An Apetite for a Challenge
From my experience, my friends and I can eat hot dogs more quickly than most people would assume.
It was the summer of 2003, and Eggy, Hot Nickels and I were coping with living under our parents’ roofs again. We had just finished our freshman years of college and had developed quite a taste for the sweet freedom of late nights and no supervision. The old high school jobs, girlfriends, and haunts seemed trifling in comparison to the debauchery and excess to which we had grown accustomed, and so when I saw the ad for the Chadds Ford Tavern’s annual hot dog eating contest, I was more than a little excited. It so clearly belonged to the world we now knew, the world of dorm cafeteria milk chugging challenges, drunken sledding, and Red Bull fueled all-night cram sessions.
Now, Hot Nickels is a man with large appetites for the greasier and unholier things in life, so I knew he would be easily convinced. I called him and explained the rules, 5pm, $10 to enter, 20 minutes to gorge, winner takes 1/2 the entrance money. His reaction was pitch perfect. “I mean, I’d pay $10 for all the hot dogs I could eat anyway, so I might as well try to make a buck.” Eggy, on the other hand, is the kind of guy who will place a dollar bet on who can land a loogie closest to a fire hydrant, so, while he knew that Hot Nickels would be the odds-on favorite among our crew, he couldn’t resist trying his hand.
As the event neared, it became the sole topic of conversation in our late night bull sessions. We talked strategy (I insisted that slow and steady would win the race, while Hot Nickels championed the “all out eating assault” method, but he could never explain what that actually meant), training regimens (I was certain that drinking mass quantities of water in the days leading up to it would expand my stomach, though I never actually followed through on it), and who our likely competition would be (“we better be ready fellas, because I’m sure the best eaters come from all over state to compete”). The day arrived, and Hot Nickels picked us both up in his wood-paneled Cutlass Cruiser and drove us into the Tavern’s parking lot. We were surprised that the lot had plenty of empty spots for what was, in our minds, a very big deal.
We showed up about an hour early, figuring we would need the time to register and scope out the competition. When we asked the hostess where we were supposed to go, she seemed a bit confused, and pointed to two long tables in the back. We hunkered into a booth near the tables, our stomachs grumbling in anticipation. The waitress dropped off menus, but we told her we didn’t need them because we were here for the contest. She shrugged and left them on the table, and, with 45 minutes to kill, Eggy made the mistake of opening his out of curiosity. Reading the list of deep-friend delights tested his fortitude, and Hot Nickels and I had to plead with him not to throw in the towel for the immediate comforts of a chili cheeseburger.
I tried to keep Eggy’s morale up. “Look, it’s just another half hour, it’ll be worth the wait. I know we all haven’t eaten today, but pretty soon we’ll have more than we can handle.”
“Yeah, I actually had some chicken nuggets before I picked you guys up, so I’ll be fine.”
Eggy and I froze. While we were both more than happy to give this thing a shot, we knew that Hot Nickels was the only one of us who might actually win. How could he possibly compete without the benefit of an empty stomach?
“No, it’s cool, I’m still pretty hungry, and I really love hot dogs, so it’s no sweat.”
We couldn’t believe that he had failed to prepare in even the most basic way, but we also knew that there was nothing to be done. With 15 minutes to go, we were still the only ones anywhere near the back tables. We squirmed in our seats, hungry to size up our competition.
With five minutes remaining until the opening ketchup squirt, the hostess started setting out water pitchers, cups, plates, and condiments. Then, at 5pm on the dot, a parade of high-fiving, back-slapping, hot-dog hat wearing gastronomic warriors entered the wood paneled arena. More than a few confused glances were shot in our direction, and we knew that either the Southeastern Pennsylvania Competitive Eating Circuit was a tight knit group, or this wasn’t really supposed to be open to outsiders. Either way, the owner of the bar explained the rules, the previous winner talked a little smack and we each threw $10 into a wicker basket. The team of waitresses placed five dogs in front of each of us and the owner told us not to touch the plates until he rang the bell, and that we would have our plates refilled as needed. I took one last remorseful look at Hot Nickels, a man who had wasted all of his potential on a few savory, barbecue sauce dipped morsels.
The bell rang, and we bit, chewed, and swallowed as fast as we could. I must have attained full hot dog Zen, because I stole a glance at Hot Nickels and saw two left as I was preparing for a fresh plate. Those nuggets must have really taken their toll! Then I took a second look and realized his plate stack was two deep. The man who had failed to fast had nearly lapped me. I looked around and saw that most of the competitors were in my shoes, blissfully unaware of the fact that Hot Nickels was making fools of us all.
By the fifteen minute mark, all of the spectators and most of the competitors had realized that they were in the midst of a true champion. The owner’s wife leaned over and asked him, “Is he going to hurt himself?” The owner muttered, awestruck, “He knows what he’s doing.”
By the final minute, Hot Nickels had a look of pure glee on his face. He had a five dog lead and, unlike his opponents, showed no signs of stopping. With thirty seconds to go, he set down his dog, twisted a lemon wedge into his water, took a big gulp, and resumed eating. He had left no doubt as to who would waddle away victorious, and decided to rub it in ever so subtly.
In the final tally, Hot Nickels had 18 dogs, I took second with 13 and a half, and Eggy took third with 12. A handful of men who were used to competing amongst themselves had to sit and watch as we hoisted ourselves out of our seats, beaming with pride and covered in mustard. For one day, Hot Nickels was a king, and Eggy and I would have been ashamed for ever doubting him if we weren’t so busy chanting his name.
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