Four plates of golden charred hot dogs were plated in front of me. Twenty in all. The sheen of grease on blistered skin glistening in the hot sun would beckon me on any normal Saturday afternoon. Smother them in ketchup, add some pickles, a plate of chips on the side, some pink lemonade to wash them down. A leisurely Saturday of food and friends.
But, standing in a suburban Kmart parking lot in front of a full crowd, next to some of the best eaters in the business — Eric “Badlands” Booker, Michelle “Cardboard Shell” Lesco, Yasir Salem — the hot dogs were more of a chore than a chow. These were contest dogs and I had ten minutes ahead of me to eat as many of them as I could.
Every summer, Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contests are held around the country. The top male and female from each contest is granted the opportunity to compete again at the biggest eating competition of the year: the Fourth of July hot dog eating contest on Coney Island.
Back in December, after a fluke contest that was held outside of the regular time frame, I managed to qualify by eating only 5.75 hot dogs. I was the only female in the contest and had no one to lose to. I won, quite frankly, by default.
I didn’t need to compete again in this qualifier in Bloomingdale, Illinois. But it was only an hour drive from where I live and Major League Eating asked me if I wanted to participate. It would be good practice to see where I stood and, for the first time in my brief eating career, I would be at the table with other women, Michelle Lesco and Nikki Rodriguez, which I hoped would push me beyond my former total.
I stood behind the long table that was draped in a Nathan’s branded tablecloth and held on top enough plates of hot dogs to feed a baseball stadium. The audience cheered in anticipation and yelled out the countdown from ten to one. I took a deep breath and stared at the twenty hot dogs in front of me.
Ten. Nine. Eight. Seven. Six. Five. Four. Three. Two.
One. I clawed for my first dog, broke it in half, and chewed both halves at once while using my other hand to dunk the bun in a cup full of pink lemonade Crystal Light. The bread was disintegrating in my fingers, the meat particles were coating my tongue. I was trying to imbibe everything at once and all the slop bubbled at the back of my throat. I immediately was falling behind every other person at the table. When I heard George Shea, the contest’s MC, declare that 7 minutes were left, 3 minutes had passed, I was only working on my second hot dog.
Next to me, Badlands Booker, the number twenty-two ranked eater in the world, was well into a second plate. He attacked the hot dogs ferociously, liquid rolling from his chin, down his shirt, down the table. Every so often he’d jump to rearrange the masticated food in his stomach and, at those moments, everything in front of me and about me would shake. I could feel the tremors in my body and my stomach tightening into a well-worn knot. I’d have to pause for a moment to re-adjust myself.
Competitive eating is a mental game. Yes, you need to be able to physically eat a lot. And yes you need to be able to physically hold a lot in your stomach. But you also need focus, drive, determination, and a psychosomatic relationship with food. You just have to swallow and trust that the food will make it to your stomach. You just have to swallow and not let your throat reject it. You can’t give in to a gag reflex. You can’t give in to your head telling you that you’re full. You can’t think of eating competitively as eating at all. You are merely a vessel. You just have to swallow. And swallow. And swallow.
I have yet to be able to move past those mental hurdles.
I chew. And chew. And chew. And then I try to swallow, but retch when the food hits my soft palate and have to pause for a moment to let it be accepted. Soaking the buns in pink Crystal light digests them before they ever reach my mouth creating a mushy texture so unbecoming of bread that I want to reverse them before I ever verse them. But keeping them dry, un-soaked, means more chewing.
It’s not my capacity that holds me back.
Afterwards, after an embarrassing showing, after yet another last place finish, with an entire hot dog still left untouched on my first plate, and only four hot dogs in my stomach, I could have eaten more. I drank a full Pepsi right away. I went to Small Bar with friends and ate cheese curds and nachos and fries. I was still hungry.
It’s my head that holds me back. It’s the thought of putting yet another piece of sausage into my mouth. It’s the thought of swallowing something that hasn’t been properly chewed. It’s the thought of a handful of pulpy bread sliding down my esophagus. It’s a gag reflex that haunts me. It’s a nauseous feeling in my entire body.
There are ways to get beyond those mental hurdles. I was told hypnotism works. And I’m sure other such hindrances could be cured with time, practice, or therapy. Other eaters have offered tips, training sessions.
But, for me, I don’t think it’s worth it. I love competitive eating, but eating competitively? Not so much.
There are plenty of people who watch baseball on weekends though never play. There are plenty of people who travel to watch The World Cup but could never dream of stepping on the field. People read books without ever writing a sentence. People watch movies but don’t care to act or direct or produce.
There is plenty of room to enjoy something as a spectator.
I would rather admire Michelle Lesco and her impressive 28.5 hot dog win from afar. Photograph Badlands Booker reaching 27.5 and Yasir Salem, 26, from the press pit. They’re brilliant eaters, something I could never aspire to.
As much as I love standing beside them physically, I will never match them in capacity.
I am very much looking forward to competing on the Fourth of July. It’s a life list item and something I’ve dreamed of doing since the first time I watched from Coney Island in 2008. I’m looking forward to standing on that stage next to the best of the best, taking the eaters bus to Surf and Stillwell, looking out over a crowd of thousands. And I will try hard to eat more than I’ve ever eaten in ten minutes before. But after that, I see retirement in my future.
As the old adage goes: those who can’t, teach. And in my case, I suppose, those who can’t, photograph.
Oh, I was totally on NBC Chicago’s morning show promoting the contest:
Thank you to my friend Heather and my sister Jennifer for all the photos!