Today’s elite ‘athletes’ are becoming hard to stomach

July 8-14, 2024

By Joe Rogers


Will the Fourth of July really be the Fourth of July if Joey Chestnut isn’t cramming hot dogs down his gullet for a Coney Island crowd?


Chestnut is a trencherman of the first order: a 16-time winner of the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest and the world’s No. 1-ranked competitive eater.


But his chance at the $10,000 top prize this year became questionable because of his new partnership with Impossible Foods, an outfit that hopes to launch a vegan hot dog.


Nathan’s does not allow contestants to plug competitor dogs – much less, one would think, a meatless version. 


Still, maybe something will be worked out for eating’s biggest star.


Meanwhile, I know what you’re thinking: There are rankings for competitive eaters? Like for boxers or golfers or soccer-ers or others playing actual sports? Indeed there are, as I learned from research into Major League Eating, the body that oversees professional eating contests.


Its logo, oddly enough, is a hand gripping a fork. I don’t think competitive eaters bother with forks.


History records various feats of gluttony, despite its inclusion as one of the seven deadly sins. (No. 2, in between lust and greed.)


A typical dinner for “Diamond Jim” Brady, the American railroad tycoon, is reputed to have been “a couple dozen oysters, six crabs and bowls of green turtle soup. The main course was likely to be two whole ducks, six or seven lobsters, a sirloin steak, two servings of terrapin and a variety of vegetables,” states his biographer, H. Paul Jeffers.


I suspect that account and others of its type may be slightly – or more – exaggerated. Appeals for healthful moderation notwithstanding, hearty eaters are accorded a certain amount of respect for their feats. I’m reminded of the time a “not too hungry” Barney ordered breakfast one morning (because there’s always an Andy Griffith Show connection):


 “Orange juice, bowl of cereal, stack of wheats, three eggs over – make sure they ain’t runny, now – bacon on the crisp side, white toast buttered, hash brown potatoes and coffee.”


“It does my heart good to see a thin person eat,” the waitress said, admiringly.


I would substitute grits for hash browns, prefer sausage to bacon and want the yolks runny. But the point is, while we don’t all box or play golf or soccer or whatever, we do all eat, and so can appreciate the effort involved for prodigious feats of consumption.


For instance, while these days I generally limit my hot dog intake to two, back when my metabolism was still blazing along at blast furnace rates, I was good for five.


Chestnut’s Nathan’s record is 76. In 10 minutes.


And that’s just one of the 56 gustatory records Chestnut holds, according to Major League Eating. Among his other standards: 53 soft beef tacos, 182 chicken wings, 103 Krystal burgers, 118 jalapeno poppers, 121 Twinkies and 81 waffles.


Remember in “Cool Hand Luke” when Luke, to prove his mettle, vowed that he could eat 50 boiled eggs in an hour? He made it just under the wire, looking much the worse for wear. Chestnut has eaten 141 boiled eggs in eight minutes.


His most recent record, as it happens, was set last month at a competition in Knoxville: 14 pounds of bologna slices.


Some of the other MLE eating categories boggle the mind, in addition to the stomach: deep-fried asparagus spears, 12 pounds, 8.75 ounces; mayonnaise, four 32-ounce bowls; Spam, 9.75 pounds; kosher dills, 2.75 pounds; butter, seven quarter-pound sticks; cow brains, 17.7 pounds; grapes, 8 pounds, 15 ounces; Peeps, 255.


Proof, all of that, that people will eat pretty much anything in large amounts for money. And that other people will watch and cheer. The spectacle is at once both fascinating and revolting.


Which is why, soon after Chestnut’s Fourth of July participation was questioned, came the announcement that he and a chief rival, Takeru Kobayashi, would go one-on-one in a Labor Day hot dog contest to be shown on Netflix.


Kobayashi won six straight Nathan’s contests before Chestnut unseated him as champ in 2007. He’s been barred from the Nathan’s gig in recent years, for reasons too tangled to recount here, so the Netflix contest is hyping the renewed rivalry between the two.


I don’t know what the payoff will be, but I suspect it won’t be peanuts.  


Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville


Photo caption:


Below: Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest countdown clock (Kcpwiki)