GateHouse – I hate to throw cold water all over your Fourth of July, but I think it’s only fair to warn you that if this year’s holiday seems a little less magical, a little less wondrous, it may be because Takeru Kobayashi of Japan may not be able to compete in this year’s competitive hot dog eating competition. And as my grandpappy used to tell me back on the farm in Montana, “Boy, I been all around this great big world, I’ve captured rattlers with my bare hands and wrestled a grizz-a-ly bear until the pain was such that he begged me to kill him, but without Takeru Kobayashi eating hot dogs on the Fourth of July I don’t know if I even want to be free from tyrannical British rule.”
(Editor’s note: The preceding sentence is a house of lies. Jeff Vrabel had a grandfather, not a grandpappy; he lived in Indiana, and I’m not sure he ever heard of Montana; he lost each of the 12 times he wrestled a grizz-a-ly bear; and he found the British to be quite droll and amusing, especially Benny Hill.)
Everything else is true though: the world of competitive eating, which, I was told by a number of news stories last week, exists, was being rocked – ROCKED – by the news that 29-year-old Takeru Kobayashi (which translates into English as “Dean”) may have to bow out of this year’s hot dog eating competition because of injury, and by “bow out,” I mean, “sort of make a vague motion of forward momentum that is accompanied by a not-entirely-displeasing sloshing noise”).
Kobayashi’s injuries are serious and weird: He complains of misaligned wisdom teeth, coupled with painful arthritis in his jaw. Doctors think Kobayashi either suffered the injury during a series of grueling, early-morning jogs through hilly roads, or by speed-eating hot dogs for a living.
I know I don’t have to tell a lot of you about Takeru Kobayashi, but just for the small percentage who might not know (coughloserscough), he is the SIX-TIME champion of the Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place Wednesday at Nathan’s Famous in Coney Island, N.Y.; last year he ate 53 3/4 dogs. Winners receive – this is all true – the Mustard Yellow Belt, so christened because of the hot dog-related condiment, and because it doesn’t look much different when you vomit on it.
As of press time, his participation remained unclear. I cannot read the blog on takerukobayashi.com because it’s in Japanese, which is too bad, because I am dying to know why he posted a picture of a retainer and a tooth (no joke).
But we can have hope. In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for Vulgar Hot Dog Consumption Coverage, Kobayashi said he would indeed compete. (Apparently competitive eating does not require a lot of forward planning, inasmuch as you can tell them you’re coming the day of the bout and still be OK. Or maybe Kobayashi’s just that big of a big-shot. I don’t know. I’m gonna be honest, I learned about competitive hot dog eating about 45 minutes ago, and I’ve got a Google window open on my computer, and I’m making this entirely up as I go along. But here’s what I do know: I am looking at a picture of Kobayashi right now – head up, mouth open, hot dog going in – that will bring shame to his family for generations to come. My wife, who is studying anatomy, has just reported that the maximum capacity for even a grossly distended belly is about one gallon’s worth of food, or four liters, or a McDonald’s double filet of fish. Also, I have never in my life wanted so desperately to have a salad.)
I know, you’re thinking, Jeff, I’m sold, just tell me which ESPN outlet is covering this competition, and I will abandon my family without the slightest regret to watch it happen. But what if I told you that critics assert that Kobayashi is dodging his primary challenger, an American with the nearly impossible name of Joey Chestnut, who two weeks ago shattered Kobayashi’s record by disposing of 59 1/2 hot dogs. “That’s not even funny,” Kobayashi told the Free Press, vocalizing the exact opposite of what I was thinking. “I don’t even have time to think about that.” Yeah! Now it’s a FEUD! (You can read all about it in the Journal Of Competitive Eating Critics, which publishes twice weekly by the same people who do the Atlantic Monthly.)
But that’s all up in the air, and all we know now is that if it seems something’s a little off this year, it may be because the Fourth of July may have to happen Kobayashi-free, meaning that the one infinitesimal department in which we could not claim to be the most gluttonous nation on earth is now gone. Also it falls on a Wednesday, which sucks.