What is the universe but a steaming frankfurter? An ever-expanding, over-cooked, tubular behemoth filled with all manner of unholy mysteries. Boiled down, are we not all just the semisolid, cured raw skeletal meat filling that gives the thin skin of existence meaning?
What is it about a hot dog that makes us wax poetic? Their unsettling mystique? Their oddly-resonant symbolic value? Their phallic shape? This mystery meat is a constant of the last century, a common denominator in perpetual socio-political turbulence. It’s a catalyst for regional galvanization. It’s the meat product that launched a thousand “metaphor for America” jibes—a combination of indomitable, heart-clogging, and endearingly stomach-turning that can only be celebrated ironically. German immigrants brought the time-honored art of the frankfurter across the Atlantic, but we gave it its asinine and unshakable, pop-culture referencing, tongue-in-cheek moniker(s). The first food-cart vendors put the wieners in buns—better to grip and gorge, no utensils or seating accommodations required, ideal for gnarled, grease-stained hands before they’re put back to work on heavy machinery.
Like the eponymous meat byproduct it celebrates, the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is a nigh-incoherent jumble of elements—leftover trimmings from sporting event clichés wetted with liberal amounts of distracting pageantry condiments to mask the flavor. At various points it gives itself over to the athletic competition banalities—heartfelt, semi-sincere, saccharine interviews with the competitors, backstory montages, underdog narratives and puns, enthusiastic crowds, glowing celebrations of the noble history of the thing, validations of its explosion in popularity. Then it turns itself inside out—a largely uneventful slow-boil finally becomes the processed comfort food “Roman method incident” it was always meant to be. The thin veil was never going to obscures how this sausage gets made.
If we break down the idea of sport to its bare essence—a physical test of the human body—the hot dog contest clearly qualifies. In this modern age of spectacle and hyperbole, think of the hot dog eating contest as a sport like any other, but stripped of all dignity and prestige, and with the air of desperation embraced rather than relegated to the fringes. It’s a ritualistic contest, it’s an hour-long Nathan’s commercial, and it tests the limits of the human body in the most self-destructive and arbitrary way. It’s a correlative to the food competition boom of the last half-decade packed into a fleet, discomfiting, gonzo hour-long special. This, indeed, was some of the best eating weather we’d seen in some time—the heavens were smiling down approvingly on this cavalcade.
The sheepishly absurd underbelly of this beast takes hold in the back-half as the barker’s voice cuts through the bullshit. The budget for this thing is clearly lacking; in the limitations, its ambitions emerge: a legitimate test of dedicated eaters’ gastrointestinal mettle vying against a modest spectacle willing to fall over itself to entertain and celebrate its own ridiculous existence, and the depravity of the human experiment. Where Ripley’s Believe It or Not was grave and silly and cheap, the hot dog contest is open and minimal and self-aware. It is tasked with the odd charge of ogling grown men eating days’ worth of calories in a ten-minute span, a disturbing proposition by most measures, and it awkwardly tries to do so with grace. It focuses on the numbers, distracting from the grotesquerie, sure, but it doesn’t shy away from the ugly business of hot dog gristle and sopping buns. There’s some kind of balance going on here, making this hot dog-filled day light on its feet. Food porn is combined with whatever the opposite of that is. It’s the stuff that sodium-fueled fever dreams are made of.
Few can resist the animal magnetism of the hot dog; the meat cylinder has felled titans. Emcee George Shea belts it to the rafters, his tremor only amplifying his righteous zeal. The hot dog becomes an undeniable force. “There’s something about a hot dog,” the superfluous commentator for the event matter-of-factly stated, almost acquiescing that the English language can’t quite do a frank justice, nor should it try. Hot dogs exist at the precipice, a liminal plane of existence where hunger overpowers reason. Where do these ends circle back around? Why is it desirable to watch people punish their bodies like this? Is it freak show logic? Is it awe of the sheer impossibility of the hedonistic feats? Some grotesque, untenable combination of these two extremes? The showcase never reconciles this lingering media indigestion, keeping its eyes fixed on the pursuit of that esophageal four-minute mile—70 hot dogs, finally eclipsed at this century mark. Indeed, “we’ve left the contingent world and entered the metaphysical.”
Rarely is the superhuman so visceral and fraught. Each year, it’s a platform for self-aware bombast, but it never gets any bigger, it never really evolves beyond its modest britches; and despite the laudable and often inspiringly ludicrous grasps at poetic grandeur, it never takes itself very seriously. Each contestant is fitted with incredible mythologies and origin stories, tales that clearly contrast the costumed, camera-shy, ill-looking bodies that saunter up on stage. Obliquely ethically aware in its insincerity, it’s a fundamental animal function as an inelegant endurance test. The quest for the mustard belt is a battle of east vs. west and is littered with light-misogyny. The slapdash crowd adorns the festivities with idiosyncratic signage—off-putting mid-bite likenesses of fan favorites, American flags with a single hot dog in place of the field of stars—dancing hot dogs appear at random, and a giant cerebral-cortex-shredding hot-dog cake for the centennial appears and is never spoken of again. A century in, the contest has grown into this modest, malformed beast—a sharp-but-glorious nosedive that parallels the food item’s trajectory from imperial coronation banquets to us. The hot dog is indeed a bellwether for the shape of the modern world.
To eat is human, so they say. Earlier this year, Myles McNutt’s #emptycupawards blip opened a fissure in the delicate-yet-distended façade of film and TV. The movement crystallized many things: our obsessive lampshading of minutiae, our ability to detect infinitesimal behavioral inconsistencies, the strange ersatz things our media tries to pull over on us in the name of faux-verisimilitude, the lies of method acting, the day-to-day objects we hide behind, etc. Above all, as fellow members of our species eat and drink, we scrutinize them like hyenas looking for scraps, and it’s immensely satisfying and fun-house reflexive. There are but two things I will do every Fourth: watch Independence Day on repeat and watch the absurd mirror that is the hot dog eating contest. They are, in fact, flip-sides of the same hammy, epicurean coin. We hold these truths to be self-evident. Watching people eat is existentially unpleasant. Watching humans stuff mountains of cured chimera-meats in a masochistic display of excess is sublime.
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.