Every Fourth of July, for as long as I can remember, I’ve spent my day basically the same way. I get up; watch Will Smith destroy aliens in Independence Day while America simultaneously saves the entire planet; and rewind the movie to re-watch Bill Pullman (as President Thomas J. Whitmore) give his inspirational speech. Feeling sufficiently patriotic, I switch over to Nathan’s Famous’ July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest, the annual smorgasbord of gluttony, live from Coney Island in scenic Brooklyn, New York.
Nothing is more American than making a sport out of what we do best: eating in pure volume. And why not make eating competitive? The United States was founded on freedom to do whatever you want, and the freedom to make a sport out of anything we’re good at. It says both of those things right in the Declaration of Independence, I think.
But there is more to competitive eating than just being a big person with a big appetite. Most competitive eaters, to the surprise of many, are skinny (though there are a few bigger competitors). And they have to train for these events.
Upon first thought, you might think that fasting is the best approach. After all, the competitor would be much hungrier once event time rolls around. Fasting is counterproductive, however, as fasting before an event shrinks your stomach. The key to training for competitive eating is growing your stomach. Bigger stomach means more space for hot dogs.
The most elite of eaters expand their stomachs through various methods. Eric “Badlands” Booker, a competitive eater and Nathan’s Famous competition regular, says, “I eat a whole head of cabbage to increase my stomach size, and drink a least a gallon of water on top of it. You need capacity.”
Major League Eating is the regulatory group that oversees Nathan’s and all other professional eating events. Some of the categories besides hot dogs include pizza, 7-Eleven Sports Slurpee, asparagus, birthday cake, clams, tacos, watermelon and even whole turkeys. (Patrick Bertoletti ate a seven pound turkey in eight minutes!). But Nathan’s continues to be the flagship event, with participants qualifying through a few different avenues, including regional qualifiers. The winner takes home $10,000 and the coveted Mustard Belt.
Hot dog eating differs from many eating contests, as you consume two different foods — tube-shaped meat and bread — that react differently in your stomach. In 2001, former champion Takeru Kobayashi pioneered the “Solomon Method,” which turned out to be a game-changer. The method involves breaking each hot dog in half, eating the two halves side by side, then downing the bun. The bun is often dunked in water beforehand to make it easier to swallow.
The easiest way to get disqualified from Nathan’s? A “reversal of fortune,” otherwise known as vomiting.
From 2001 to 2006, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest was dominated by legendary eater Takeru Kobayashi from Japan. However, in 2007, a great red, white, and blue light shone through, and the Mustard Belt returned home. Joey Chestnut ate a world record-breaking 66 hot dogs in 12 minutes. Chestnut has held the belt ever since, but not without controversy. Kobayashi, who was his main (and only) true rival, was not allowed to compete in 2010 or 2011 because he refused to sign an exclusive contract with the event’s organizers. In 2010 Kobayashi stormed the Coney Island event and was arrested. In 2011 he held his own, private eating competition simultaneous to Nathan’s at Coney Island, where he claims to have eaten 69 hot dogs, a would-be world record.
The world of competitive eating is complicated. Bad blood runs thicker than barbecue sauce.