By Albert Samaha
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The Nathan's hot-dog-eating contest held on the Fourth of July in Coney Island is the most anticipated of all competitive-eating events. "It's the Masters of competitive eating—the mustard-yellow belt is like the green jacket," says Rich Shea of the International Federation of Competitive Eaters (IFOCE). The contest was first held in 1916, when four recent immigrants scarfed down hot dogs to prove who was the most American. Irishman James Mullen won, eating 13 hot dogs in 10 minutes. In more recent years, the contest has become a Japanese-American rivalry. In 2001, Takeru Kobayashi ate 50 dogs, doubling the world record. For the next six years, Kobayashi was unbeatable. But last summer, Joey Chestnut won with 66 wieners, while Kobayashi ate 63, coming in second. Kobayashi has been recovering during the last 10 months from a jaw injury, and will try to regain his title this year. The speculation surrounding this year's July 4 contest is frenzied—if Kobayashi can be vanquished, is it anyone's game?
Meanwhile, a couple of local championship eaters agreed to have me along as they began their own preparations for the Super Bowl of gluttony.
Tim Janus, a/k/a "Eater X" (the sushi world champ, 141 pieces in six minutes), Crazy Legs Conti, and I arrive at the Bowery Whole Foods at noon sharp. The sushi bar with a conveyer belt upstairs is running a special: all-you-can-eat from noon to 6 p.m. for $15.
"This is a dream come true," says Conti. "I think I might stay till 6," says Janus. The bar is empty, and we take seats at the end. The sushi chef looks up with a friendly smile that says he has no idea what he's in for.
Janus and Conti first met at a corned-beef-and-cabbage competition several years ago, and now they're roommates, sharing a small apartment in the East Village that Conti has dubbed "Coleman's Bar and Grill."
I imagined all sorts of strange arrangements, but the apartment turns out to be just that—an apartment, with a neon sign in the kitchen that reads "Coleman's Bar and Grill." There is a grill—a commercial flat-top that the roommates use to cook hot dogs—and there is plenty of booze (they have frequent parties), but it's not actually a drinking establishment. (Although if you knocked on the door and asked for a drink and a snack, the two would probably mix you up a proper mint julep and grill you a hot dog: There's always a 40-pack of Nathan's dogs in the freezer.)
Janus is the fourth-ranked competitive eater in the world, according to the IFOCE, and holds records in cannoli (26 in six minutes), ramen (10.5 pounds in eight minutes), tamales (71 in 12 minutes), and tiramisu (four pounds in six minutes). He started eating competitively in 2004, and immediately seemed to have a knack for it. "Organized competition is fun," he says. "Maybe it's a built-in guy thing." Janus is slight, with an earnest manner, big doe eyes, and an invariable uniform of orange baseball hat, khaki shorts, and T-shirt. He has a habit of letting Conti do the talking. When the eaters were on the Today show recently, Conti chatted away while Janus smiled gamely.
Crazy Legs Conti, on the other hand, is a flamboyant master of self-promotion. He was born Jason Conti, and says he won't reveal the secret behind his new name until he defeats Kobayashi (which is unlikely). He sports red dreads, big fuzzy pimp hats, and Hawaiian shirts. He's ranked 11th in the world, and holds records in corn (34.75 ears in 12 minutes), pancakes and bacon (3.5 pounds in 12 minutes), and buffet (5.5 pounds of buffet food in 12 minutes).
There's prize money in competitive eating, but very few eaters make enough to live on. Janus worked as a day trader until recently, when the vagaries of the market wore him down. He got a job as a waiter at Pizza Gruppo on Avenue B. Conti works several jobs, from window-washing and nude modeling to sperm donating. He's also the purchasing director at the Penthouse Executive Club in Hell's Kitchen, where he orders all the booze, barware, and flatware for the steakhouse and gentlemen's club.
Competitive eaters refer to what they do as a sport, and they really believe it's an athletic undertaking. But many outsiders regard it with disgust—even a sense of moral outrage. It's true that there is something obscene about watching someone stuff 40 hot dogs down their throat while others are hungry. And the gluttony involved in competitive eating pricks at our distinctly American neuroses about weight and food.
But Janus points out that eaters often fast before and after contests, so they aren't taking in many more calories over the long run than they would otherwise. Uneaten contest food is usually donated to homeless shelters. "And other sports are just as wasteful," Janus says. "NASCAR is wasteful of fuel; golf is wasteful of water and fertilizer."
Although there are IFOCE events year-round, involving everything from jalapeños and gyros to matzoh balls and grits, the Nathan's hot-dog contest is the most famous, involving considerable prize money ($20,000). Hopefuls have to qualify at a regional contest in order to make it to the Coney Island finals on July 4. For this year's contest, Conti won at an early regional in August 2007. Janus waited until a June 14 qualifier at Shea Stadium.