Behind the Bun: Inside the 2016 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest

July 7, 2016

by Mary Bowers

Eva looked happily up at me as she held her hand in mine, as we walked through mid-town Manhattan. “I have three best friends in the world and you are my bestest one”, she said.

The streets were calm on July 3rd, as America awaited the July 4th holiday.

“I have to get going soon. It’s almost my bedtime,” I told her. “Tomorrow is an early day.”

“But why can’t they let you sleep in? You’re so tired!”

She’s six, going on sixteen and nothing slips by her. Eva was right. I had arrived on the redeye from Los Angeles earlier that morning and the sleep had been far from restful. The nights that preceded had been filled with preparations, training, and a fair dose of nerves.

“There are going to be lots of people and cameras waiting for me. If I am late, there will be nothing for them to see”, I explained.

My friend nodded with understanding and reached for a hug. “I love you, always”, she whispered.

With words of encouragement echoing in my ears, I headed back to the hotel.

July 4th was only hours away. I was ready to meet my destiny, once again.

The morning arrived both earlier and later than I expected, but Angela was right on time. “Let’s get this hot dog hat onto your head!”, she cheerfully greeted me at my door.

Twenty pins later, she had convinced me that my accessories were not going to become condiments by dropping into my impending lunch.

“That’s not going anywhere. You’re stuck!” She gave one last pull to my braids and we were on our way.

“You’re nuts!”

A familiar voice crossed the lobby and Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez soon followed it. Quite the pairing as a hot dog stand and a spangled patriotic wrestler, we’d have no problem winning a costume contest on Halloween. But this was the 4th of July and the battle we were about to face was much, much harder than any that happens on October 31st.

Only one year prior, Matt Stonie had claimed his first Nathan’s Famous Men’s Title by consuming 62 Hot Dogs and Buns in 10 minutes; Miki Sudo won the Ladies’ Title with 38.

Yep, I am definitely nuts. But sanity is overrated.

I’ve never understood why they give the competitors a party bus for the ride to Coney Island. Most gurgitators are getting ready, focusing on what is ahead – Joey Chestnut, especially. To call him “intense” in the moments before a contest would be like comparing a whale to a guppy. His presence could fill an ocean. There is polite chatter, but no party.

The rhythm of tires on aging pavement comes to an end and is replaced by the hum of the crowd outside.

We’ve reached our destination. Coney Island, Brooklyn, New York. For some of us, it’s an annual return home. For others, the intensity of the contest will reverse fortunes and they will never again ascend to hot dog glory.

Together, we cross from bus to bullpen through a tunnel of cameras, fans, and fluttering banners in red, white, and blue.

There is little time to adjust to our new surroundings.

“Fifteen minute warning! Ladies, you’re almost up.”

It’s a quick check in the mirror, one last smear of the lip gloss I will soon eat, and I’m ready to go. I’m a warrior, a gladiator, a beast in ketchup and mustard stilettos.

Dat-do-do-DO-do. Dat-do-do. DO-do. Music pulses from the speakers and I know I am next on the catwalk.

“Smile! Wave! Don’t trip. Don’t trip. Don’t trip,” I think to myself as I pause and pose. My inner dialog is usually a well-hidden anxiety attack.

“Phew! I didn’t bite it. I’m at the table.” My inner dialog can shut up, now.

I pour my coffee into sunshine yellow cups, greet the judges, and find a smiling Angela in front of my place.

One. Deep. Breath.

“Ten, nine, eight… Eat! “

The familiar taste of hot dog reaches my mouth as quickly as curse words leave it. (Sorry, Mom.) It’s less than a minute in and I know I’m off pace.

The mindreader that she is, I hear a voice in the crowd. “Pick up the pace!”

Thanks, Angela.

“F—! What did I DO to that bun?!”, I think. This isn’t going well. It’s not going badly, but I know I can do better. I’ve done better!

“Three, two, one… PUT DOWN YOUR Hot DAAAWGS!”

It’s George Shea, on the mic. It’s George Shea, in my brain. He’s like a conscience in a boaters hat, combined with a carnival barker.

“How many, Miss Bowers?”

Major League Eating’s Sam Barclay glances at me as I look down at my plates. I’m disappointed.

Eight point five. A wave of pride and embarrassment wash over me in the very same moment and I wish there were a name for the emotion. Eightpointfive. Maybe that’s what I’ll call that feeling.

My conscience is back at the microphone. He sounds like he has a bullhorn.

“In FIRST PLACE! With 38.5 hot dogs and buns, it’s Miki Sudo!”

I head back to the bullpen, where Juan More Bite eagerly awaits.

“How’d you do?”, he asks.

Eightpointfive. I hate this feeling.

“Bad dogs?”, he says, sympathetically.

“No.” I look down at the floor. “This one is all me. It’s on me.”

Eightpointfive.

“30 minute warning! Men on stage in 30!”, a voice shouts out.

I lift my head and look back at Juan. “You’ll do well. You’ve got this.”

Five seasons in, the words have become a ritual.

“You’ve got this.”

It’s a wonder that I am able to walk in heels when my mind is spinning. Maybe it’s because my world starts spinning, too. I make my way out to the crowd to watch the men’s contest.

“USA! USA!”

“Jo-ey! JO-EY!”

The fans have picked their pony.

Have you ever wondered what it would look like to see a tyrannosaurus do battle with a lion?

Me neither, but the showdown between Joey and Stonie was just that.

Joey Chestnut, 70. Matt Stonie, 53.

The tyrannosaurus dominated the table.

“Mary! Mary!”

I turn to reply to the voices behind me and almost end up with a mouthful of microphone. At least it’s not hot dog.

“Does this mean I am the first post-contest interview with the Finks?”, I ask the familiar hosts of the Fink Beats the Stomach podcast.

“Will you?”, James and Mikey look at me hopefully.

“Of course,” I say, smiling at them.

I’m nearly finished with the interview. I’m ready to get back to feeling eightpointfive.

“Hi, I’m from the New York Times. Do you mind if I ask you a few questions?”

A young woman with a pad of paper and a pen has wiggled her way through the crowd.

“How do you feel about the women’s contest receiving significantly less coverage than the men’s?”

A different, but still nameless emotion bubbles into my awareness. Every woman knows the feeling far too well. It’s not eightpointfive.

I’m a warrior, a gladiator, a beast in ketchup and mustard stilettos once again.

“Mary! Mary!”

“Hey! Hey! Over heeere!”

“Can you please take a picture with me?”

As I greet the world in photographs, sweet memories of funnel cakes and summer fairs with my dad flash through my mind. I wonder what he would think of the madness, how he would feel about the magic my life has become. It seems so surreal.

At last, the crowd dissipates and I can breathe again.

“Hey, Angela! How long have I been out here?”, I ask.

“About an hour, judging by the clock.”

She gestures to the Wall of Fame, where legends of the sport keep watch. They are the guardians of Coney Island.

364 Days, 21 hours, 19 minutes, and 12 seconds until we do it all again.

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