'Greatest achievement in the history of man'


And what is this greatest “achievement”? Neil Armstrong walking on the moon? Jonas Salk discovering the vaccine for polio? Steve Jobs creating the iPhone? Some Bronze Age dude inventing the wheel?

Apparently not. An ESPN anchor was hailing Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, 30, a New Yorker who ate 61 Nathan’s hot dogs in 10 minutes to win the annual July Fourth contest. The female winner was Miki Sudo, who ate 34 hot dogs in 10 minutes, defeating two-time champ Sonya “the Black Widow” Thomas.

I love to discover a parallel universe, and for me, competitive eating, family Thanksgivings aside, is a new world. Really, I don’t get it. There is actually an International Federation of Competitive Eating, with stringent rules. In the Nathan’s competition, for example, the hot dogs must be consumed with the buns. Eaters have learned that soaking the buns in water beforehand makes them more digestible. And disgusting, I would suggest.

The pictures do tell the story, as competitors stuff dog after dog into their mouths, swallowing as fast as they can. Various snapshots capture the players in mid-bite, with frankfurter stumps sticking out of their faces. Not exactly the same cachet as Armstrong planting the American flag in lunar soil.

Some say they train for the event, by doing stomach-stretching marathon eating and other gustatory exercises not fit for description in a family newspaper. None of this information makes me better understand the process, the motivation or the people who compete. Is it about their 15 minutes of fame? Is everyone good at something, even if it’s eating 61 hot dogs in 10 minutes?

The event seems particularly American in its good-hearted foolishness, its worship of overconsumption and its raw competitiveness.

I am hardly immune to the appeal of the hot dog. In my push for healthier foods and better diets for our children, I allow one glorious exception. We like to know every last calorie and additive and chemical in our meals, yet the frankfurter must remain exempt from analysis. Its historic origins are shrouded in mystery; its ingredients are ill-defined.

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