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A short history of the American tradition of competitive eating

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Today is one of the top American holidays for eating. There's Thanksgiving, of course, but the Fourth of July features some serious cookouts and the event that is the de facto Super Bowl of competitive eating - the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Miki Sudo won the women's contest for the ninth time this morning, and this afternoon, after a rain and lightning delay...

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GEORGE SHEA: With 62 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, for his 16th win, I give you the No. 1 ranked eater in the world, Joey Chestnut.

(CHEERING)

SUMMERS: Why these two do it - well, they've got their reasons. But why we, as a society, celebrate all of this on U.S. Independence Day - well, our producer, Matt Ozug, spoke to some experts on the subject of competitive eating.

JASON FAGONE: Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I remember that I spent two years in the 2000s following competitive eating around the country and the world.

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FAGONE: You know, I saw some things that I can never forget even if I wanted to.

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FAGONE: My name is Jason Fagone, and I'm the author of "Horsemen Of The Esophagus: Competitive Eating And The Big Fat American Dream."

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FAGONE: Most people are familiar with the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. That's the one that's broadcast every year on ESPN. But there's all kinds of other eating contests...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Cheeseburger eating champion of...

FAGONE: ...For burgers, for cakes, for cannolis...

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Twenty-three cannoli during last year's faceoff.

FAGONE: ...French fries...

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: French fry eating championship of the world.

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FAGONE: ...Just the craziest kind of wildest, most grotesque, nonsensical, you know, and kind of fun pageants that I'd ever had a chance to witness.

One of the most intense experiences in my life was attending the Philadelphia Wing Bowl, the country's premier chicken wing eating contest - fifteen to twenty thousand actual fans packed into a sports arena in Philadelphia at 7 a.m. Then there's this whole other aspect of eating contests in Japan.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Food fight club...

FAGONE: They come with greatly expanded production values. There are, you know, lasers and explosions and, you know, dramatic music. There's a lot more ingenuity in the - kind of the structuring of the contest itself, whereas in America, the contests tend to be more just about sort of sheer volume. Competitive eating goes back centuries. It's not only an American thing.

ERIC GRUNDHAUSER: We have record of a famous competitive eater going back to the 17th century.

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GRUNDHAUSER: My name is Eric Grundhauser, and I am a writer and journalist. There was a farmer by the name of Nicholas Wood. Some of the impressive meals that Wood was known to have consumed included eating seven dozen rabbits in one sitting, entire pigs, 12 loaves of bread that had been soaked in ale. He passed out afterwards, but he made it.

Wood earned a number of pretty incredible nicknames - The Most Exorbitant Paunchmonger, Duke All Paunch, and the Kentish Tenter Belly. Unfortunately, his body was pretty well-destroyed from all the eating. He had lost all but one of his teeth after trying to eat an entire mutton shoulder. Wood finally threw in the towel and said, I can't do this any longer.

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FAGONE: There are a lot of different cultures that have kind of invented eating contests independently at different points in history. And for the first few hundred years after the American Revolution, eating contests were a regular feature at Fourth of July celebrations. And then this started to change a little in the 1970s when Nathan's Famous hot dogs created a hot dog contest on the Fourth of July. You know, the eaters in that era were mostly big guys from Long Island, right? These are, like, classic kings at the backyard barbecue. And in the 1990s, these two brothers from New York took over the Nathan's Famous accounts - George and Richard Shea. And in that age, everyone who was competing in the contest was kind of in on the joke. The eaters had silly nicknames. There was a guy named Frank "Large" De La Rosa.

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DOMINIC CARDO: Dominic "The Doginator" Cardo.

FAGONE: Ed "Cookie" Jarvis.

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CHARLES HARDY: "Hungry" Charles Hardy, Brooklyn, N.Y.

FAGONE: Eric "Badlands" Booker.

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ERIC BOOKER: (Rapping) Quench my thirst to my heart's content and do it in record time.

FAGONE: ...Who is also a rapper and records competitive eating-themed rap songs.

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BOOKER: Somebody saying chug that drink.

FAGONE: I have a CD somewhere in my box of recordings here.

And then in 2001, everything changed in an instant...

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FAGONE: ...When this young Japanese guy named Takeru Kobayashi came to America and competed in the Nathan's Hot Dog Contest. Kobayashi was different from everyone who had come before him. You know, he wasn't a big man. He looked very healthy. He didn't have any kind of a jokey nickname, right? And it turned out that he had been training for the contest as if it were a real sport.

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FAGONE: Part of Kobayashi's innovation was that he came up with a completely new way to eat the hot dogs. He separated the hot dog from the bun, and then he snapped the hot dogs in half. And then he would snap the bun in half, dunk the bun in water and eat it.

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FAGONE: This was an innovation akin to, you know, the Fosbury flop in the high jump.

The record at that point was 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes, which everybody thought was an enormous quantity. The contest starts. Everything is going like normal. And then about three minutes in, everything kind of stops. And not only the other contestants, but the announcer - they just start looking at Kobayashi with kind of their jaws open. Kobayashi had almost broken the world record, and there was still nine minutes left to go.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Kid is incredible. A total beating of the Americans. He was like a conveyor belt. He was just putting them in two at a time.

FAGONE: And then he proceeded to double the world record by the end of the 12 minutes.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: ...Started waving the white flag.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I can't believe it. The record - new record - 50.

FAGONE: And then after that, everything changed because there started to be real money. Pretty soon, you know, ESPN was broadcasting the hot dog contest live.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #4: What a crowd out here. Americans of all stripes. There are visitors from abroad celebrating the dream of independence once again on the corner of Surf & Stillwell.

FAGONE: And with that money came a whole new wave of competitors who, you know, like Kobayashi, were training. They were taking it seriously as a sport, and they weren't necessarily in on the joke anymore. They were really trying to win.

Eating is one of the great psychic preoccupations of our species. It's right up there with sex and death. I mean, eating is this animal act that we all participate in to some degree, and this is the most animal version of it, but it's happening in an environment where there are safety rules. So in a sense, it's, like, this display of gluttony that has been kind of made safe for you to look at and think about. There's, like, this pane of safety glass between you and the danger.

If you sort of zoom out and you think about, you know, what an eating contest symbolizes more broadly maybe, it does seem symbolic of the outsized American appetite for everything - and not just for food but for resources, power, money - you name it. It's kind of a Rorschach test for how people see us.

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SUMMERS: Jason Fagone is the author of "Horsemen Of The Esophagus: Competitive Eating And The Big Fat American Dream."

(SOUNDBITE OF U.S. MILITARY BAND'S "MY COUNTRY 'TIS OF THEE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Matt Ozug
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Patrick Jarenwattananon
[Copyright 2024 NPR]