Hard to Swallow
On July 4, 2005, I braved the sweaty masses at Coney Island’s boardwalk to watch Takeru Kobayashi down 49 hot dogs in 12 minutes at Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. I spent ten dollars on a white t-shirt that I wore until it turned charcoal gray, ate two Nathan’s hot dogs, and swam in Coney Island’s suspiciously oily waters. It was awesome.
The one thing that struck me about the day was that after the carnage had ceased, the crowd was allowed to ask Kobayashi questions. This is unheard of in professional sports. Alex Rodriguez doesn’t hold a powwow at center field; Kobe Bryant doesn’t take post-game queries from Patrick in Laurel Canyon. Competitive eating has an everyman appeal in that anyone can do it, but a precious few have the ability to shock and awe. American Joey Chestnut ate sixty-eight hot dogs and buns in 2009, an average of about five a minute. I’m not saying that rivals Joe DiMaggio’s fifty-six game hitting game streak, but doesn’t that number open your eyes just a little bit? And doesn’t the physical nature of Chestnut’s accomplishment, coupled with the competitive aspect, make it a sport?
I think it does, especially since ESPN devotes airtime to competitive eating and contestants actually train for this gastrointestinal brutality. It’s no longer just a pastime for the dangerously obese or morbidly curious. Chestnut won $10,000 this past July 4th, and Kobayashi skipped this year's event because of a contract dispute with the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE). Big money, contract disputes, TV agreements: That’s the territory of professional sports.
Every sport deserves a great book, and Jason Fagone's Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream promised to be just that. The book features Fagone crisscrossing the United States—and even venturing into Japan—covering competitive eating like it’s a legitimate news beat. He does that, developing terrific rapport with three eaters (Dave “Coondog” O’Karma, Bill “El Wingador” Simmons, and Tim “Eater X” Janus) and using them to frame his narrative.
Fagone, who has written terrific athlete-based pieces for GQ, is a tremendous reporter who loves writing. You can tell it in his gleeful, energetic style. One interviewee has “the angular, birdlike look of a guy who spends a lot of time in passionate conversations: glasses, neat beard, clavicle poking from the top of his shirt.” Fagone digs into the history of the sport and shows how it’s become more about marketing and winning. Eaters aren’t around forever. “Eventually,” Janus tells Fagone, “there's going to be a saturation in talent, at which point I will get phased out. There are so many good guys, and it’s a huge country.” The most interesting aspect—aside from the detailed description on the workings of the digestive system—is how Fagone’s subjects define themselves by this one ability. No one grows up wanting to down 120 chicken wings in 15 minutes, at least not yet. To see how O’Karma, Janus, and Simmons thrive on their abilities is both poignant and painful.
Fagone’s exuberance eventually gets the better of him, and his presence in the narrative grows tiresome. It’s an attribute when Fagone is covering the orgy of grease and occasional bare breasts (women, thankfully) that is Philadelphia’s Wing Bowl, but it’s a colossal pain when you’ve endured the fifth philosophical aside about how competitive eating is about something bigger than ourselves, how it symbolizes America and all of us. Here’s Fagone describing the party following an oyster-eating contest in Louisiana.
…I saw that the oyster contest was the best kind of eating contest because it wasn’t about the food at all. Devotion to the food, to the oysters, was real enough, but it was only a means to an end. The food was an excuse for a federal judge and a state senator and Miss Louisiana and a New York carny barker and a voracious, toothpick-wristed woman in track pants and the world’s most mediagenic oyster shucker and the disembodied spirits of Crawfish Nick and Axl Rose to gather together, in a parking lot next to an oyster house, and share a moment of American joy.
You can tell Fagone is itching to write the definitive book about competitive eating, which leads to passages like this one and an excerpt from Don DeLillo’s White Noise. Fagone tries so hard on every page to strive for something bigger, but he would have created a memorable work by observing and reporting. The passage of time determines a sport's role in the cultural fabric, and books like these help, but Fagone can't generate that aura on his own. And that goes double for a borderline sport that's barely been in the public conscious for a decade. Besides, Fagone's histrionics distract from the examination of what it's like to excel in an activity that most everyone considers to be a lark. When Fagone stays on that theme, his reporting and writing are evocative and informative and fun to encounter.
Fagone tries so hard to be serious, to not revel in gimmickry, to embrace noble intentions, that he breaks his promise not to be "mock-important." There are flashes of a great book here, enough to remind us that a straightforward approach to an unusual event would have worked best. We learn more that way, though we can always head down to Coney Island for next year's contest. Let's hope next year's winner doesn't get too big—figuratively, of course—to answer our questions.
Books Mentioned in This Column:
Pete Croatto’s essays, criticism, and humor writing have appeared in MAD, Publishers Weekly, BookPage, and the (Newark) Star-Ledger. He also reviews movies for ICON and FilmCritic.com, and maintains a movie blog. Pete currently lives in central New Jersey with three bookshelves made by his dad and an overused library card. Contact Pete.