In the past twenty years, the entire concept of food has become glamorized from start to finish of the process. For time immemorial food has been intertwined with sport — but that was a matter of fans eating and athletes competing, the owners trying to turn an extra few bucks on hungry rubes at astronomical profit margins.
What has been at the forefront of all that change? If we trace back the seminal moments that showed us just how completely that cuisine — from creation to digestion — could be turned into competition, two major imports from across the Pacific forever altered the world of food as sport.
One was a cooking competition on a scale that was so big that even a casual sports fan could appreciate just how hard the guys were working in the kitchen to produce dishes that looked like sculptures on porcelain. We’ll talk more about that next week. For the first installment of Global Turnstile’s new column celebrating the crossroads of the culinary and the competitive, we’re going to look at a wholly different Japanese import — the first truly-professional competitive eaters…
The Nathan’s Famous World Hot Dog Eating Championship started in 1916 with the opening of the iconic restaurant on Coney Island. That Fourth of July day, as World War I raged on overseas and everyone was dripping with patriotic pride, four immigrants battled at the restaurant to set the standard for every gluttonous battler to come. James Mullen, an Irishman, won the honors by downing 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes.
The contest waged on year after year, with the format shifting around with the times and nobody ever really taking it seriously. As recently as 1980, when Paul Siederman and Joe Baldini staged the first “eat-off” tiebreaker, the co-winners finished just 9 hot dogs in ten minutes. Everyone among the scattered throng out on Coney Island had a great time, but it was more of a sideshow as part of the holiday than an event unto itself. Nobody was really thinking about records, just enjoying the moment and seeing what their stomachs could withstand.
Two decades ago, Frank Dellarosa became the first man to go over twenty dogs in the contest when he polished off 21½ dogs in the requisite time frame of ten minutes. The 1991 contest, the 75th Bacchanalian Battle on the Isle, was still pretty much an all-American battle. Dellarosa’s feat was considered freakish, pushing the boundaries of human anatomy near their bursting point. He would win again the next year, eating 19 dogs this time to fall just short of that mythical mark.
Mike “The Scholar” Devito, the 1990 winner, supplanted Dellarosa to take up the mustard belt a second time in 1993. After reclaiming the title, the accountant-by-day from New Jersey would defend his title by polishing off exactly 20 hot dogs on Independence Day 1994 — becoming just the second man to devour as many. At 6’2″ and 200 pounds, he was hardly the prototype of the time when it came to eaters. But even then he was large enough that twenty was starting to seem one of those feasible numbers.
Devito wouldn’t manage the three-peat, though, as Ed “The Animal” Krachie came in with a more traditional eater’s physique in 1995 and downed 19½ hot dogs to win the title but fall just short of becoming the next 20-dog winner. He would return in 1996 eager to take the world record, and the 320-pound dynamo from Queens arrived at Nathan’s ready to eat. Taking down 22¼ hot dogs in 12 minutes, he set a new world record with his speed binge.
It was a glorious era for American eaters, as they were starting to set some serious records and gaining prominence in the public eye. Three straight repeat winners had taken the previous physical limits and laughed at them, breaking down the wall and pushing beyond it to expand their stomachs and our minds…
But then the Japanese invasion took full force. The serious competition never really did heat up until the Japanese took the sport of competitive eating by storm in the mid-1990s. Before that, the hot dog contests and the Wing Bowl for those throwaway bits of chicken and all the other gustatory competitions were sideshows, remnants of the carnival-barker-and-freak-show days of yesteryear that persevered on into a modern era despite themselves. It was a showcase for the most indulgent in our obese society to wolf down more than their fair share for the delight of a simultaneously awed and disgusted crowd.
The most fearsome competitive eater in the world stands only 5’8″. He weighs 135 pounds. His waist is 30 inches. You look at him and you think, I spot this guy a pork shank and I still beat him. Yet this polite waif has made giant men bury their faces in their napkins in agony, struck terror in the stomachs of sumo wrestlers and given all-you-can-eat noodle-shop owners facial tics…
The man Reilly was writing about could easily have been Takeru Kobayashi, the six-time Nathan’s winner who fits the description right down to the measurements. But the dateline predates the eccentric eater from Nagano; this isn’t an eater who most casual sports fans would remember. It was Hirofumi Nakajima who was the groundbreaker of the competitive eating movement overseas, coming over five months to the day after Krachie’s victory on the Fourth of July and stunning the world-record holder. A December hot dog battle in Central Park between the two saw Nakajima break the world record by one full dog over the mark.
He went even further in the 1997 Nathan’s final, the first to get over two dozen with his 24½-dog effort to extend his world record even further and become the first human to down two dozen dogs — eating at more than a two-dog-a-minute pace to get there. Another repeat was destined, and Nakajima took the 1998 Nathan’s to fulfill that streak. But it would be a Pyrrhic victory, as the man from Kofu stepped back below the 20-dog mark that was quickly becoming the Mendoza line of hot-dog gluttony.
At that point, Americans were still in the hunt — two dozen hot dogs was a feat considered extreme yet not out of the realm of possibility. But if the American stomachs were still physically capable, the sight of seeing a lithe Asian outeat them had made some of the best domestic digesters shut down mentally.
When asked by the New York Times how a guy who he more than doubled in size managed to wrest away the mustard belt, Krachie could only say, “I was shocked. Everybody was. Some people say he has two stomachs. Some say he used Zen. For me, it’s also mind over matter. Once you eat 12 or 13 hot dogs, you sort of hit the wall. Your body is telling you not to eat any more. But you still can.”
Nakajima would cede the throne in 1999 to Steve Keiner, though it wears an asterisk. Eating half a dog before the time had started, Keiner technically should have been disqualified. Instead, he was officially credited with 20¼ and pulled off the massive upset. Lightning wouldn’t strike twice for the Egg Harbor Township native, as Kazutoyo Arai would be the next Japanese starter to extend the world record, downing an even 25 in 2000 to put the American back in his place.
That 2000 battle, the last of the 21st century, would fully illuminate the revolution in competitive eating. For the first time in Nathan’s history, no American even stood on the final podium. Instead the Japanese flag conquered all. In addition to Arai’s 25, second place went to Misao Fujita and his 24 hot dogs; the bronze spot would be taken by Takako Akasaka, who with 22¼ hot dogs set the women’s record and showed the form that had allowed her to defeat both Arai and Nakajima in televised eating battles back in Japan.
That 2000 podium sweep would prove just a prelude to the arrival on American soil of the first truly global star of competitive eating. Takeru Kobayashi, at 5’8” and 130 pounds, looks nothing like the guy who could eat you out of house and home. If he were a Simpsons character, you would think more of Akira the waiter than the man who polished off the Sir-Loin-A-Lot challenge, Reliable Red Barclay. Yet there he was in the 2001 edition, a scrappy 23-year-old making his compatriot look silly with an effort that doubled the world record at 50 hot dogs.
It was a mind-blower. Nobody ever expected that somebody could consume a hot dog every twelve seconds consistently over the course of the competition. And yet there Kobayashi was, gulping down the tubesteaks with reckless abandon and redefining the stakes for a new generation of competitors. He would replicate his feat in 2002, taking it a half-dog further, and repeat each of the next two years. In 2003 he slacked off below the pace of the past few championships with “just” 44½ — yet still ate half again what his runner-up challenger could consume. Atoning for that sin in 2004, with just himself and history to battle, he eclipsed his own world record a second time with 53½ hot dogs and his fourth straight title.
In 2005, Kobayashi was still secure enough in his status as the king of competitive eating that he could stay under fifty hot dogs and still win. That year, Sonya Thomas set both the female and outright American records with 37 hot dogs — and still fall a dozen short of the Japanese maven’s mark. But the next year would finally see somebody really rise up as a legitimate challenger, the first real international showdown between equals in the ring of battle.
2006 would still be a good year for Kobayashi. He was finally pushed to break his record a third time, eating 53¾ hot dogs to stave off the charge of Joey Chestnut, a brash 23-year-old American who had finally provided that long-sought challenger that might stave off the string of Japanese successes in the decidedly Yankee institution of hot dog consumption. Chestnut would stomach 52 hot dogs, the first of his nation — and the first besides Kobayashi himself — to eclipse the mythical fifty barrier and prove that it wasn’t the mark of one all-consuming anomaly.
The streak would end at six, though, as Chestnut grabbed the torch as his own with a display that pushed the limits even further out of reach than previously imagined. The young man from Vallejo, California pushed both himself and his Japanese doppelganger past another unfathomable plateau. Kobayashi would set the Japanese record by eating 63 hot dogs, nearly ten over his world record of the previous year, yet it would not be enough. Chestnut, now 24, had mowed down platter after platter en route to 66 hot dogs, putting the belt back into native hands for the first time in nearly a decade.
It would spark a feud as fierce as anything waged between Nadal and Federer on the courts of Grand Slams from Melbourne to Flushing Meadows, or in the ring between Ali and Frazier, as cataclysmic and intense as the crack of pads between offensive and defensive linemen on football fields around the United States every autumn. It was also the spark that would propel competitive eating into the next echelon, spurring the formation of Major League Eating under the auspices of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. In 2009 the two would duel for another record, Chestnut getting the better of things once again with 68 dogs and Kobayashi falling short yet breaking his own domestic record with 64½.
But the formation of a league, alas, also changed things for both better and worse. Because while the league legitimizes things further as sport, and helps both the superstars and the journeymen who fill out the fields and eat intense (yet not championship) amounts achieve financial security and the ability to really train like they have never had before, it also has created a schism. In 2010 Kobayashi was handcuffed and escorted away by the police after a heated altercation at the Nathan’s Hot Dog Championship. After being refused entry following his own refusal to sign a contract with Major League Eating, Kobayashi watched with disgust as Chestnut — feeling just like his old rival did in 2003 and 2005 — paced himself to an uninspiring win well off the record pace without anyone to challenge him before causing a scene in the aftermath. Like Kobayashi a half-decade before, Chestnut was beating the field by a dozen dogs in a go.
Without the rivalry, neither man found himself to be as great as he was without his counterpart. Without Chestnut, Kobayashi would have lost the drive to eat much sooner and competitive eating would have continued its low-impact niche existence. Without Kobayashi, Chestnut has found himself lacking that push to continue striving for greater and greater feats. Their rivalry drove the development of a league to legitimize their sport, even as they found their personal interests heading in divergent directions.
In the end, though, we wouldn’t be at the point where competitive eaters could argue over major-league contracts without the Japanese invasion of the Nathan’s contest. Without the feats of the trio of record-breakers from across the Pacific, there would never have been the incentive for Joey Chestnut to step up to bat for the home team on Independence Day. There would be no annual questions about who would toe the line behind a tower of tubesteaks. We wouldn’t wonder what Kobayashi was doing on a rooftop in midtown Manhattan downing dogs remotely along with the guys on Coney Island, defiantly continuing to stand against a contract he felt too restrictive to allow the flexibility that name recognition needs to profit fully.
The Japanese stars of competitive eating continue a tradition decades old in their own country, carrying on the torch into the future and continuing to stretch the boundaries of just how much the human body can digest. By systematically altering the perception that bigger is better behind a plate of food, the string of Japanese successes only served to transform competitive eating — from a fun way to gorge without guilt, to a serious multimillion-dollar industry piped into homes via major sports media, without Nakajima and the rest that followed in his wake it all would’ve remained the same quaint small-time contest that would have still looked familiar to the original winners…
Be sure to tune in next week for the second part of this two-part look at how Japan changed the face of food competitions during the 1990s.