• Commentary by Thomas Mims

Hot Dog Daze of Summer

Every Fourth of July, Americans gather around their televisions for the must-see sporting event of the day. Forget baseball — I am of course talking about the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. This year’s live television ratings for the event were the highest the contest has seen since 2011. It drew more viewers to ESPN than the Wimbledon coverage and baseball double-header that aired on the same day. I’ve always been a little skeptical as to whether competitive eating is truly a sport. Even with my own eating prowess, (my family has often referred to me as a “human garbage disposal”) I still wasn’t sure a man gulping down 50-plus hot dogs should be considered any sort of sporting accomplishment. This Fourth of July, I decided to try my luck at American Legion Post 67’s inaugural hot dog eating contest in downtown Versailles. Not even halfway through, my stance on whether or not competitive eating is a sport flipped to a hard affirmative. I arrived downtown ready to eat everything in sight. On a whim, I decided to sign up the night before the contest and thus spent the 16 hours of advanced notice doing all I could to ready myself. My amateur preparations were as such: one final meal at 7 p.m. the night before (Taco Bell), an over-confident Facebook post about my determination to win, hot tea to aid digestion two hours before the contest and attempting to perfectly time my appetite-stimulating cystic fibrosis medications so that they would be in full effect by the noon start time. That’s the closest I’ll ever come to feeling like Barry Bonds during his performance-enhancing drug days.All things considered, I felt like I had prepared adequately. Someone asked how many I thought I could eat. Confidently, I gave him the number I’d had in mind all along. “I’m shooting for 20,” I said with a reckless self-confidence. “I feel like two and a half packs is a possibility.” In the moments before the contest began, I wanted to get truly locked in. Devoting all my focus to the task soon at hand — 10 minutes of vicious gnashing of teeth through bun and processed meat. I put on headphones and played warm-up music as if I was going to play in the Super Bowl, and not stuff my face. I even gave my phone to my cousin to skip songs for me because I wouldn’t have the time to find the right music to chow down to. In hindsight dear reader, I realize these are the actions of a crazy person. As the kids say, I was “doing the most” for what was ultimately a small town’s 10-participant hot dog eating contest. I felt good. The tunes were playing and the hot dogs were on their way. My spotter sat across the table from me. She asked me my name, and I believe we introduced ourselves. She said, “Now Thomas, I expect you to eat at least 10.” I told her I would “for sure” get to double-digits. That was a lie. To start out, my plate had five dogs on it. I like to think I got through those without much issue. It was my first time ever trying the method of separating the hot dog and bun, eating the hot dog, and then dunking the bun in water to make it go down a little smoother. For those of you sane enough to never try it, the answer is yes. It is every bit as gross as it seems. Things were almost moving too fast for me to process just how awful a soggy bun is. What it is not, is a way to refresh with water while also getting the bun out of the way. It goes down in a mushy, soppy blob that has the mouth-feel of a giant lump of soggy cereal. The water oozes from the bun with every bite. This was the toughest challenge for me. Like all food, the bread does not go down on its own. I’m not sure what part of the process I misunderstood, but I had assumed it would sort of just slide down my throat and into my gullet while I chewed. Instead all I seemed to do was take one big hunk of mushy dough and mash it into a million smaller pieces before consciously forcing myself to gulp it down. I hit the five hot dog mark and all doubt was erased as to whether competitive eating took physical prowess or simply a big appetite. There is definitely a strategy to the way you utilize your muscles to chew, swallow and repeat. Whatever that sequence of coordinated movements is, I lack it. Two more dogs were placed in front of me, and all I could think about was how bad my jaw hurt from trying to chew an overstuffed mouthful. Everything slowed down. The semi-consistent pattern I had fallen into was now at half-speed. I looked to my right and saw that fellow competitor Andrew Richerson had kept pace with me through the first five. If anything, my seemingly closest competition (both physically and on the scorecard) was slightly ahead of me. By the time I had fought my way through the seventh hot dog, I was beginning to fall behind. It looked like Andrew was a dog or two ahead of me through the first six minutes. My next plate came in with four more waiting to be devoured. I imagine people close enough could see my eyes pop out like a classic cartoon character. By this point, my internal monologue was a single word, “Nope.” I tried to override that attitude on the eighth hot dog. I took a moment to reset and accept that I would be finishing second. Surely nobody else was ahead of Andrew, and I was close enough to him that with any luck, I’d finish a dog or two behind. I started with my attack on dog number eight. I didn’t get very far. Somewhere in my eating mechanics, I had let a lot of air come in between the chunks of meat and dough. As I was trying to send more food down the pipe, that same pipe was trying to send back all that trapped air. Little burps came first. An annoyance, but something I decided was workable. Then came the larger ones that made me hit pause on the entire process. I sat there with my mouth full of a chaotic jumble of meat, bun and water waiting for them to pass. It didn’t pass. It got worse. Apparently, I had had enough of the soggy bun. It was expulsion time and I was trapped. There was a sweet woman in front of me, a competitor to my right, and on my left were two elementary school aged boys in the crowd. With no options but to power through, I swallowed the mess and my pride. I had almost thrown up and everyone saw it. I had nothing left to prove and nothing more to gain. In the final three minutes, I ate a lone hot dog. I finished with nine, behind Andrew’s 11 and Roman Sorrell’s 13. Only the top two finishers would leave with monetary prizes, and I finished third. When you boil it all down, the good people of American Legion Post 67 had given me nine free hot dogs and two bottles of water. I began the contest cocky and finished it humble. It was a miserable, painful, downright shame-filled experience. But it absolutely is a sport, and I can’t wait to do it again next year.

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