like slowing down for an accident; it’s something you shouldn’t enjoy watching so much. To me, these eating contests are what replaced the freak shows. It’s so foul, it’s rad.” I mentioned that the latest record breaker was dubbed an “American hero.” Jen laughed and said, “They must have meant the sandwich.”