The (Hungry) Odd Couple of the Nathan's Hot-Dog-Eating Contest
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.
I went over to "Coleman's Bar and Grill" to watch Janus get ready for his qualifier. When I opened the door, a large, sweaty, shirtless man immediately kissed me on both cheeks and introduced himself as "La Bestia." Turns out La Bestia is an editor at Italian Vogue, and he was working on a profile of the two eaters as well as entering the hot-dog contest himself. He had come equipped with a hot-dog suit.
Janus was putting on his blue-and-orange "Eater X" face paint, drying it with a hair dryer. Meanwhile, Conti ate half a sandwich and drank a beer. La Bestia was cavorting around the apartment, taking pictures and mumbling to himself in Italian. "He's like the Roberto Benigni of eating," Conti said.
Janus had been drinking a lot of soda that morning to keep himself from feeling too hungry; he didn't want to eat anything solid before the competition. I asked him what he'd eaten last night. "Sushi," he said. "But I should have just eaten candy." Why? "I like it. And it digests fast—it's clean burning."
Janus packed up his pink lemonade (the eaters can bring whatever nonalcoholic beverage they like). He also brought a roll of LifeSavers and a gummy pizza candy to eat after the contest, for dessert.
As one of only four human beings ever to consume 40 hot dogs in 12 minutes, Janus was the clear favorite to win this qualifier. His plan was to take as-big-as-possible bites from the very beginning and beat his personal best of 43.5, even though the competition time had been reduced to 10 minutes.
Outside Shea Stadium, an hour before the first pitch that evening, 16 competitive eaters of varying sizes lined up facing their piles of hot dogs. Each one had a different approach, but most separated the bun and dog, and almost everyone dunked the bun in their beverage cup, creating a horrible, sodden mash that was easier to swallow (and that dribbles everywhere). Janus grabbed two hot dogs in one fist and two buns in the other, then chomped the hot dogs down while soaking the buns in his lemonade with his other hand. Then he stuffed the pink, soggy buns in his mouth.
As the competition went on and the eaters began to turn greenish, the crowd—which had been pressed up close to the eaters' table—backed away warily.
Conti was front and center, yelling: "Come on, Eater X! In the mouth! In the mouth!" La Bestia, wearing his hot-dog suit, surveyed the proceedings with glee and ate his hot dogs with a leisure that only an Italian can summon. As the minutes ticked away, Janus looked like he was about to "suffer an unfortunate reversal" (i.e., upchuck) several times, but held on to win with 42 hot dogs and buns—and some victory bun coming out his nose.
"Yeah, I'm pretty full," he said afterwards, "but I'm disappointed I didn't do 45." At a competition the very next day, Janus ate 12 pounds of strawberry shortcake in eight minutes and came in second place. Conti ate 9.5 pounds of shortcake for third.
The two often compete against each other, but that doesn't stop them from sharing strategies. Once, at an ice-cream competition, Conti brought along Anbesol, a gum-numbing cream, to make the mouth freeze less painful. He hadn't told Janus about his plan and was feeling increasingly guilty. Finally, a few minutes before the starting buzzer, he tossed Janus the Anbesol. Janus gave him a sheepish look, reached into his pocket, and pulled out his own tube. Since then, they say, there are no secrets at Coleman's Bar and Grill.
A few days after the Shea Stadium contest, the pair got together in their kitchen for "stomach school"— training for the upcoming Coney Island contest. Janus, who placed fourth last year, is hoping to come in at least third this year, while Conti wants to beat his personal best and eat 25. There was much talk about how Kobayashi is doing psychologically, after having been defeated for the first time last year by Joey Chestnut.
They warmed several Nathan's hot dogs on their flat-top and examined the buns, which seemed smaller than usual. ("The buns are supposed to be 42 grams—these are 33!" Janus exclaimed.) Conti's eating style is similar, except that he prefers just one hot dog and then one soggy bun at a time. They discussed the relative merits of two versus one: "Economy of movement," said Janus. "I don't know if I can make the jump to two," said Conti. They reminded each other of the importance of "reverse bunning"—turning the bun inside out before dunking, so that the soft, porous side soaks up more liquid. "The bun should deliver all the liquid you need," counseled Janus. "That fleshy white part is the unsung hero of the bun."
The Friday afternoon that the eaters and I had our sushi binge, Conti was taking an extra-long lunch from his job at the Penthouse Club and had to be back for a meeting that afternoon. Janus had no such obligation and settled onto his stool for the long haul. Conti quipped that he hoped Whole Foods didn't have to wait until Monday for their next fish delivery. We started eating. An hour later, we were still eating, and the stack of plates was getting conspicuous. The waitress came over. "Are you guys done?" she asked hopefully. Politely, the eaters shook their heads no. "They're going to have to call Ralph from Produce up here to help make sushi soon," laughed Conti.
"You know what my dream is?" asked Janus as he surveyed the revolving belt. "To go out deep-sea fishing, catch a big tuna, and just go at it with a spoon."
There was one problem with our plan to stay all day: The conveyer belt carrying the sushi was very, very slow. It was taking about three minutes for each piece of sushi to get from the sushi chef to us—which, I realized later, was obviously by design. Eating great heaps of food is much easier when you do it quickly, as they do in competition, before you realize how full you are.
"To be honest," said Janus, "I don't know if I want to eat 140 pieces of sushi today." Both eaters assessed their vertiginous stack of plates. Each one had eaten upwards of 50 pieces of sushi, and so they decided to pack it in.
At our first movement to leave, the waitress swooped down and removed our chopsticks with an unmistakable look of relief.
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