There was a time in my simple life when nothing seemed to excite me. I moved through each day like they were the pages of a boring book I had already read. Everything was routine and pre-determined, commonplace down to the minutest of details. The only thing that seemed to brighten my life, to bring some sort of meaning to the otherwise banal exercise of living, was eating a delicious hot dog. There was something about the taste that captivated me and made me long to live in a better world – a world where hot dogs were as common as sunshine and oxygen. I spent a lot of time thinking about this world, but it was always distant and unreachable. Hot dogs simply did not translate into upward mobility, and in my comfortable rut, they seemed merely a pleasant momentary distraction.
That all changed when I saw an advertisement in the newspaper for a grand festivity sure to be remembered forever in the annals of history. The county fair was holding a hot dog eating contest, the winner earning a trophy and the title of Hot Dog King. To think, a mere commoner like me could participate and perhaps win, almost instantaneously being elevated to the status of royalty. The opportunity to be the patriarch of a hot dog kingdom was one rarely afforded to anyone, and a genuine chance to do some good in the world. The noble deeds I could do, the lives I could change, the hot dogs I could eat, it all sounded so extravagant. I knew right away that this was a contest suited for a man like me. Though I was never one to engage in the timeless art of competition, I suddenly had something to prove. This was a primal drive that, like the strongest of competitive spirits, was catalyzed by love. I loved hot dogs and this contest would be my golden chance to prove the depth and boundlessness of my love and, in the process, prove my worthiness of the hot dog throne.
Like all good competitors, I familiarized myself with the rules of engagement. At first it seemed that this was no fool's contest. Everything seemed logical and thought out, like any respectable challenge should. The people who organized it must have had a real affinity for hot dogs and the needs of hot dog eaters, I thought. The hot dogs would be all-beef, so as not to forsake the Jews, whose cruel covenant with God prohibited the consumption of pork hot dogs. The hot dogs would be cooked as well, so that they would be in the best possible condition for eating. But that's where the good times ended and the serious questions began. There would be no buns, no ketchup, and no condiments of any sort provided. Instead contestants would each have a platter of wieners, as naked as the day the hot dog factory made them, and with the goal being to eat as many as possible in ten minutes. Where was the love in that, I wondered? It all seemed so decadent and wrong, so vile. No buns or condiments? What were the hidden motivations on the part of the contest organizers that would lead to the exclusion of that which makes a hot dog truly a hot dog? Still, I had emotionally invested myself in the idea of this contest, and I wasn't about to back out now.
I arrived at the fairgrounds two hours before the contest and paid the $10 entry fee. To my surprise there weren't many other competitors. Could it be that the hot dog was no longer a cherished food? Had society turned its back on the hot dog? I tried not to think about such horrible questions, for it would do no good to work myself into a suicidal depression at a time when hot dogs needed me most. Instead, I focused on the world after the contest and my forthcoming reign as Hot Dog King. I saw myself resting comfortably upon my throne as a plump, juicy horizon dawned before me and showered the earth in waves of hot dog colored pink. In the distance I observed the hot dog river, flowing in foot-long waves and cradled in a canyon bun of rocks. This was my future, I imagined.
In reality a dark sky loomed over head, ominous and shadowy like the space beneath a refrigerator. It looked as if any moment the heavens would cry out and flood the earth below in tears. It made the whole event seem that much more Biblical in scope. I did not fear the rain, for the contest would take place under a sturdy tent. The air, though, that was what worried me. The intoxicating aroma of hundreds of hot dogs was being lost to the pungent odor of the nearby horse stables, and from the 4-H animals just beyond the stables. It was a brutal assault on my nasal cavities, and I longed to plug my nostrils with hot dog chunks in a vain attempt to block out the offensive stench coming from this rotten ark packed with every redolent animal that the surrounding lands had to offer. I was very agitated at this point, twitchy and nervous, worried that my crown was going to be lost not because I didn't love hot dogs enough, but because of the overwhelming rankness of the outdoor air.
Moments before the contest was scheduled to begin, I was guided to my seat at a long table. Apparently only three other men had taken up this sacred challenge. To my right sat an angry and merciless looking Asian man. I wondered how a foreigner such as this could find his way out here, but was nonetheless inspired that his love for hot dogs could carry him so far from home. To my left was a rather dapper man, distinguished in dress and demeanor. I felt an instant rapport with this dandy man, taking him for a highbrow connoisseur of hot dogs. To his left was a rather discouraging looking fellow, and perhaps the reason so few dared to enter the contest. He was a mammoth, a mountain of flesh and fat, and his mighty mouth was a hole that could conceivably consume an entire football if the need arose. He was incredibly silent, deep in a trance-like meditation. This was my competition for the event, and they were definitely the right stuff. I felt a deep kinship with them, for they were my fraternity and we each shared a sacred bond and understanding. We might not have had similar backgrounds or even languages, but we shared one universal trait: a love for hot dogs.
Since I wasn't sure the young Asian beside me would understand my words, I decided the dandy would be my best bet for a pre-contest conversation. But what to say? This was the first time I was amongst my peers and the last thing I wanted was to make a fool of myself by gushing out something stupid like, "boy, hot dogs sure are great!" No, I'd need to appear sophisticated and bold. This was not the time and place to speak of trivial matters or state the obvious. I was amongst my fellow scholars of food and this was our version of a public debate. I almost blushed as the perfect statement to establish myself as a real player in this new society popped into my head.
"You know, the modern dilemma of the hot dog is that the last bite of your first leaves you longing for the first bite of your second," I explained in a matter of fact way while using simple hand gestures to map out the invisible form of an imaginary hot dog. The dandy noted my hand gestures and nodded, a clear indication he approved of both oral and non-oral communication methods. However, it seemed my message was ultimately lost on him.
"More like the last bite of your first hot dog leaves you dreading the first bite of your tenth!" he said in a condescending tone. A tenth hot dog? My god, how could anyone take things that far?
"Hah hah! Ten hot dog? Try twenty!" interjected the Asian man in a harsh voice obviously sharpened on the jagged edges of his broken English.
The dandy looked a bit discouraged, and immediately turned away and began staring straight ahead at the small crowd of dedicated enthusiasts that had gathered. The Asian man's words had obviously disrupted his confidence, and mine as well. Clearly English wasn't his native tongue, and that had me wondering if his foreign taste buds could handle the distinctly Western allure of the hot dog. Though I shuddered to think that race could factor into this contest, I wondered if his genetic predisposition disqualified him from gaining any true satisfaction from this test of love and manhood.
It was then that the hot dogs were delivered, overwhelming my nose with a pleasant and reassuring smell. Just like the rules explained, each of us got our own platter of naked dogs. There must have been at least thirty on each plate. I seized this opportunity to place my briefcase on the table. This caught the attention of my competition, who were not used to such a dramatic display. I carefully popped it open, revealing two bags of hot dog buns and a fresh bottle of ketchup. I removed my accessories and then placed the briefcase underneath the table.
"Are you mad?" asked the dandy in a shocked, wavy voice.
"There is nothing in the rules about bringing outside food. My buns and ketchup are completely valid in this contest!"
"You'll fill up on bread, you fool! The contest is to eat the most hot dogs in ten minutes!"
"Yes, to eat the most delicious hot dogs in ten minutes," I rebuffed.
Again he turned away, wanting nothing to do with me. I kept the conversation alive, though, because I felt a sudden sense of power over him.
"I love the smell of ketchup in the morning," I said while removing the protective seal from the top of the ketchup bottle. "It smells like—" I started to add before being rudely interrupted by the contest judge.
"You all know the rules," he explained. "The goal is to eat the most hot dogs in ten minutes."
"The most delicious hot dogs in ten minutes, you mean?" I inquired, expecting him to correct himself.
"The goal is to eat the most hot dogs in ten minutes. We will begin as soon as I ring this bell. Gentlemen, are you ready?"
We all nodded, tense and eager to hear the deafening gunshot roar of his little hand bell. He looked at us all with a face that conveyed so much emotion. His eyes held fear, his tightened facial muscles held sorrow knowing only one could win, and his clenched jaw showed his nervousness for us all. Then, putting aside his own emotional hang-ups, he rang the bell and started the contest.
I began by carefully placing my first hot dog on a bun and spreading a nice long line of ketchup across the top. As I took my first bite, I glanced over to my right and saw the Asian man sucking hot dogs in like a vacuum cleaner. He had gulped down two in the time it took me to put my first hot dog together, and another in the time it took me to chew through my first bite. My second bite revealed that the dandy had quickly gnawed his way through two hot dogs. Beyond him was pure horror I could scarcely believe with my own eyes. That fat man, that beast, was silently devouring hot dogs as though they were planets and he was a black hole. What kind of sick industrial evolution had spawned this creature? He was a hot dog factory on rewind, and one could only wonder if he was going to go home and quietly give birth to a live cow. The hot dogs meant nothing to him. They had no taste, no intrinsic value, nothing of interest. He looked at them as the means to an end. He savored the dogs no more than fire savored the taste of gasoline.
When I slowly bit into my second hot dog, I noted that the Asian had already scarfed down a dozen. The dandy was trailing behind him, and the beast was somewhere in hot dog hell. While I slowly enjoyed my second hot dog, letting the warm tanginess of the ketchup tango seductively with the flavorful all-beef meat on the dance floor of my tongue, the beast was having his way with the contest. Like a cruel tyrant he sentenced the population of hot dogs on his plate to die in the mass grave of his stomach. I was getting to know each bite, paying proper respects to the fleeting deliciousness as it disappeared into the cozy hot dog Valhalla inside me. A part of me mourned for the hot dogs that were being lost to the bottomless abyss of the beast's stomach, undoubtedly to suffer even more pain in the murderous showers of digestive juices. I also mourned those that made that fateful descent down the water slide that was the Asian man's esophagus. How far would they fall before landing on a pile of dead brethren? I was rapidly losing faith in this fraternity, with only the dandy showing any subtle appreciation for hot dogs.
When the bell rang a second time and we were instructed to put down our hot dogs, I awaited my coronation as Hot Dog King. In the ten minutes of the challenge, I had eaten three delicious hot dogs. Shockingly, to the judge my efforts were simply not enough, and he declared the beast the winner for having eaten some twenty-five hot dogs. The Asian man had proven formidable with his score of twenty-two consumed hot dogs. The dandy had managed to eat fifteen before the strain forced him to slow down and coast through the last couple minutes.
"Clearly, I ate the most delicious hot dogs in ten minutes," I pleaded to the judge.
"You ate three lousy hot dogs. Anybody can do that! You couldn't compete with these guys at all and I don't even know why you entered. You embarrassed us all!"
"You're going to give that beast the crown? You're going to declare him the King of Hot Dog Kingdom? Why his ass couldn't even fit in the sacred throne!"
"Shut up and get out of here! It's time to celebrate the winners, not the sore losers!"
I was so overcome with emotion I lost my composure. Almost on cue the sky finally let loose its tears while the rumble of thunder echoed in the distance as if to signal by divine intention that I was to be the true winner. With wrath swarming in my mouth like bees in a hive, I said to the tent dwellers, "Hear me loud and hear me clear, hot dog lovers. I swear to you now, foul judge, as I swear to you all: I will bring down the Hot Dog Kingdom! Your stone walls can't protect you! I will lay siege to your castle and bring you all down!"
My furious words did little to sway them. They were content to live at peace with their crimes. They cared not for the abortion of justice they carried out nor for the horrible shame they brought upon the entire hot dog eating community. All I could do was walk away and hope that in time they would realize the error of their ways, perhaps awarding me my proper dues.
As I left the tent in the pouring rain, I realized that in spite of everything, I had truly won the tournament. The others had gulped down hot dogs with neither love nor affection, but rather out of pure lust for victory. I sought the crown as a way of bettering not just myself, but the entire world. Instead, I got mixed up with a bunch of hollow men who foolishly believed stuffing themselves with hot dogs would bring them meaning. The law of diminishing marginal returns certainly wouldn't agree with them on that perverse notion. I realized that hot dogs alone could not fill the empty spaces in my life and that brought me comfort. Though I suffered defeat to the soulless machinations of the hot dog eating contest, I ended up with a moral victory. True, moral victories don't come with crowns or kingdoms, but they do come with something much better: pride. I had three delicious hot dogs digesting in my stomach, and now I had a tall glass of pride to wash them down with.
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