The Worst. Night. Ever. rules are very clear on this: We're assigned an event—an awkward, terrifying event—and we've got to put up with it for two hours, or until it is finished. The rules are clear and they are fair.
But the other night I ate a turkey sandwich and tasted hot dog instead. I'd been avoiding bread altogether, fearful the tiniest bite would recall yeasty mush and strange strangling sounds off to my left. I'm pretty sure my ankles are swelling.
See, the rules didn't account for this. Blogtown sent me to compete in the annual hot dog eating contest at Zach's Shack this past Saturday and, in many ways, I never left. I'm not sure I ever will.
First, let's get this out of our systems.
My god eating competitions are unpleasant. As unpleasant as Bill Travis taking a fusillade of clotting blue-black puke full in the face. Just as bad as the shame visited on the Benevolent Order of Antelopes by the Women's Auxiliary. Different, but comparable.
I wasn't expecting that. The idea of sending me to a hot dog contest came up in our weekly editorial meeting, and I'm always very, very hungry at the weekly editorial meeting. It sounded decent, actually—certainly better than having to camp at the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival, which was another option my colleagues thought might be cute. If you only knew the whispery curses and silent, kinetic raptures that went on at this computer as online voting played out last Thursday, everyone, you will have a more full appreciation of my coming downfall. Damn it, I was glad to get the hot dog contest.
Do you know who wasn't glad? Every friend and acquaintance I have. Any time I mentioned competing, my girlfriend would just shudder and change the subject (after making absolutely clear I understood she would not—could not—be there to support me in this). People winced, mostly. One friend I speak to maybe three times a year texted all the way from Michigan just to be sure I knew how disgusting this impending act would be.
"I really hope you don't have to do the wiener contest," he wrote. "You will hurl."
I shook all of it off for a couple days, until I finally got around to researching competitive hot dog eating. Then I knew where every one of them was coming from.
A few words about the sport. It is a chimeric pursuit, combining the hunched, surreptitious gnawing of an urban rat with the salivary heedlessness of an insane dog. It is insectile, too, the mouth working tinily and ceaselessly as a mantis' pig-anus-flecked mandible as the hands jam, jam, jam. And the sounds. There is cheering of course, but the true soundtrack of the latter-day hot dog eating contest is one of tongues slapping against lips, pink hot dog paste slathering onto cheeks, the minute squirge of sodden white bread squirging through teeth, the protesting gurgle of overworked esophaguses suddenly beset. Belches. Groans. America.
If you subscribe to the Kobayashi method, I learned, you're leading with a hot dog in one hand while dunking its component bun in water (for quick mastication and compactness). Dog, then bun. Dog, then bun. It is a wild-eyed conveyer belt of offal and calories and carbs Henry Ford might appreciate. Joey Chestnut—considered the best competitive eater on Earth—leaves the dog and bun as a unit and dunks the whole thing. Both men jump as if ecstatic every now and then, just to create room. It's disgusting to watch, but these champions know their business. Both have cleared 60 dogs in 10 minutes.
I decided, watching them online, that my goal would be 10, and dignity, and damn fame and the demands of a howling crowd. And just to be extra safe I emailed Zach Zelinger, the Shack's eponymous proprietor, to ask for any tips. His reply was terse:
Don't get drunk
Go hard early
Dunk ur buns
The competition was at 4 pm, and I showed up at Zach's a half-hour early to pay my $8 entrance fee and fill out paperwork. There was a whole section for biographical info, asking about my training regimen ("burritos"), previous competitive eating experience ("nope"), and my nickname ("The Unceasing Maw," which no one liked). There was also space to riff a bit on my "goals/aspirations," which I thought was assigning a lot of philosophical import to a hot dog contest. I wrote "6th place," having been told there were nine entrants in this year's competition. Only five of us showed.
And the other four? Serious eaters. Talented eaters.
"Dizzy," my closest competition, lives above Zach's Shack, he said, and had eaten thousands and thousands of dogs there over the years. He'd also competed in the last three or four events, upping his count by one dog each time. His goal this year? 13 in 10 minutes.
"Zane" took the whole damn thing in 2011, after local gluttonous overlord "Max Carnage" puked as he was being handed the title belt. Puke, obviously, results in a disqualification—even if you're able to keep it in your mouth and eventually choke it back down, the rules said.
The last two competitors were wearing matching "Eat Through the Pain" t-shirts. I asked what was up with that, and a woman nearby promptly peered out from behind an iPad and handed me a business card. It read: "Big Eaters Club."
The guys in the shirt were named Ryan and Pat. Like roller derby girls and pro wrestlers, though, they cherished their competitive monikers: "Max Carnage" and "Pac-Man," respectively. The Big Eaters Club, they claimed, is the driving force for competitive eating in the Pacific Northwest. You might have seen that video of a woman annihilating the 72 oz. steak challenge at Sayler's not long ago? That was the Big Eaters Club's video. They said they do this sort of thing every week.
"Max Carnage," the defending champ since 2012, told me he once ate a footlong meatball sub in 32 seconds—a stunt for an Idaho radio station. He'd been subsisting on protein shakes and peanut butter for two days in preparation to defend his title at Zach's this year (I'd had a scone that morning, but that was it). And he was weirdly preoccupied with the angle of the sun on this 90-degree-day, assuring me that gorging ourselves in the shade would yield better results.
"Pac-Man," like me, had never competed at Zach's Shack, but Zach (who seemed unimpressed by my lack of experience and ambition) shook his hand and said gravely, "I've heard a lot about you." Here's a picture of that interaction:
- Dirk VanderHart
- A very serious conversation about hot dogs, and eating them quickly.
Both Max and Pac-Man had brought their own cups from 7-Eleven, and were busy mixing their bun-dunking water with red Powerade, which would make the miserable mush of a sodden bun more palatable, they said. The Zach's Shack hot dog eating competition had suddenly become far more serious than I'd ever imagined. (And with good reason, I was told. There was a title belt on the line, and title belts are "few and far between" in the competitive eating world.) Somehow, it was only after seeing those careful Powerade dilutions that I began to worry I'd truly embarrass myself.
Here: Watch Max Carnage and Pac-Man eat 10 hot dogs and 10 Taco Bell tacos, just for the fuck of it.
We were 15 minutes away from start time, and I began obsessively asking other competitors for tips and tricks. They cautioned me to not push myself too hard—ten hot dogs was an admirable, even ambitious, goal for a first-timer. They told me to jump to clear room, and to snap the hot dog in two before shoving it into my mouth. Probably the most-soulful advice came from the woman with the business cards and iPad ("Honey Badger," another member of the Big Eaters Club). She told me not puking was a state of mind, that I should banish all notions of vomiting the moment they appeared.
"You have to shut those thoughts down," she said. "Once the puke train starts, there's no stopping it."
Finally, Zach announced us to the crowd and we took our places at a long table on the patio, a plate of nine hot dogs Lincoln Logged in front each contestant. I was standing to the right of Max Carnage, who seemed to be shivering with anticipation. And then we were eating. Oh god were we eating.
It begins easily. The cold paste of a dunked bun is disgusting from the first bite, but the hot dogs are pleasant and salty in between, and you're hungry. I did two hot dogs in the first minute—as my competition was a frenzied, slobbery, disgusting blur to my left—and I was repeating that same internal mantra: "10 hot dogs, and dignity, and damn fame and the demands of a howling crowd." I stood at my full 6'2" at the table, refusing to hunch like the rest of them. I chewed and jammed and dunked, and for probably 4 minutes, I like to think I held my own.
- Zach Dunham
- Left to right: Me, Max Carnage, Pac-Man, Zane, and Dizzy. Having a bad time.
But warning signs flared with hot dog five. Already I could feel the pink mush threatening to overtop my stomach, and my first plate was barely half done. Meanwhile other competitors were calling for more dogs, Zach was announcing 10 downed by other competitors, 15. Every now and then he'd check in on me. "Dirk's got six hot dogs!" he'd yell and the crowd—who, really, could not have been more supportive—would cheer. I like to think they appreciated the decorum I brought to the whole thing.
- Dirk VanderHart
- The people, to whom I was a champion.
On the seventh dog, bun matter was sloshing back up into my mouth. The once-pleasant sodium of the franks had long ago turned rank. I looked around for mustard—mustard!—but there was only ketchup and hopelessness. I hopped to no avail. The aforementioned hot dog contest noises were in full swing, making it increasingly hard to shut out vomitous thoughts. The puke train chugged ominously near.
Max Carnage stopped for a moment, looked out at the audience, and let out a fearsome, leonine belch. I don't have a video to back this up (the Big Eaters Club informs me their own video has been waylaid by computer troubles), but in my memory, he did one of those things where he sort of swerved and raised his head all at once, like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park (so much cheering). Then he looked over at me, nonplussed, and explained through a mouth and beard spackled with slimy food that I had to keep going, which I appreciated. Here's a video of his pep talk ( I guess it happened on my sixth dog? Time is a flat circle) :
I turned to Zach—a nice guy who, in my nitrite-fueled madness, I'd come to view as a sneering tormentor—and asked if he'd ever done this before. "Yeah, I've eaten hot dogs," he cracked, and the crowd roared, and I realized I'd fallen into another of his blasted traps.
There was a minute left on the clock when I cleared my eighth dog, and just one hot dog left on my plate. But the song had died in my heart. I could go no further. I lost the contest, and I disappointed my own modest expectations.
Max Carnage: 22
The Unceasing Maw: 8
Of course it didn't end there. I wasn't in pain. For a time, I even marveled how comparatively normal I felt. It was no different than overeating on Thanksgiving, I told myself. That changed pretty rapidly, with unsettling bubbling and gurgling becoming more frequent. More than any discomfort, though, I realized I just didn't want to ingest eight hot dogs. It would be better if I threw it all up and maybe ate some kale.
But do you want to know what happens to eight hot dogs that are ramrodded down your throat? They settle and sit low in the stomach, packing tight into a ball. I ducked into the Space Room and attempted to purge myself of that malevolence, but it wouldn't come. Then someone walked into the bathroom, and I got self-conscious and left. I moved down the street, stopping for my bicycle at Zach's, and a group of women who'd seen the contest praised my effort, and encouraged me to "pull the trigger," by which they meant vomit.
So I went to Powell's, where I knew I could have a restroom to myself, and my fingers went to work thumping my uvula and scouring my esophagus. The dogs were stubborn, though. A friend compared my futile attempts to trying to calve chunks from an iceberg, and I've come to think of that as apt. I estimate I got two, maybe three dogs out of my system, and even that took prodigious effort and a good deal of vomit-induced tears.
I went home and napped, and now, days later, things that shouldn't taste like hot dogs do, I'm wary of bread, and probably there will be lasting health effects. So nice job, everyone.
There is something else, though. Competitive eating is a joyless pastime. There's little to be gained but disgusting gloats and off-putting online videos (and a title belt, I guess). But when I said at the beginning of this that I'm not sure I ever left that sun-and-anguish-filled patio, I meant it in more than just a post-trauma sort of way. I can't stop thinking about that last hot dog on the plate and an entire minute on the clock. I felt certain, at the time, I couldn't possibly have cleared another dog, but looking back I'm not all that sure.
"The great thing about competitive eating," Pac-Man told me before the competition, "is that food stops controlling you. You're in control."
But he's wrong. It's our own bodies we were up against on Zach's patio Saturday afternoon. Food was merely a cudgel by which we sought to tame nature, to rail against our own evolutionary limitations, to aspire to more. It is a pointless "more," sure, but more nonetheless. Viewed in a certain light, the Zach's Shack hot dog eating contest isn't so different from the human pursuit of flight.
And what I've been thinking about too much since Saturday is: I bet I could soar.