If you’re anything like me, you were a little disappointed when you heard that the big new event at the Fort Wayne Newspapers Three Rivers Festival this year was going to be a hot dog eating contest.
I guess I expected something a little bit flashier. Perhaps involving flashers.
But after I did a little research, I started to get excited.
The finals of the Dog and Suds’ Hot Dog Eating Competition happen in Headwaters Park right after the parade on Saturday.
The history of the hot dog is a tale filled with sound and fury (not to mention meat and spices).
At times it may have even been a tale filled with tails … and other choice cuts.
The hot dog’s precursor, the sausage, was mentioned as far back as the ninth century B.C. in Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey.”
I don’t remember the exact quote, but I think it involved Odysseus saying to his friend Larry, “Well if the Cyclops doesn’t die after we stab it with this fire spit here, we can always try hitting it over the head with this great honking sausage.”
The first person to stuff an empty intestine with ground meat, grains and spices was Gaius, chef to Emperor Nero Claudius Caesar. Before that, presumably, empty intestines were just strewn uselessly around the house, gathering dust.
The early Catholic Church purportedly banned sausage eating because of a Roman festival called Lupercalia, during which sausages were allegedly put to other uses than the mere gustatory.
A special sausage dubbed the frankfurter was developed in Frankfurt, Germany, in the 15th century. In the 1860s, it belatedly arrived in New York, where we can imagine that some native immediately tried to rename it the Manhattanfurter.
The first Coney Island stand was opened in Brooklyn around the turn of the century (as in the turning of the 19th to the 20th) by a butcher named Charles Feltman.
Feltman became a millionaire selling frankfurters. He credited warm buns with the success of his business and his marriage.
Hot dogs were so named by a newspaper cartoonist who was either celebrating the frankfurter or criticizing it (historians aren’t sure which).
In the 1920s, weenie roasts (parties at which guests brought their own hot dogs to roast over an open fire) became all the rage.
In the 1930s, the double entendre was invented in France and weenie roasts subsequently fell out of favor.
July is National Hot Dog month and over this holiday weekend alone 155 million hot dogs will be consumed, according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.
I’m not sure which is more surprising: that figure, or the fact that there’s actually an organization called the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council.
Hot dogs today are generally of a much higher quality than they were 80 years ago or so. People back then just never knew what was in a hot dog: snouts, grout, Mucilage, chiggers, stoppers, flanges, rinds and resins.
My guesses are as good as theirs were.
Now standards are as high as they are broad.
And competitive hot dog eating has become a lucrative, much-viewed and controversial sport.
The sport’s detractors think it’s disgusting and the sport’s supporters probably agree. The latter group is just more entertained by disgusting things than the former.
Three Rivers Festival executive director Shannon White says preliminary rounds have yielded 15 contestants who will compete Saturday. One of them is a 12-year-old girl.
“The funniest thing was that she was the one who made it in and the biggest guy there thought he was gonna win,” he says. “And he only ate three hot dogs. We’re laughing at him, saying he got beat by a 12-year-old girl.”
White says he thinks the most anybody ate was 7 1/2 dogs in two minutes.
The finalists will have five minutes to eat as many hot dogs as they can.
It probably won’t be close to what was consumed by the current (as of this writing) world-record holder.
On July 4, 2007, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut won the 92nd Annual Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, Brooklyn, N.Y., by eating 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.
He beat six-time champion Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi in the contest televised live by ESPN.
The 2008 edition of the contest happened Friday (after this column’s deadline).
Strategies for winning a hot dog eating contest vary. Getting the hot dog moist and mushy is one way.
“Seems like most people these days are following Kobyashi with the ‘dunk and drive’ – basically dipping the hot dog and bun together in water and then slamming them into the mouth as fast as possible,” competitive eater Scott “The Cluckbucket” Roth says. “The other one that I’ve seen is a ‘grip it and rip it’ approach, essentially taking the hot dog and bun together, snapping it in half, and then chowing on a half at a time. Lastly, some people try to separate hot dog from bun but I’ve never found that to be very successful.”
“Dunking the dog in water is the way to go,” competitive eater Don “Moses” Lerman told me.
Others think dunking the dog is disrespectful.
“The folks from Nathan’s have taught us that it’s OK to mutilate, mush and mash and saturate the beautiful American Icon known as the hot dog,” says Arnie “Chowhound” Chapman, competitive eater and chairman of the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters. “We at AICE eat our food ‘picnic style’ which means that we eat it without desecrating or deconsecrating the food item … and in accordance to the history, culture and tradition of the food.”
Chapman contemptuously labels the dunk-and-dive approach “competitive food drinking.”
“It’s bad for America,” he says.
So as you chomp copious franks on this July Fourth holiday weekend, take a moment to consider whether your eating style is good for America.