We’re a few weeks away from that great Fourth Of July tradition, the annual Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest at Coney Island, and the Atlantic’s Gabriel Miller uses the occasion to let everyone know that, well, he’s kinda grossed out. “What kind of well-founded sport,” asks Miller, “calls attention to such gluttony and the revolting digestive processes of the human body?” Hopefully one that’s safer than professional football!
The Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition, debuted on live television a decade ago and will draw more than 35,000 people to Coney Island, but the sport—and this term is debatable—lacks any semblance of physical grace or athletic form. Its winners take in very little cash and their celebrity is limited to a niche group of competitive eating fanatics. Why, then, would anyone risk public humiliation, potential damage to long-term health, and a grueling training routine to perform an activity which, to some, serves a gimmicky marketing need and, even worse, a conspicuous display of American gluttony.
Juliet Lee (above), a 48-year-old Chinese immigrant who owns a hair salon near College Park, Maryland, was struggling to keep her mouth closed as she stuffed handfuls of chicken scraps into her cheeks. Because there isn’t much time to chew, Lee downs tennis ball-sized clumps of food with water before digging back into her bowl. The audience’s response alternated between cheering her on and grunting with disgust as they wondered if, just maybe, she might puke it all out.
As Lee’s 100-pound body heaved, I couldn’t help wondering whether my fascination with her public eating was oddly sadistic. Here was a woman—a small-business owner, a mother of two teenage girls, someone with no evident or outward antisocial behavior—voluntarily compromising her body and exhibiting her physical vulnerabilities in front of hundreds of screaming watchers. The voracity and determination with which she devoured her chicken made me uncomfortable: How much humiliation will one go through for competition?