The Hot Dog Eating Contest
first published in Yankee Magazine
Granted, it's not routine for a restaurant critic, accustomed to appraising champagne vinegars and savoring amber flan, to enter a hot dog eating contest. But there I was, peaceably strolling through a summertime street fair in downtown Attleboro, Mass., when an announcement crackled over the PA system looped overhead, that a genuine old-fashioned New England hot dog contest was about to begin. How often does life throw such opportunities our way?
I was feeling pretty electrified anyway. Downtown Attleboro has always struck me as being in a time warp, like Depression-era America at its best, down-at-the heels but jaunty, making me feel like some wide-eyed ragamuffin from a Booth Tarkington novel. The announcer was a sharpie with slicked-back hair like a huckster from the Dust Bowl, and hearing his AM radio-simulcast announcement brought back my heartfelt regret at never having entered a pie-eating contest during my eating prime (roughly age 15 to 40). But the announcer said he still had two seats open, and since I was about to sample a hot dog anyway ... and since my 16 year-old was shaking his head and going, "no Dad, please ..."
Next thing I knew I was seated at one of two tables in the center of downtown Attleboro, hard by the railroad tracks, checking out my nine rivals. Three of them weighed over 400 pounds and had a swagger commensurate with their heft. Several had the complexion that indicated they were no strangers to hot dogs. To a man, they were all-too-evidently in their prime, professionally famished, whereas I was just your average eater, a laughably pathetic 170 pounds with only a beginner's paunch at best. The street crowd was five people thick, 200 rowdies with a total of maybe 600 teeth between them, and every cracked molar visible as they screamed for blood. It felt more like a medieval execution than an eating contest, but I was hungry.
We started slow, pacing ourselves. We had twenty minutes to eat as many as we could. I was aware that the world record of 22 was held by some New Yorker who dipped them in water before deep-throating them, but I told myself I'd be happy if I downed five or six. When I finished chomping back my sixth, however, I found I was still going strong, and a crowd of bicycle-straddling little boys about two inches from my face informed me I had pulled ahead of most of the pack. I decided to put on steam.
When I hit eight dogs, it was between me and a home-for-leave Marine named Baxter. He was across from me at the opposite table, and while I won't say for a fact that he was on steroids, he was being visibly buoyed by the cheering section he had brought with him, about 80 family members who kept up a chorus of "Baxter! Baxter! Baxter!" Every now and then, through the flying dogs, I caught a glimpse of my cheering section which consisted of one 16 year-old shaking his head at me dubiously.
Yet I persevered. By dog ten, I could sense that Baxter was weakening. He was rolling his watery eyes and looking sick, whereas I was enjoying myself. The onions were moist, the Tex Barry chili sauce not too harsh, the buns compressible to almost nothing. I blotted my face on the pile of napkins provided and chewed on. Maybe it was my rank amateur status, but a few lonesome-looking souls were actually starting to root for me.
Two minutes left. Most of my rivals had stopped eating by this point; one looked on the point of losing his lunch. My informants, the bike-straddling boys, told me I was in the lead, so I allowed myself a sip of water. A small mistake. I tasted the Tex Barry sauce a second time, and it was less good this go-round. But nothing could stop me now. The thrill of victory was on me, so while mashing it back down I stood and brandished my hot dog at Baxter. Mashing manfully himself, Baxter tottered unsteadily to his feet and morosely waved his dog back at me. The crowd at this point was deafening, a hillbilly cock-fight roar.
Thirty seconds. The announcer had sweat beads dripping off his nose. Grown women were beaming at me. A clown on stilts was giving me the thumbs-up from on high. Skinhead teenaged observers were watching my progress with an absence of skinhead teenaged cynicism, and this I took for a good sign. My bicycle-straddling informants, on whose judgment I relied 100 percent, told me Baxter was half a dog behind me. Oh, the glory!
But it turned out they were wrong. When the whistle blew and we settled for the count, Baxter was half a dog ahead of me, thirteen to my twelve and a half. With a visible sense of deflation, most of my fair-weather fans split apart and left for the antique car exhibit, holding pink balloons with the arcane local legend, VOTE FOR ETHEL. The dog-eating contest was history. Baxter had won a 13 inch color tv. I had won a coupon that the announcer kept saying was worth twelve Tex Barry hot dogs, though the coupon actually said ten.
"What do you have to say for yourself, sport?" asked the announcer, offering me his mike. I considered giving a dignified response, full of humble congratulations for the winner and critical regard for the food, or even a lofty philosophical reply, replete with the sentiment of nothing ventured, nothing gained. But I quickly tossed both out the window.
"I could have eaten fifteen!" I cried. "Where are those kids on bikes? They gave me the wrong info! They were paid by the opposition! Wait till I get my hands on them!" I screamed. "I want that color tv!"
The scary thing was, I could have eaten fifteen. I wasn't close to full. I went home and banged back a bowl of frozen no-fat cherry yogurt over a hot fudge brownie. My 16 year-old silently stared at me across the table the whole time. "Dad," he said with considerable gravity when I was done, "you're a freak."