74 hot dogs in 10 minutes? Sometimes American culture may cause people to throw up!
The week of the Fourth of July — the celebration of American Independence Day — couldn’t end without paying homage to one of the most significant annual traditions: Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. Although “famous” refers to Nathan’s hot dogs rather than to the contest, Yahoo’s article on it shows that the contest too deserves the epithet.
Wikipedia tells us that “The event generates enormous media attention and has been aired on ESPN for the past eight years, contributing to the growth of the competitive eating phenomenon.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
In the public eye and, therefore, worthy of admiration… and of course great for advertising
Unique physical exploits have always played an important role in US culture, a principle no one understood better than P.T. Barnum. At the top of the scale are great athletic performances, measured alternatively in scores — most home runs, highest batting average, number of knockouts — or in purely physical terms, such as Michael Jordan’s ability to hang in the air for nearly a full second. Professional sports require incredible physical discipline and sophisticated competitive accomplishments that usually include teamwork, strategy, muscle-building, agility practice, diet and psychological preparation.
Beauty contests, such as the one today’s sitting president once presided over (Miss Universe), figure a good notch lower on the scale. But they are very comprehensive and contestants can include 4-year-old girls or dogs, according to one’s tastes.
Hot dog eating contests may well be at the bottom, but they are a special case and do not happen every day. At local venues — especially state fairs — there are other eating contests for hamburgers, pies, pancakes, chicken wings, asparagus, pizza, ribs and even whole turkeys. It’s all about stuffing oneself as much as possible in the shortest period of time. Americans find thrilling the idea that one man can scarf down 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes and another man (Jeff Bezos) can accumulate $140 billion in his own name.
The tradition associates the Nathan’s contest with the Fourth of July. Did the marketing experts at Nathan’s believe that they could create a link between eating hot dogs and the idea of achieving one’s independence? In any case, the contest has become a fixture of Independence Day celebrations, possibly because Americans were getting bored with the predictable rituals of baseball, barbecues and fireworks. You might say the Nathan’s hot dog contest puts a little mustard on the bun!
We should also ask ourselves why what appears to be a joke has such a long life. The Nathan’s contest has been going since 1972. It was launched by a PR man, Mortimer Matz, who lied by claiming it was a tradition dating back to 1916. That Americans perceive it as a joke seems obvious. An article in SB Nation with its play-by-play coverage appears to parody the reporting of professional sports events. Most popular news outlets announce the result, especially when a new record is set.
The only explanation for its longevity and continued coverage in the media is that it reflects essential themes in US culture. Even if people laugh at it, it resonates deeply.
Cynics might say that the message of the hot dog eating contest has nothing to do with freedom, independence, self-reliance and patriotism. Rather it’s a celebration of the two modern cultural values of consumption and speed. Eat, consume, accumulate… and do it quickly. Time is money and money is the result of accumulation. The richest man in the world is now Jeff Bezos, who created the company, Amazon, that controls the way people buy and consume. The American view of history can thus be summed up as: “We fought for freedom; we won. Now we can get down to our real business: consuming.”
If the Puritans who influenced the initial version of American culture saw consumption as God’s reward for the exercise of virtue and the sacrifice of hard work, they also believed consumption should be moderate, controlled and restrained. That was before US culture discovered the vocation that would define its view of consumption. It originated not in Puritan New England, but in Virginia and the tobacco trade. Tobacco represented pure consumption, with no moral purpose or ethical constraints. Tobacco’s success for consumers in Europe also established the model of selling an otherwise useless product at great profit. As historian Danny Sjursen has explained: “Jamestown was initially about profit, not settlement. Corporate dividends, not community.”
In an event covered by ESPN, the popular sports channel, the spectacle of one man devouring 74 hot dogs in ten minutes shows that superhuman consumption is possible. There’s no shame in aiming high and achieving one’s most ambitious goals.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.