What does it mean to be an American? This is a question which political scientists have pondered for centuries and which I have thought about for a solid eight minutes. My answer can be quite literally boiled down to two words: hot dogs.
If Francis Scott Key could have seen the future when he penned the poem that later became known as “The Star Spangled Banner,” surely he would have included a line or two about the beauty of mechanically separated pork. After all, what other country would have the gall to press meat trimmings into a pig intestine, slap it on bread and call it a culinary cornerstone? Thus, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is the quintessential American celebration.
Each Fourth of July, thousands flock to Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, for this hallowed event in which men and women devour as many frankfurters as possible within a 10-minute span. It’s only natural that such a display of unfettered gluttony and consumption take place on the anniversary of our nation’s birth.
Even if you’ve never really sunk your teeth into the world of competitive eating, you probably have a pretty clear mental image of it. First, participants deconstruct the hot dog and dunk the bun in a large cup of water in what resembles some unholy, meaty baptism. Then, like an anaconda unhinging its jaw for its monthly meal, competitors swallow the waterlogged dough and lone weiner, occasionally pausing to chew or breathe.
This probably sounds revolting, but that’s only because it absolutely is. Viewing this contest is ultimately an indulgence of morbid curiosity, equal to picking at a scab or sucking air through a cavity-riddled molar. No matter how disgusting or painful, I simply can’t stop myself.
Admittedly, I once held the extremely reductive belief that speed eating was mere spectacle. Oh, you gorge yourself on processed food until your stomach threatens to burst? Big deal, I do that every time I get stressed out.
However, the deeper I delved into this art form, the more I appreciated the level of dedication required of its practitioners. Forget blood, sweat and tears. Real champions put an ungodly amount of saliva into their craft.
Look no further than Joey “Jaws” Chestnut’s 2018 performance in Brooklyn. Although it was clear that each bratwurst brought worse agony, Chestnut mustered the willpower to plow through a record 74 hot dogs. You can keep your autographed sneakers and home run baseballs. I just want to put Chestnut’s Invisaligns in a display case above my mantelpiece.
Competitive eating could easily carve out its own niche alongside more expensive and dangerous games like football. Not only does it refrain from riddling its athletes’ brains with chronic neurological defects, but speed eating is extremely accessible to children. Not everyone has constant access to pads, fields or equipment. Meanwhile, any kid with a mouth and a little anxiety can binge-eat immense volumes of food in a single sitting.
One of the most overused cliches in sports is the phrase, “no guts, no glory.” If this is so, who could be more deserving of glory than people whose lower intestines look like Los Angeles’ 405 Freeway during rush hour?
I truly believe there’s something for everyone to enjoy within competitive eating. Even if you’re a vegetarian, I think we can all relate to the animalistic impulse to eat beyond comfort, thus linking us together like one giant sausage rope across the globe.
I realize this sport may never reach the same mass appeal or tradition of football. But this Independence Day, there’s only one pigskin I care about, and it tastes great with a dash of celery salt.
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