I made a special trip on the "F" train Saturday, taking it all the way to the end at Stillwell Ave. for the Village Voice's annual Siren Fest on Coney Island. I love the festival because it's the only time I'm motivated to spend all that time on a subway for such a dirty, populated beach. I can shoot multiple birds with a proverbial stone -- I get my beach fix for the day, I can see Stars headline a show, and I can eat at the original Nathan's, at the exact location Kobayashi makes his name stuffing soda-drenched hot dogs down his throat. But this year something was different. The annual 4th of July hot dog eating contest, sponsored by Nathan's, is no longer curious American fascination. It's a full grown phenomenon, complete with....this:
Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the hot dog contest with the same attentive fervor of a live auto pile-up. But how the fuck did this happen? Is America really as demented as I am? And what stirs our love of watching live gluttony occur?
It doesn't take a genius to see that the severe increase in popularity of competitive eating correlates perfectly with Kobayashi's ascension to the top of the pile. He's got the competitiveness of Jordan, the dominant stylings of Lance, and the steroids program of Bonds. It's gotten to the point where he's now a household name. Any time someone emerges as this much better than everyone at something, people are bound to notice. The fact that, at the beginning of Kobayashi's reign at least, he was a skinny man doing something so stereotypically fat won the hearts of the nation. His accomplishments could be heroic, if they didn't involve regurgitating hot dog pieces and then having to re-eat them.
But Kobayashi's timing was almost perfect. Our nation is transitioning from an era of consumption addiction to a more health-conscious stance. The direct path to profitability was maximizing your super size while minimizing price. We ate, and we ate, and we ate, even if we weren't hungry anymore. Just because we could. Why would we share the gross excesses of food with the rest of the world? We're no Communists, no! You say I don't NEED that 10 lb. box of frozen quesadillas? I'll find a use for every single one, even if I feed them to my dogs, because I've got a membership to Price Club and they were just so affordable. But things are changing. We're now focused on living longer. America's gotten fatter than the rest of the world. Super-Size Me has scared the fast food industry into weeding out its marketable size-increase option and offering things like salad and water instead of french fries and soda. This is where Kobayashi has captivated the nation.
To those still clinging to the "give me more than I can handle, and I'll figure it out anyway" theory, Kobayashi's near 54 hot dogs in 12 minutes (53 3/4 to be precise, a mark set this year that beat his own world record) is something to be strangely envied. He's a microcosm of the last 15 years of American life even if his new, ripped physique hardly matches America's expanding waistline. For those who find his career disgusting, it's even more fascinating. Why exactly this is, I'm not sure. But it's based in masochistic tendencies, and is the same reason people who've hated Howard Stern, Mike Tyson, or Larry Flynt continue to devote so much time to their respective careers.
America's gone through pop culture fads like so many gallons of gas, and the shelf life for competitive eating doesn't appear to be so long. Remember that year poker was really popular? Pretty soon you won't be able to distinguish Badlands Booker from Phil Helmuth. The digital clock serves to build hype for a hard-luck franchise and struggling city. Coney Island has long been decrepid and has found its escape route in the competition -- something to bring life, hope, and money into the area. The historic rides on the boardwalk have been slowly reinstilled in the recent years, and the city is planning a wholesale renovation that they hope will bring Coney Island to its former glory. The kitsch of the hot dog competition might be an otherwise charming event, something to cherish once a year as a celebration of America's birthday, because any more than that would be overboard. But it IS more than that. There's an entire circuit dedicated to slobs who consider artery-clogging an act of preparation. I'd consider it somewhat troublesome, but I have a feeling the clock that hangs humorously above the intersection of Stillwell and Surf is counting down to not only the next of Nathan's beloved competition, but also to the end of its prolonged quarter-hour.