Still Hungry

Competitive hot-dog eating requires steely nerves and a cast-iron stomach.

Larry Butler is losing his chops. That's bad.

It was really a matter of timing more than anything else. In the summer of 2001, Fox TV called Larry at his Morrison home, practically begging him to compete in a televised tournament. "I was still ranked quite high," he recalls. But then came September 11, and by the time the Fox event was rescheduled, Larry was out of vacation, and he had to pass.

The year before, even though he was the two-time defending Arizona state champ, Larry had to skip that competition, too. The insurance-underwriting business came first then, as well.

The last time Larry seriously competed was at the 2000 national championships in New York City. He jammed a respectable sixteen Nathan's Coney Island hot dogs into his mouth in under ten minutes. It was an awesome performance for Larry, a personal best.

He could've done more, too. But with his gut expanding and the buns going down harder and harder, Larry made a tough -- but gastronomically sound -- decision. "I could've done eighteen," he recalls. "But the Japanese guy was there, and as we got toward the end he was already at 24 or 25. I knew I never was going to get there. So I stopped with two minutes left."

It was a good time to bail. The 2000 Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is now widely recognized as a turning point, the last year when sane numbers were still being eaten. Continuing a reign of Japanese dominance, the winner that year, Kazutoyo "the Rabbit" Arai, choked down 25 and one-eighth dogs. Impressive numbers, sure, but nothing compared with what was to come.

For the past two years, the frankfurter game has been dominated by Takeru Kobayashi, another in a long line of tiny Asian men with ungodly appetites and a seemingly bottomless capacity for wieners. In 2001, he pulled a Bob Beaman, taking the sport to levels never dreamed of by other competitors -- even those more than two times his size.

Only five minutes into the contest, Kobayashi had already broken the U.S. record. By the time the twelve minutes were up, the new benchmark was more than double the old: a Cool Hand Luke-ish fifty hot dogs. It was as if a runner had sprinted a two-minute mile. The 130-pound Kobayashi took the title again this year, although less spectacularly -- in fact, almost tauntingly -- eating fifty and one-half dogs.


Competitive eating has occured in some form or another for eons. As one Web site dedicated to its history notes, "If you have thirty hungry Neanderthals in a cave and a rabbit walks in, that's a competitive eating situation." The recent boom in the gut-bloating tournaments began about six years ago. It started as many great trends do: with a public-relations campaign.

A Coney Island institution, Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs had been holding wiener eat-offs since 1918. In 1991, a team of brothers in the PR business, George and William Shea, took over promotional duties for the event when the man who'd held the job for many years passed away. The brothers built aggressively on the tradition, coming up with more and more stunts that could bring in additional publicity; their ideas attracted larger numbers of contestants and spectators. In 1996, they invented their best act ever: the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE).

For reasons that defy digestion, the idea took off. Today, there is an entire competitive-eating circuit: chicken wings (Philadelphia) and matzo balls (New York) in January; bratwurst (Hanover, Germany) in February; jalapeño peppers (Texas) in March; and on through the year with oysters, Jell-O, bass, pickled quail eggs and so on. Still, gobbling hot dogs is considered the Super Bowl of the sport, and the annual July 4 Nathan's championship is the high point of the season.

Since its inception, the IFOCE has kept scrupulous records of gluttonous achievements, many of which are awe-inspiring, in a stomach-lurching sort of way. In addition to the hot-dog record, for example, Kobayashi also owns the high mark for cow brains -- 17.7 pounds (or 57 bovine cerebrums) in fifteen minutes. This spring, Don Lerman broke the record for butter -- seven quarter-pound sticks in five minutes -- on the same day that Dominic Cardo set a new standard for pickled beef tongue, 19 ounces in twelve minutes. Two months later, in New Orleans, Crazy Legs Conti managed to slide 268 oysters down his throat in ten minutes -- another history-making accomplishment.

Although its contribution to gastronomy may be questionable, the Sheas' federation has been a definite boon for their original client. "Nathan's has gotten more than thirty minutes on the Today Show in the past year, okay? That says it all," says George Shea. "There are two documentaries being made, on Discovery and the Food Channel. Each has ten full minutes -- ten full minutes! -- of Nathan's exposure. I mean, this has been huge."

He continues: "And we're always coming up with new things. We developed an idea a few years ago, a weigh-in for the event. It's held a day before the contest to get an extra day of publicity. The first year we invited Mayor Giuliani, and he had so much fun he came back. This year, Mayor Bloomberg was there. Every year they put on a Nathan's straw hat. How much is that worth in publicity? One hundred thousand dollars? Two hundred thousand dollars? A million? You tell me. You cannot buy publicity like that."

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