Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Corn Dogs

It cost $5 to enter the SOMA StrEAT Food Park Corn Dog Festival, which included a 16- ounce can of PBR or a bottle of water. As soon as we passed the ticket booth and ID check, a large, bubbly woman with blue-and-pink dreadlocks fished a can from a giant cooler. Her fingernails—which were the size of guitar picks—were bright blue and studded with rhinestones. She pried the can’s tab up with one thumbnail and then slammed it back down with the nail on her pointer finger.

She tilted the sweating can towards me. “You want a beer?” she asked me, now that it was already open.

I nodded, maybe a little too eagerly because she burst out laughing as she handed it to me.

The day was chilly. A layer of clouds stubbornly refused to burn off, and there was the ever-present SOMA wind. But as soon as I stepped into the crowd, my mood was instantly warmed and brightened. The air was filled with laughter, music, and the smell of deep-fried batter. Gale-force winds would never stand a chance against the sybaritic scent of a good corn dog.

Nick and I took a quick lap around the park to see what the twelve food trucks, circled like covered wagons, had to offer. Since this was our nation’s biggest corn dog festival, even the trucks that were dog-free the other 364 days of the year, stepped up their game for the occasion. Odang Udon, the Japanese noodle truck, offered a tempura-battered corn dog. Curry Up Now topped their corn dogs, unsurprisingly, with curry. No No Burger, which specializes in organic, non-GMO soy protein, featured a vegan corn dog. (There was no line.) Sticks was one of only two food trucks that offered corn dogs on their regular menu. They sold the classic hand-dipped variety you tend to find on fairgrounds (a short distance from the spinning rides that coax the battered food into a comeback).

Halfway around the park we found the walkway completely blocked by the line for a particular food truck. The truck was spray painted with a giant corndog wearing white gloves and a backwards baseball cap that read “SF City.” He—it may be sexist to assume the corndog was male, but, c’mon—was blowing a giant pink gum bubble and brandishing a baseball bat. The chalkboard menu was hidden behind all the people waiting to order, but we got in line assuming that whatever was so popular had to be good. It took 15 minutes to reach the window. By then, we had learned this was Batter Up, and they served a kebab called the Triple Play. Skewered on one stick was of a chuck of a Lousiana hot link, a slab of cheddar cheese, a piece of chicken-apple-pepper-ingredient-that-(because-whoever-wrote-the-menu-ran-out-of-room)-was-abbreviated-to-a-set-of-letters-I-could-not-decipher bratwurst. All this high-caloric goodness was then dipped in batter and deep fried.

After ordering, it took another 15 minutes for our food to be ready. While waiting, I crowd-watched. Countless people were taking selfies with their food or arranging it on the wooden tables to Instagram. I had to duck between Batter Up and Bacon Bacon when a guy on a hoverboard zipped backwards through the crowd filming a trucking shot of the live band.

I couldn’t tell you exactly what reggae-infused songs The Stu Tails were playing that day, but I half-remembered most of them from the early 2000s, so they sent me spiraling into my past all afternoon. I was suddenly transported back to the safe and quiet streets of my neighborhood, where I knocked on friends’ doors, trying to muster a soccer game before the street lights came on.

Halfway through my PBR, still waiting for my corn-kebab, I thought about the first time I saw an ad for the original iPod on the back of a magazine addressed to my dad. The ad boasted that I could fit 1,000 songs in my pocket, a dizzying promise. I wondered if I even knew 1,000 songs to put on it.

While The Stu Tails’ bass player swayed beneath a short palm tree, a frond dipped in the wind and flicked up locks of his slicked back hair. They played song after song, pausing only to embarrass the couple who were eating pizza at the nation’s largest corn dog festival.

After finishing up our Triple Plays. We picked up bacon-wrapped corn dogs with jalapeno cream cheese dip, bacon macaroni and cheese corn dog balls, and deep-fried Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups from three different food trucks. We then went looking for a place to sit. There was cafeteria-styled seating under a barn-like awning, and we split a table with three college girls who had already been here for an hour.

The one seated next to Nick downed the last of her PBR before staring contemplatively at the empty can. “I don’t know if it’s because I worked out this morning or because of the beer, but I feel really good right now.” The tin bucket to her left was filled with five other empties. She reached across the table to tip up her friend’s can while she was drinking it, so the beer would pour out faster. Then she launched into telling no one in particular about how she developed breasts in the fourth grade, so every boy in her school was into her.

Entertaining though our neighbor was, Nick and I moved on because it was getting close to three, and I wanted to get a good view of the event I’d dragged Nick here to see: The Corn Dog Eating Championship.

Five men competed for the honor of being crowned King Corn Dog. The winner would also walk away with $50 cash and a stylish sash adorned with six pockets, each filled with a can of PBR. Every contestant was issued a paper tray of three corn dogs provided by Sticks. This was paired with a can of beer to lubricate their effort in whichever way they wished. There were only two rules: 1) finish all three corn dogs (and the beer), and 2) no puking. To lend an air of seriousness to the situation, The Stu Tails stopped playing, and the food park fell silent except for a few cheers when the contestants were introduced.

When the judge counted down from ten, the five men revealed their individual tactics. (Due to a pen malfunction, I missed all but one of the contestant introductions and can only refer to each competitor by what he was wearing.) The man on the farthest left wore patriotic sweatbands on his wrists and forehead. He pulled his corn dog off the stick and ripped it in half so that he could stuff both ends in his mouth at once. The guy in the black V-neck, the number two slot, peeled the batter off his corn dog and set to work eating the bare hot dog before moving on to shuck the next one. The next guy wore glasses and seemed to be in no hurry at all. He ate his corn dogs the way we spectators were eating them, stick still inserted and chewing thoroughly after each bite. He may have only signed up for the competition because three corn dogs and a beer was a bargain for the $10 entry fee. The last two guys immedately pulled the sticks out of all three corn dogs and set to stuffing their faces with gulps of beer to help it slide down. One of them was tall, had a shaved head, and wore a sky-blue shirt with a bicycle on it. The last was Miguel, who wore sunglasses, a backwards Dead Pool baseball hat with a matching Dead Pool hoodie. He insisted that his last name was “McLovin,” and, like V-neck, he also peeled his corn dog, but ate the hot dog and then the batter before moving on to the next.

He ate his corn dogs the way we spectators were eating them, stick still inserted and chewing thoroughly after each bite. He may have only signed up for the competition because three corn dogs and a beer was a bargain for the $10 entry fee."

Though this kind of speed-eating happens incredibly fast and requires a certain discipline (at least with regard to gag reflex) there is not much action to speak of. The contestants furiously work their way through their set, but in the end, an eating contest consists of watching people chew vigorously and gulp liquid.

Competitive eating is as ridiculous as pole sitting or planking. Yet, unlike those other attention-seeking ventures—speed eating continues to grow in popularity. There are ample opportunities to discover your personal gifts. While researching for this article, I came across contests for eating Peeps, boysenberry pie, pumpkin pie, meat pie, sweet corn, birthday cake, chili, crawfish, gyros, shrimp cocktails, burritos, silver dollar pancakes, gumbo, pepperoni rolls, salmon chowder, MoonPies, oysters, ribs, crab cakes, tater tots and tamales. I also managed to find an ice cream contest (a hands-free version), which I assume ends with every contestant clutching their skull and screaming that their head is going to explode. Some competitions have passed into legend. In 1919 Yankees outfielder Ping Bodie faced an ostrich named Percy in a spaghetti eating contest. The story goes that Bodie won by default when the ostrich passed out (or, in some versions, passed away) after his eleventh bowl.

Eating contests have been traced all the way back to a Norse myth in which Logi, the fire giant, was pitted against human-sized Loki, whom he had bullied because of his small size. Loki and Logi sat at opposite ends of a wooden trencher loaded with meat. At the King’s signal, both began eating from the outside in. Though they both reached the midpoint simultaneously, Loki had only eaten the meat, while Logi also consumed the bones and the wooden trencher itself.

According to Major League Eating, the world body that oversees all professional eating contests, the modern and much more regulated version of eating contests began in 1916. This is the year that Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened his legendary stand, Nathan’s Famous, after years of sleeping on the floor of the hot dog restaurant where he worked and saving his money. Using his wife’s family secret spice recipe from the old country, he sold his dogs for a nickel each. It is said that four immigrants stood around Nathan’s stand that Fourth of July arguing over who among them was most patriotic. It was decided that the best way to judge this incalculable trait was to see who could eat the most franks. Jim Mullen, an Irish immigrant, was declared winner after eating 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes. And thus, not only did a new American prove his steadfast love for his adopted country but a new pastime was born.

However, this did not signal the start of an annual contest. In fact, there is no evidence of such a contest prior to the early 70s. Even the Nathan’s Famous website only lists the eating competition winners from 1972 on. In 2010, Mortimer Matz, a Nathan’s spokesman, claims he helped make up the Jim Mullen patriot-eater story with Max Rosey to increase frank sales. The founder was unhappy that participants were not paying for the many hot dogs they ate, and wanted to limit the contest to 12 minutes.

Despite this documented confession, the 1916 legend still gets circulated regularly. And it’s a good story. It allows us to believe that eating contests weren’t created to drum up cheap publicity for a product, but because four immigrants loved their new home so much they had to take action. All this on top of Handwerker’s classic rags to riches story has made the whole yarn a paean to the American dream, where people from all over the world set down new roots in the land of opportunity, where there could be two frankfurters in every bun. Nathan’s hot dogs have become such an ingrained part of American culture that Nelson Rockefeller, Governor of New York once said “No man can hope to be elected in his state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.” As the Nathan’s Famous website points out at the end of their extended history section: “Nathan’s is not just a hot dog, it has history and it is Americana.”

I’ve had the great fortune to spend a lot of time with a competitive eater who gallantly showed me the fastest way to eat a lot of deep-fried foods or anything served with a cup of melted butter. The fastest way to get the meat out of a lobster tail is to wrap one hand around the tail and the other hand around the torso, like you are about to give it an elementary-school friction burn during recess because you have a crush on it and don’t know how to deal with that. You twist the two sides in opposite directions, and the tail comes off. After that, you rip off the outer tail fins on the closed end. Once you are left with just a shell tube, the meat inside slides out with a few prods from those ridiculously tiny forks.

I met Anthony Chie-for in Milford, MA when he and Nick were both in a two-month long training course for their work. Like most competitive eaters, Anthony is a skinny guy, which means he doesn’t have a band of fat that prevents his stomach from expanding during competitions. He was eager to take Nick and me to an all-you-can-eat buffet so he could show off. The week before our trip to the Nordic Lodge in Rhode Island, Anthony ate as much as he could and guzzled down copious amounts of seltzer water to expand his stomach. On the day of our visit, he had a light breakfast and drank water throughout the day to keep his stomach stretched. I lost count after his fifth plate of lobsters and crab legs.

Anthony first got into competitive eating in a similar way to the jokester Loki. One of his wrestling buddies, a heavyweight, invited him to an all-you-can-eat sushi bar and decided to turn it into a friendly competition. Anthony wound up eating twice as much as his friend. He can now eat 108 pieces of Nigiri sushi in one sitting. He can also eat twenty-four dumplings in two minutes.

After that, Anthony started entering amateur contests, such as the Hooter’s Wing Eating Championship, when he realized how much free food he would get to shove down his gullet. Not that it’s such a great deal for him; he feels awful after a competition and frequently throws up a half hour later when his brain finally catches up with what he’s just done to his body.

I was surprised to learn from him how many different ways there are to speed eat. Some break apart their food. Some don’t chew at all and swallow everything whole, like a pelican gulping down herring. Though Anthony chews his food thoroughly and does what he can to stay in shape, his doctor is, unsurprisingly, not a fan of this hobby.

I asked Anthony why eating contests continue to be popular while other faddish stunts come and go. He argued that everyone eats, so it is easy to be truly impressed. Only someone who plays tennis can appreciate one of Serena Williams’ backhand passing shots. Only someone who boxes can really be amazed by Ali’s footwork. Everybody eats, so we all know how astonishing it is to watch someone choke down six pounds of baked beans in under two minutes.

The tipsy college girls from our table had heard there was a corn dog eating contest and materialized next to me, shaking each other’s shoulders and shouting. The camera guy on the hover board swayed back and forth in front of the contestant table to get a final shot as the end drew near. People everywhere screamed and hooted.

McLovin waggled a stripped hot dog in the face of black V-neck, who was trying to deal with the massive ball of batter created from all three corn dogs. He smooshed it together as tight as he could and took a giant bite. The people in the crowd shrieked in shock and disgust. The rest of the contestants seemed confused by his decision and stopped chewing to watch him with their cheeks puffed out.

With the final swig of beer, McLovin swallowed his last bite of batter and grinned. As this was an amateur contest, there was no official timekeeper, but the whole event was shorter than the Kentucky Derby.

McLovin raised both his arms, pumping the “rock-on” gesture. He ducked his head to don the beer-pocket sash. The other contenders grinned and applauded their new king. The guy with glasses attempted to clap while still eating his third corn dog.

When the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest was finally set to a standard 10-minute format in the 80s, the average number of hot dogs the winner disposed of was in the low teens. In recent years, the number has more than quadrupled and remains somewhere near the high 60s, topping out with the 70 Joey “Jaws” Chestnut ate in 2016. So much has changed during the last 30 years that not only has the number of ingested calories sky-rocketed, but the audience has exploded to over 35,000 visitors and millions of TV viewers.

Glancing around at the cheering crowd, everyone seemed to be filming with their iPhone 6s, paying each other back for food on Venmo, or ordering Uber rides home. I realized how different this future was from the one I was promised. I thought about the long-ago time when it felt like endless possibilities stretched before me. I felt a pang for the days before the internet and student loans, when dozens of games of MASH predicted that I would marry Jonathan Taylor Thomas, when entry-level jobs didn’t require three years of experience, and when the direst financial consequence I faced was a dollar fine if I didn’t return my Blockbuster videos on time.

I bit into the last piece of my bacon-wrapped corn dog and closed my eyes. Tomorrow, these trucks would be gone and replaced with the regularly-scheduled Very Vegan Sundays. But today, I was back on the fairgrounds of my childhood, where the American dream could be achieved by just showing up determined, because patriotism could be measured in hot dogs, a 44-year-old contest could celebrate its 100th anniversary, and defeating a god was as simple as eating a wooden plate.