Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest: More than Just Competitive Eating

A brief look at the intertwined associations between Competitive Eating, Mukbang and THE King – Kobayashi Takeru.

A hazy summer day, I set out for Coney Island in Brooklyn on the Fourth of July. I worried about making it to the women’s set on time but was pleasantly surprised when I walked out of the subway and found a great vantage point for the contest. It was on a slight angle, and at that time – around 10 am- the sun was still hiding behind thick knitted blankets of clouds. In the sky, planes flew overhead carrying aerial advertisements at their tail. There was one for Dunkin Donuts, which seemed to have worked because the people who assembled and stood next to me had hot cups of coffee on a humid, 95°F day.

For the entire subway ride over, I thought about how I got to this point. I kept smiling and then catching the eye of someone – which caused me to quickly turn away. I didn’t want to be that weird person who was so obviously in their own world, they became a target for something bad. So I stayed alert and thought about how for years – I’d waited for this moment. Finally, I had a chance and free time to do something I’d always wanted – See Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest live.

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Early 2000s, the heyday of MTV’s television programming. Do you remember those days? Where you actually watched music videos for hours and they were legitimately enjoyable? Without cringe?

Before the era of Spotify and YouTube streaming to inflate artists numbers and earn them an easy spot on the Billboard Top 100, TV show docs like Fat Camp, I Used to Be Fat, and (to an extent) Jersey Shore ruled the network’s ratings. Of course, Catfish: The TV Show came along -but MTV’s True Life laid the foundations for its success.

As I’ve mentioned in past posts, Japanese culture had a huge impact on me growing up. In middle school, I was bullied and rediscovered anime late at night on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Reruns of Fullmetal Alchemist and Inuyasha crept into the speakers of my tv during the wee hours of the morn. I loved Inuyasha’s OP, or opening song. I think the episodes were frequently shown out of order, but there was some semblance in that it was at least the same season – just jumbled.

There was a popular Hot Topic in my local mall. A lot of stores I grew up with closed at the same time due to rising rent prices for the locale. Before it did, I brought a FMA red hoodie that I wore to death – in fact, I still have it. I enjoyed shopping there since they often had anime-related items because they were as “edgy” as the ever popular Invader Zim merchandise; so the selection was always plentiful. Viva La Bam was also popular in this era, so there were a plethora of wristbands with his strange heart in what looked like a hanger symbol.

Soon after that purchase in high school, I started working at a store (my first job) that was a subsidiary of Hot Topic’s parent company.

One of the cashiers in my local store – I don’t know if it was racism, discrimination of youth, or a general dislike – always accused me of stealing things so I stopped going. I had ceased frequenting the location for a few months, but since I had an employee discount I went back in with some friends. I purchased a few things and when I arrived to work that day I was told that I had been fired. The cashier accused me of stealing and called corporate headquarters on me. They never checked the cameras, apparently her word was just that good.

My manager and the staff scheduled that day cried and kept apologizing that they had to let me go; we had become a family. I was supposed to go with them down south to watch them get new designs at a tattoo parlor edgy employees frequented. But it was corporate and I was a new employee – their hands were tied. I was fifteen.

I’m not going to talk about sad things, it was just a memory that surfaced while writing. I’d like to talk about something (arguably) happier. Mr. Takeru Kobayashi.

First, let’s look at our current cultural climate and relationship with food.  A few years back there was this huge controversy surrounding Travel Channel show Man vs Food and its host, Adam Richman.  Richman was an amateur competitive eater who took on local diner and college campus challenges across The States. Early retirement and Instagram rants aside, we shouldn’t ignore what his show did for pop culture and acceptance surrounding the sport of competitive eating in America – which arguably was inspired by mukbang.

Korean Mukbang channels and eating shows have gained a lot of popularity over the years. Mainly because people are lonely, although some speculate that it’s some sort of weird fetish (…that we’ll explore another day).

A mukbang is when an individual records or live streams themselves eating large quantities of food while interacting with viewers. Although we are all ‘plugged in’ and connected by technology, as people we pretend to have much better lives than we actually do.

The stunt culture is especially big in the digital nomad, travel blogger and wanderlust communities but only because they have to sell a dream. So taking photos one day and spacing them out for a week on an Instagram feed for the lonely office worker who is drinking coffee and eating fast food miserable on their undeservedly short mandated break becomes a beacon of hope for some. I can’t speak for anyone personally, but having been on both ends – the miserable worker dreaming of something different and now the traveler trying to seem more active than I really am – I can understand both sides. I can see the appeal of not wanting to eat alone. Of not wanting to be alone, even.

Many Korean women (like Japanese women) seem to be on infinite diets and would like to ‘share a meal’ with someone without actually eating.  I remember going to buy a bento for lunch during my shoujo girl life and chatting with the usual cashier about the ingredients due to my allergies. The cashier eagerly kept telling me that the translucent speckled gelatinous blobs in a corner of the box were ‘konnyaku’ and had no calories so I could eat lots of it. I asked a co-worker about the food later that day and she mentioned that it was a popular diet side dish – especially in the summer.

This, coupled with the ironic popularity of competitive eating in East Asia, brought about the rise of Mukbang on YouTube. Japan also has a huge market for the sport, dubbing competitors as Food Fighters or Oogui (大食い) “Big Eaters”. One of the most popular Oogui eaters happens to be Kinoshita Yuka.

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YouTube Personalities like Kinoshita Yuka, ロシアン佐藤 *, Furious Pete and Matt “Megatoad” Stonie rose to the occasion. But before this, existed the eternal king – the undisputed before the organization allegedly did everything in their power to dethrone him because he was not “American” – Kobayashi.

* (A quick tidbit on Russian Sato, or Russian Hat – she enjoyed wearing Russian hats in her earlier videos similar to how JackSepticEye wore a scally Irish flat cap in his earlier videos. This was before he dyed his hair green after Markiplier lost a bet and dyed his red and a plethora of mediocre YT ‘Gamers’ dyed their hair varying degrees and shades of the rainbow and told themselves it was because they were creative artists and not just unoriginal screamers.

*Jack realized he hated it and reverted back to his original brown color to fit back into society. He made a remark in one of his videos that mentioned how tired he was of the stares when out in public. It must have been a huge identifier for the private personality. Gosh, can you tell I’d been deep into YouTube for a long time?)

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I became a big fan of Matt Stonie on YouTube. I enjoyed the playful tone of his challenge videos and his family’s presence; the voice of his mom laughing at him, or his brother’s heavy California accent counting a challenge down. The balancing of a phone on a bunch of bananas to use the timer and it falling down midway. It seemed very authentic and uncommercial. Just a guy with a supportive family having fun enjoying a hobby that became his current profession.

In early 2006, MTV released a True Life Episode titled “I’m a Competitive Eater” which focused on profiling three eaters: Tim “Eater X” Janus, Ian “The Invader” Hickman, and Takeru “The Tsunami” Kobayashi. There was also an appearance by Eric “Badlands” Booker, who is still going strong at Nathan’s competitions each year and even has a rap career. Eater X received a shout out at this year’s festivities, but sadly he did not attend.

I started following the Nathan’s Famous Contest over the years, watching the highlights on the news after finishing the live stream. Each year Kobayashi completely dominated the competition and each year the league seemed wary about it. A foreigner continually dominating an All-American contest in the heart of Brooklyn? How could that be? It couldn’t go on.

And so it did not.

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Kobayashi is credited with raising the bar in regards to what the competition has become today. His method of dunking bread into cups to soften it and make it easier to digest is the determining factor of his success. In the documentary, he often spoke about Japanese markets not carrying American hot dogs so he made due with what was available – Japanese style sausages. Before his appearance on American circuits, he completed food challenges in his native country. The Tsunami ate a record 50 hot dogs during the allotted time – forever changing the perception of gastronomy limits.

So, where is Takeru Kobayashi now?

He was forced out for allegedly not signing an exclusive contract with Major League Eating. This meant that if he did sign, he could not make outside appearances and it would severely limit his income. So he left, and even held his own contest to stick it to the league.

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I wish I could say that the atmosphere associated with the annual competition has changed, but sadly it hasn’t. During the women’s set, World Champion Miki Sudo was assembling her set up before the contest began. MC George Shea kept making these out of place comments that made Sudo seem like a diva. Blaming their late start on her needing water, and during the competition commenting on her appearance while eating. Comments in the vein of “oh, her ponytail is swinging she’s getting angry now!” and things to that effect. There were no comments like this during the men’s set. Also, the late starts had been attributed to ESPN’s connection concerning the live stream. Shea later admitted after a plethora of time killing performances and dances that the network yelled at him last time he didn’t follow their orders.

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Maybe I was being too sensitive, but as things progressed…it just rubbed me the wrong way.

It’s been extremely hot here in New York. With little to no cloud cover, many of us in the crowd were sweating under the beat of the summer sun.  Many people didn’t show up to the women’s set, which I found to be a shame. The crowd for the women was amicable and no one was pushy. As the day went on, the police presence increased and the rowdy crowds assembled – drunk and tired and sunburnt red.

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A women with rainbow colored hair pushed her way to my side and repeatedly knocked into me until she got annoyed and decided to walk away. A woman with a forward facing backpack and a kind smile stood to my left. We frequently made gestures and talked about the unmannered people who engulfed us. A woman to my right kept trying to move my bag and place her oversized purse on the sliver of a corner available from a bench. On the bench, a women kept putting up a black umbrella, uncaring of who she hit. I pulled out my Canon camera – a past Christmas gift from my mother – and received a look from the oversized bag woman. You may know the look I’m talking about – the “how do you have that type of camera and you look like that?” type of look as she stared between my equipment and her iPhone.

Later as the men’s set came on, she decided to allow her son and daughter to push their way in front of the crowd who had been standing for hours towards the gates. Her son’s head was in 80% of my photos for the men’s set – something I saw her smile about. People can be petty, but it didn’t ruin my time. Especially since I’m sure she went home and suffered some intense sunburn.

I enjoy the spirit of competition but I don’t believe in the purposeful pitting against of one another in some sort of tribal sense of Americanism. Due to our current political climate in this country, I can’t help but point out the correlation between the police presence blocking the crowd’s view, rowdy young men booing every competitor that was not “American” in their eyes, and when Matt Stonie was introduced someone loudly shouting that he shouldn’t win because “he’s not even American”. He is a California native, but I assume they mean because he is haafu, or half Japanese half Western born and raised in America. An American competitor who is not, for some reason to these individuals, the same type of “All-American” poster boy Joey Chestnut seems to be for these fanboys. A young Japanese man was introduced as the “new Koybayashi” to the jeers of this crowd and cheers to myself and other well-wishers. I made it a habit of loudly applauding each and every competitor of color, despite the shoves and stares I received. I didn’t care, I didn’t think it was right to boo someone based on their ethnic descent or nationality.

(I’d also like to point out how hard it is to find a full name roster of the competitors online. Aside from the well-known pro eaters, I can hardly find anything else out.)

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Again, maybe I am being too sensitive.

At one point, there was a loud chant of “Free Kobi” to which the Emcee Shea – through his soliloquies, rap battles, and patriotism that felt like thinly veiled racism – paused after he caught wind of the cries. The police turned their attention to the crowd, and I was positive someone was going to be asked to leave. The presenter continued on speaking of how much he loved the atmosphere and his competitors. He played it off well, but I’m sure Nathan’s is still not able to live down the fact that Kobayashi was the best competitor they had ever seen and he was not a “Joey Chestnut”. And it truly burned them up inside.

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Behind schedule half an hour and baking in the sun due to technical difficulties regarding ESPN’s live stream, the men’s competition finally began. We all watched eagerly and shouted for our favorite competitor. When it was all said and done, there was a discrepancy regarding the final counts.

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Now if I remember correctly, Chestnut had around 50 hot dogs and the presenter kept taunting him that maybe the heat was too much, and the humidity had slowed the champ down. I had really detailed photos of the women’s set but because of crowds and other aforementioned factors – my photos of this particular set were lacking in visibility.

Suddenly, despite many referees who were made into a song and dance upon arrival, no one knew for certain how many hot dogs Chestnut and another competitor had eaten. Apparently, they had shared a plate without the barrage of ref’s noticing.  Stonie was out for the count, and there was heated deliberation until finally it was decided…Chestnut ate 74 hotdogs?

Joey Chestnut ate enough hot dogs for a new world record, but the contest was initially unsure if he really did set a new record?

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Needless to say, I left exhilarated that I knocked something off my bucket list – but I can’t help feeling that the games are a bit…biased and skewed for certain competitors.

Which isn’t really the spirit of Brooklyn nor Manhattan – cities full of transplants from the global community. I will most likely be attending next year if I don’t have other plans. I had a few other offers this year – some even romantic -but I decided instead to watch sweaty men and women shove hot dogs down their throats on a humid holiday.

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As I walked up to the subway platform and squeezed through an open door, I thought about the day and how happy I was that I went.

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My one hope is that the competition begins to realize that everyone enjoys the festivities and that you shouldn’t cater to just one type of person – especially when they seem to feel…entitled to see themselves represented and dominate anyone else who would like a shot at glory.

Did you attend the hot dog competition on Coney Island? Had you attended food competitions and events in the past? Do you have a favorite place in Brooklyn? Leave your thoughts in the comment section below, I’d love to hear from you! Also be sure to follow us for more updates on events around NYC.

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Author: In Asian Spaces

I write in my personal time and I haven't published much at all. I don't know if that qualifies me as a writer or not, but I'd like to change that. I have a deep passion for travel, cinema and (mainly) East Asian things, but I plan on writing various things to keep it spicy. Let's prosper together ~ よろしくおねがいします。

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