Some can boast that they saw Usain Bolt become the fastest man on earth. Others may brag that they watched Katie Ledecky triumph over her Olympic opponents. But only few can recount the legend of Joey Chestnut, who downed 72 Nathan’s Famous hot dogs in 10 minutes, smoking his competition. I am one of those few.
The Fourth of July epitomizes American culture, complete with outdoor barbeques, extreme patriotism, and, of course, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Since it began in 1916, the event has been known as the Olympics of competitive eating—the ultimate challenge for the most hard-core out there. The winner takes home the coveted mustard belt, as well as a small prize of $10,000. When I arrived at 9am for the 1pm main event, a line already extended down the street.
By the time I made it inside, the sun had burnt me the color of Heinz ketchup, but the view was worth the sacrifice. Hot dogs were everywhere—on bodysuits, t-shirt, hats, signs, billboards, and, of course, the stage. At 1pm, the men’s competition would begin.
Though this was my first live hot dog eating contest, the event had already exceeded expectations. The emcee, dressed in a suit, tie, and top hat, announced the competitors one by one. Each climbed the stage, assuming his place before the wieners.
I stood at the front of the crowd to get the best view of the contestants. I snapped a selfie with Eric “Badlands” Booker, part-time rapper, part-time competitive eater, full-time badass. While Badlands was great, the true star of the day was the legendary Joey Chestnut. With nine titles already under his belt, there’s little wonder Chestnut has become known as “Jaws” among his fans. In anticipation of his arrival, announcers struck a gong for each of his victories, invoking fear in the hearts of his competition.
I craned my neck to catch a glimpse of him, but he wasn’t to be found. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted him—the half-man, half-god, poised on the Nathan’s Famous yellow throne, was being lifted onto the stage. The emcee went wild, the crowd went wild, I went wild. This man was quite literally the patron saint of the competitive eating world.
The eaters took their places, and bbbzzzzz! The stage erupted into madness. Hot dog, mouth, swallow, hot dog, mouth, swallow. The emcee roared, bellowing the scores over the thousands of cheering fans. 2015 champion Matt Stonie started strong, pulling ahead with four dogs, but from behind came Chestnut! Six dogs, seven dogs, eight. Hands became blurs and jaws ground like jackhammers, fighting to keep down every bite. By the bottom of the first minute, Chestnut had blazed ahead, twelve dogs down in sixty seconds. But then he faltered, and underdog Carmen Cincotti started to heat things up. Five dogs behind. Then four. Then three. For minutes, he remained neck and neck with Chestnut, rivaling his transcendent pace. Would we have a new champion? No. Chestnut’s fever and ferocity could not be paralleled. He pulled ahead—sixty-nine dogs, seventy, seventy-one, seventy-bbbzzzzz! The alarm blared, and Joey “Jaws” Chestnut solidified his tenth championship title, downing a Nathan’s famous record-breaking seventy-two dogs in ten minutes. That’s 20,160 calories, 1,296 grams of fat, 56,160 mg of sodium, and 720 grams of protein—in ten minutes. Joey Chestnut is a true American hero.
With the thrill and rapture of the tournament behind me, I turned steadily towards the one thing on my mind—a juicy beef frank, drizzled lightly with ketchup. 20 minutes and five bucks later, I held the wiener in my hands, the familiar aroma filling my nostrils and warming my heart. Defying the trend of the day, I decided to savor the dog, each bite a reminder of this great nation, and each swallow in celebration of the stupid shit it lets us do.