The eating competition is one of those American traditions you can’t quite explain without coming across as an apologist for obscene overconsumption. And while the Major League Eating circuit—yes, an actual organization that considers eating competitions sporting events, which has gone so far as to get airtime on one of the many ESPNs—is an easy target with few redeeming qualities, there’s something anachronistically charming about small-time eat-offs. The Hooters World Wing-Eating Championship is an example of gross corporate brand extension; the state fair pie-eating contest is good old family fun.
Movie watchers will remember Stand By Me, which, set in the ’50s, had an infamous scene of a town pie-eating contest (blueberry, natch) gone horribly wrong. At that point, the practice was a well-established trope, shorthand for mom and baseball and small-town values, which allowed it to be subverted to explosive (sorry) effect in the movie.
Of course there’s the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest, 97 years strong (well, sort of—more on that in a moment) and the premier competition in the MLE season. While it now attracts the all-stars of the competitive eating circuit, names even non-eaters may know like Joey Chestnut, Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas and that wildcard Takeru Kobayashi, it was once a homely little event open to all comers—like if the All-Star game had started out on your local Little League diamond.
Though the official Nathan’s story says their contest started in 1916, held between four Irish immigrants on the Fourth of July to settle an argument over which was the most patriotic, that’s all a little too convenient. Hot dogs were the most patriotic food they could find? That works out well for Nathan’s, the biggest purveyors of the tubular treat around. Really, the contest began in 1972 and was won by a Brooklyn college student, whose prize was a certificate for more hot dogs.
These days the Nathan’s contest is still going strong, but for a more down-home summertime competition, there are a number of eating contests in and around the city that lean more county fair than corporate blowout.
This weekend, July 7-8, Cook Out NYC is taking over Governors Island for a second year of grilling, beers and kimchi—an all-American party to follow the Fourth in style. Kimchi? Damn right—this is New York, after all. As part of the event’s Kimchipalooza, which will offer the spicy pickle all weekend long in tacos and other dishes, Kheedim Oh, owner of Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, convinced the event’s organizers to hold a eating contest featuring his super-spicy variety, which uses the notorious ghost pepper in its chili paste base. Last year, the winner ate 12 jars of the stuff—think you can do more? Email firstname.lastname@example.org to enter the contest. Otherwise, just show up this weekend (get tickets at cookoutnyc.com) to watch others suffer.
Looking for something a little less incendiary? Try Astor Bake Shop’s (12-23 Astoria Blvd., Astoria, astor-bakeshop.com) pie-eating contest to celebrate its first anniversary. Owner George McKirdy opened the Queens bakery after years as a pastry chef in Manhattan, working at such haute restaurants as Nobu, Café Boulud and Tribeca Grill. Now, his shop sells one of the neighborhood’s best burgers and has a small-town feel that belies its technically impeccable sweets.
On Sunday, July 15 at 3 p.m., they will provide five male contestants, five women and five “juniors” with a pie to be eaten in the traditional, hands-behind-the-back fashion as quickly as possible. According to the rules, in the event of a tie, the contestant with the “biggest pie smile” will be declared the winner. Grab yourself a mirror and get to practicing, then show up dressed to impress in your best red, white and blue.
And if you really want to go back to basics, the Saratoga County Fair (July 17-22, saratogacountyfair.org) will be holding both a pie- and a donut-eating contest during its five-day extravaganza. One of the oldest county fairs in the country, the contests will be bookended by 4-H exhibitions and tractor pulls unlike anything to be found in these five boroughs. Sure, it’s a long train ride, but it’s worlds away from the Nathan’s contest—just as the Founding Fathers would have wanted.
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