Sweat pours from the competitors' brows like a Kohler faucet. They push their bodies to the edge. They've trained all year. Some withdraw, others throw up. You've not seen carnage like this until you've attended an event sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating. These guys make the Tasmanian Devil seem dainty.
This July 4 at Coney Island, the competition hits its peak at Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. Maybe it's a battle for American bragging rights. Maybe it's The Battle of the Bulge(s). Maybe it's the god damned apocalypse. The two juggernauts of the circuit will throw down. This may be the most anticipated hot dog eating contest in the history of the known universe. This may be the battle for the known universe.
First, there's the wily veteran, the returning hot dog eating champion six years running, Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi. At 5 feet 7 inches, and around 150 pounds, the 29-year-old Japanese man is a marvel of construction, capable of stuffing 97 Krystal's squares down his gullet in eight minutes. Rumor has it, he spends $1,200 each month keeping his body in peak performance shape.
He's opposed by the young American, the young gun, the civil engineering major from San Jose, Calif. He's well-engineered: He sprang out of nowhere last year to challenge Kobayashi, leading for much of the contest before Kobayashi pulled in front at the wire, winning by less than two hot dogs, plowing his way to the world record of gluttony. This is Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, a strapping 6-foot-3-inch, 230-pound, 23-year-old American dude. You are (maybe?) Joey Chestnut. We all are (maybe?) Joey Chestnut.
Chestnut is the fifth of six kids from an Irish-Italian family. He began competitive eating two years ago when he entered and won a fried asparagus eating contest. He's since set world records for chicken wings (182 in 30 minutes), asparagus (8.6 pounds in 10 minutes), grilled cheese sandwiches (47 in 10 minutes), pulled pork (9 pounds, 6 ounces in 10 minutes) and waffles (18.5 in 10 minutes, 23 seconds). A few weeks ago, he broke Kobayashi's record, eating 59.5 hot dogs in 12 minutes at a qualifier for the Nathan's finals. That's where it will go down. That's where America will let the dogs out.
Chestnut's an American folk hero in the making. One day, when he retires, he will redesign our cities. He will make them perfect. For now, he must be our eating champion. He must help us reclaim our crown as the most gluttonous nation in the world. If you listen closely, above the belching, you can almost hear the ballad:
Who's the King of the HDB?
That's hot dog with buns
Who's No. 1?
Is it Joey 'Jaws' Chestnut,
standing like a redwood?
He holds the world record
for waffles and asparagus.
Those words—that proclamation of freedom—come courtesy of Chapel Hill's own hot dog celebrity, Billy Sugarfix. Maybe you've heard his band, Evil Wiener. Billy and the boys have been hosting a July 4 hot dog roast of their own at The Cave for the past five years. No stranger to "songs for an occasion," Billy has also been operating a custom songwriting business (www.customserenade.com) for several years now, and, this spring, he organized a song poem contest on his blog (billysugarfix.blogspot.com). Big-time musicians like Franklin Bruno and Jad Fair helped judge the contest. They even had music put to their words. Having become so proficient at his custom songwriting, Billy felt the need to mix things up.
"I needed to take a step back, because although I'm very grateful that the custom serenade has been a real good moneymaker for me, it's really colored what I do, musically," says Billy, who recently penned the local sensation "It's Carrboro" with his roommate Brian Risk. "We have a lot of get-rich-quick schemes that end up making about $50. Or we do things that get a lot of attention but bring in no money or women."
Risk also helped Billy set up the "Song-a-Day" podcasts when, from July to November in 2005, he posted a new song for 100 straight days, a real testament to his proflicacy. "A lot of friends would say, 'I always thought it'd be fun to write a song about this or that,'" he says. "I'd say, 'Let's do it. Finish your beer.'"
This is essentially how Billy and I—Americans, united, tight bros from way back when, you know—came to collaborate on "The Ballad of Joey 'Jaws' Chestnut," an American idol in the making. The song is a triple feat: a celebration of Chestnut's potential triumph, Evil Wiener's annual roast and, of course, Lady Liberty (who just loves hot dogs).
It is not, in fact, the first time we've worked together. Several years ago, I helped him compose a custom song for my lovely ex-girlfriend Jody Kidney, entitled "Jody, Long Hair Flowing." Just as with that custom song, the key this time was to gather as many facts and details as we could beforehand. We dissected the hotdog-eating contest, from the Drago vs. Balboa-like international challenger aspect to Chestnut's status as an All-American Boy turned Full-Fledged Folk Hero.
"His sister said she'd never seen her brother ever apply himself to anything like this," I tell Billy. "And on his first date, he took his girlfriend to one of the competitions, saying, 'A woman likes a guy who can eat more than her.'" Only in the U.S.A.
Like a savant, Billy seizes upon a section of an interview where Chestnut discusses his two-handed eating process and compares it to a marathoner. "I need to find my rhythm: Bite, bite, swallow. Bite, bite, swallow," Billy says, reading it to me. We toss a couple of ideas on how to approach the meter back and forth before settling on a ballad to Chestnut's burgeoning legend, like a combination of Billy Jack and Davy Crocket. Billy gets back to me within 24 hours with music, the above verse, and this resplendent chorus, with the grace of a look from an eagle's eye.
He's a stomach-centric thousandaire
feeling the rhythm of a Krystal's square
Coney Island here he comes
bite bite swallow,
even the crumbs are afraid.
Like anyone with less musical talent than William Hung, I'm at first shocked at how good it sounds, and immediately set about ruining it by increasing my participation. I pen another verse for the song, and call Billy back. He immediately notes that my verse in the first person, whereas, hitherto, the song has been in the third person. I somewhat clumsily admit I have thought of this, but figured the first half could be introduction, like on "Shaft," when the background girls say how he's a mean mofo. Ever gracious, he takes my suggestions and promises a final version by the weekend. And, lo and behold, he brings it home. Just like ol' Joey "Jaws" Chestnut—the (potential) real American hero—damn well better.
To hear "The Ballad of Joey 'Jaws' Chestnut," see the Listen box above or go out to the Evil Wiener Weiner Roast on July 4 at The Cave at 9 p.m. This is a rare show for the band. "Whenever we can get together to do a show it's a big deal for us," says Sugarfix. "So even though there aren't going to be any monsters coming out of the ceiling or dragons shooting red, white and blue fire, it's always fun to get together and I feel like we translate that well to the audience. I feel like they're as stoked to get to see us as we are to play."