Consuming hot dogs is a serious business, as Liza B. Zimmerman discovers at some of America’s most impressive eating contests
The seemingly ludicrous challenge to see who can pound down random food items in less than 12 minutes is a long-revered American tradition – and one that is catching on all over the world. Nathan’s famous Coney Island-based hot dog eating contest is the gold standard, having celebrated its 45th anniversary this past Fourth of July.
A dozen or so competitive eaters dominate the contests. While most are in their twenties and thirties, Richard ‘The Locust’ LeFevre – ranked 13th in the world and the holder of at least five records, including 7.75lbs of huevos rancheros in 10 minutes on March 18, 2006 – is 73.
Weapons of mass digestion
The New York-based Major League Eating Association (MLE), the “governing body of all stomach-centric sports” runs some 80 competitions annually. It ranks contestants and assesses records – such as ‘The Lovely’ Juliet Lee’s 13.3lb of jellied cranberry sauce consumed in eight minutes on 22 November 2007, Joey Chestnut’s 141 hard-boiled eggs (eight minutes in October 2013) or Arturo Rios Jr’s 2.89lbs of pig’s knuckles in 10 minutes on 23 June 2007.
Competitive eaters range in weight from to LeFevre’s slender 117-pound frame to Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker’s scale-tipping 400 pounds, but most are surprisingly svelte. There are many women in the listings; 32-year-old New Yorker Miki Sudo (who refuses to have a nickname) won the Nathan’s competition four years in a row.
The MLE considers its members athletes: “These are champions, these are warriors, these are weapons of mass digestion”. The “bib sheet” for the 130lb Matt Stonie, for example, remarks how he’s “known for his out-of-the-gate speed, often leaping ahead of the competition and setting a gap of speed and distance. As he has matured as an athlete [he turned pro at 19], he has been able to maintain this pace…”
Matt ‘The Megatoad’ Stonie, ranked 2nd in the world, says he loves competitive eating because he gets to “eat food and entertain people for a living”, adding that his success in the sport takes “a mixture of mental and physical training.” He believes audiences are intrigued and impressed by these competitions; everyone is familiar with both food and the physical experience of being full, but seeing others break down all known barriers is inspirational.
Getting familiar with the food
Training can be rigorous. Stonie says that it takes “a mixture of mental and physical training.” In order to prep for the different competitions, “the biggest factor is getting familiar with the food.” Competitive eaters also strive to expand their stomach size by drinking copious amounts of water before the competition. Eating lots of bulky, fibrous foods, such as watermelon and cabbage, can also help. Many also go to therapists and use biofeedback as a way to avoid fear of vomiting. Top eaters also give their jaws a workout by chewing large amounts of gum before competing. They also hit the gym to stay in shape as body fat can limit the amount you can ingest.
Liquids are then used a lubricant during the challenge – hot dog buns can be dunked to make them slip down easily. Contestants always wear comfortable clothes and never compete sitting down. ‘Chipmunking’ is key: whatever is in your mouth is counted as eaten, so cheeks are filled to capacity.
Nathan’s Famous Hotdog Eating Contest
Nathan’s, the granddaddy of all eating contests, is played out in full Brooklyn splendor along the Coney Island boardwalk at the southern end of the city. This year, Joey ‘Jaws’ Chestnut won his 10th Mustard Belt title, eating an event-breaking record of 72 hot dogs in ten minutes in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
Stonie, who has traveled to Japan, Korea, Canada, Singapore, Thailand and Ireland for eating events, unseated Chestnut for the title in 2015. “Everyone wants to win in Coney Island; it’s the biggest event of the year,” he says. Stonie explains that when he competes, he studies the competition to see what works best in each setting, adding that the UK, Australia, Japan and Korea—among others— “have all seen large growth in competitive eating… over the past few years.”
The World Slugburger Eating Championship
Down south, Joey Chestnut reigns supreme at the Slugburger Eating festival in Corinth, Mississippi, where he won the title at the 30th annual festival this year, downing 35 slugburgers in ten minutes for a prize of $3,000.
Named after their old selling price of a nickel, often known as a ‘slug’, the festival’s burgers are actually small beef patties, topped with mustard, dill pickles and onions. Addressing the contest’s unusual name, website What’s Cooking America explains, “The only time you will be asked to specify between ‘slug’ and ‘beef’ is if you just order a ‘burger.” … To actually get a traditional hamburger, you must specify a ‘beef burger’”.
The Day-Lee Foods World Gyoza Eating Championship
Not forgetting the west coast, Los Angeles is home to the gyoza-eating competition, now in its 11th year, which challenges competitors to ingest as many gyoza, or Japanese-style, fried dumplings as possible.
Last year, Stonie, who weighs a scant 130 pounds, claimed the top spot, consuming 323 potsickers in ten minutes, while Miki Sudo took third place, setting a new women’s record of 229 gyoza consumed. Chestnut, meanwhile, won the competition in 2014, eating 384 Day-Lee Foods gyoza.
South Florida Sweet Corn Fiesta
Fresh corn in season is just as delicious as it is messy. “The crowd comes early to get a good seat, although no one wants to be too close,” says Ann Holt, organizer of the South Florida Sweet Corn Fiesta, where competitors vie for a $6,100 prize in just 12 minutes. Held in Yesteryear Village, Palm Beach, the festival features locally grown cobs, and is known to be even more challenging than other eating contests. “Sweetcorn eating is extraordinarily demanding on the jaw muscles and requires an eater with superior fitness,” explains MLE chair, George Shea.
Oktoberfest Zinzinnati World Bratwurst-Eating Championship
Oktoberfest Zinzinnati, held in Cincinnati, Ohio, is the second largest Oktoberfest in the world. More than 80,000 bratwurst are consumed every year, which would equal the length of 29 Empire State Buildings if assembled end-to-end. In Ohio, Joey Chestnut is undefeated, winning the competition every year it’s been held.
As well as the bratwurst eating, the Running of the Wieners kicks off the contest, where 100 dachshunds race to be crowned the winning wiener, dressed in hot dog bun costumes with mustard drizzles on top.