The hot dog, if you think about it even a little bit, is a food ripe for further exploration. Few among us are quite sure what it contains. But despite its esoteric nature, it has wide appeal, so much so that there’s a huge market for hot dogs for vegetarians (and for those of us who are turned off by the mystery of the standard meat tubes). Hot dogs are inextricably linked with the best parts of summer. They’re the stuff of suburban backyards as much as city street corners. The hot dog, more than most other foods, is deeply American.
This is what compels comedian Jamie Loftus in Raw Dog: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs. During a nationwide road trip in the midst of the strange, COVID-marred summer of 2021, she consumes an unfathomable number of hot dogs in a quest for greater understanding of how the humble sausage has achieved such cultural significance. There is, naturally, an entire chapter devoted to exploring in great detail the gnarly facts around how hot dogs are made.
In this excerpt from the book, though, Loftus turns her attention to an different truth: Joey Chestnut is the hot dot eating champion to end all hot dog eating champions. As part of her summer travels, Loftus attended the annual Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. The excerpt begins as the men take the stage in Coney Island following the women’s event. — Monica Burton
ESPN is turning over their camera crew in another middle finger to the women’s contest — now the real event is beginning, and the crowd behind us stand in line to buy hot dogs and beer as we continue to fucking roast among the other reporters. It never occurred to me that I might spend the day here starving, but that’s what’s come to pass as Henry and the other gig workers have nothing to offer us but water bottles and swag bags (Bounty-branded tote bag, sunglasses, a little timer watch, and a bathrobe for some reason). There’s not a granola bar in sight while the servants of Nathan warn us that to mix among the hot dog chomping peasants just feet away in the stands is a safety risk.
Fuck ’em — I slip past Henry and the bright red, throbbing Nathan’s hot dog mascot being interviewed by a college reporter and into the stands. I need a hot dog, and I need to know who these people are.
The event is free, so there’s a fair number of people eager to once again walk maskless among the masses — veterans and frontline workers who got seating preference, a couple kids sneaking sips from their parents’ Heinekens, nationalists in head-to-toe American flag regalia that scans to the average leftist as menacing. Still, most of the people are here to see Little Miss Joseph specifically. I talk to groups of young women in Joey tank tops and push-up bras, moms who want to fuck Joey, dads who want to be Joey, kids who watch Joey on YouTube, a man in a cape for no reason, a gay couple whose shared crush on Joey first brought them together. The manic energy of the contest ripples through the bleachers as everyone walks around like the plague never happened. This is sticky and sweaty and familiar, and no one is looking out for themselves in the interest of having a good time.
“It’s outside, so, uh,” one maskless man tells me. “Can’t get it out here.” Best of luck!
I bump into a guy named Grayson in the hot dog line, a twentysomething whose hair is tied in a bandana, wearing a T-shirt with Chestnut’s image emblazoned across the front. He tells me he’s driven here all the way from Tennessee to see Joseph compete for the second time, and has been watching eating competitions “from the time I was born, probably.”
“I aspire to try it one day,” he tells me. “I admire Joey Chestnut, he’s been a role model to me for years but I know I could never measure up.”
I bring half a hot dog back down to the press pit in my pocket, hoping Henry is none the wiser to my blatant disregard of the hot dog rules. The field is flooded with unmasked people chanting “Joey! Joey!” as the sun grows hotter, mostly family and friends of competitors and the exhausted press pit. In our midst are more shoddily masked faces, either legacy reporters who delight in the tradition or college-aged stringers who couldn’t be more upset to be there.
At the front of the stadium, George Shea is back on his bullshit, bringing a man onstage to a chorus of loud boos. It’s not without reason — the man in question is then New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, he of the failed 2020 presidential campaign and the 37 percent approval rating. The crowd isn’t shy about letting him know how they feel, much of it due to his mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis and his response to the George Floyd protests the previous year, but de Blasio doesn’t react and continues to act out the half-hearted skit prepared before presenting Michelle Lesco with the pink Pepto-Bismol belt. A few months later, de Blasio would be ineligible to run for the mayoral election and the hot dog heathens would become the problem of Mayor Eric Adams, who — we don’t have time, the contest is beginning.
Because the world of hot dog eating is built to give deference to the men’s contest, there is a noticeable shift in the energy of the stadium when George Shea poises himself to introduce the competitors he really cares about. As he’s teeing up, a failed marriage proposal takes place in the stands — a man in an American flag tank top and cargo shorts gets on one knee as his girlfriend, a blond woman profoundly out of his league in the ugliest Zara maxi dress these eyes have ever seen, rejects him.
She can do two things I could never do — say no to someone she loves, and say no to someone she loves in public. He grasps her hand as she starts to walk up the bleacher seats, and glances over his shoulder as he realizes he’s not going to see Joey Chestnut eat 76 hot dogs with his future wife after all.*
George Shea brings up the competitors — legends like Crazy Legs Conti and Juan Rodriguez, and Chestnut’s closest competitors, Miki Sudo’s baby daddy, Nick Wehry, and soft-spoken Massachusetts high school teacher Geoffrey Esper. Then, Joseph comes to the stage as Shea inflates, shouting to the heavens with an introduction that was cowritten by three other people. He lets it rip for the camera:
“In an endless universe of infinite matter and energy, we have been given consciousness to gaze upon it all and understand. What greater fortune have we? To live in America, to stand side by side on the Fourth of July, to behold this man, what greater fortune?
“Like the force of life itself, he is written on the world, a belief etched in the shining machinery of our mind. Immune to the vagaries of time, entwined in the trip that binds our arms together, and when history collapses and existence has no meaning, he wants to stand for his obligation — to fight any god for an idea, for a conviction, for freedom! For his is the blood of a nation and his is ever onward, and to the breach, pressing the charge blind to all except the object of his fury and the roar of his assault will sunder the dome of heaven to reach the ears of God himself. The number-one-ranked eater in the world, the Nathan’s Famous champion of the world, Joey Chestnut.”
I cannot overstate how in-ter-est-ing it is for a completely ordinary-looking man to walk onstage after an introduction like that, and the crowd is on fire — they want nothing more than to see this man deep-throat a billion hot dogs. The women who just competed drink water at the front of the stage and scream along, supportive of their peers even in the face of the whole, you know, ESPN3 thing. Joey wins, of course he wins, he beats his own record by a single hot dog and makes the headlines just like he has thirteen times before (except the one time, but we don’t talk about that). Geoffrey Esper would have been a vital competitor for Chestnut 10 years ago, but in 2021 Joseph won by 26 hot dogs. The only question is if he’ll win against himself from the previous year.
At the start of the contest, I don’t understand the appeal. By the end, I’m in love with him. Here’s what it feels like:
10 minutes to go: Joey comes in hot, falling into a fluid motion that means this will be a good contest. The people in the stands are leaning forward in their foam hats and screaming, looking to their families and back at Joey, covered in sweat, no one able to take a bite of their own hot dog while he is at work. I don’t understand it — this man is killing himself in front of us on purpose, because we will love him if he does. He’ll take in the glory, smile alongside Shea as they declare that 40,000 pounds of hot dog meat will be donated to the less fortunate, and go on a two-day water-and-lemon-juice cleanse to prevent his body from shutting down altogether.
Seven and a half minutes to go: The natural stink of the outdoor stadium forms an invisible mushroom cloud above the masses and I feel myself pulled in. Not everyone in the press pit seems to agree, but I see Al Freni bouncing on his heels between shots and know he feels it too: it’s exciting. Joseph is pounding dog after dog with absurd focus, and any time absolute sweetheart Esper is referenced by Shea as he live commentates, the crowd pops with a boo almost as hard as they did for their own jagoff mayor. Esper doesn’t deserve it, but he’s the chosen villain of the operation, Steve Austin versus Joey’s The Rock. I can hear the playback broadcast from the tinny speakers of the ESPN production iPads in front of me, and the unhinged excited cadence of the announcers pulls me in further. “Joey Chestnut eats hot dogs the way Hemingway wrote novels,” one says, and I . . . agree, I fucking agree. This is athleticism.
Five minutes to go: I’m breathing heavily for some reason, why am I breathing like this? George Shea is hollering over the roar of the crowd and the smacking of jaws about Joseph’s journey, breezing through his romantic history and failed engagement as Joseph continues to pound food and I feel the hot dog pheromones pulsing from his skin complete their journey from the stage to my nostrils. It all hits at once, I can fix him, the titties whipped out in the crowd suddenly make sense, this is a man who has sacrificed for his craft and needs love, hey that could be me too, hey this person makes perfect sense, yes, let’s talk about it later, I love you Joey, let’s get you the fuck out of here.
Two minutes to go: Around 56 hot dogs, something in the air changes — the sex chemicals turn to solid meat and fall to the ground, oh shit, oh wait, no, my first instinct was right. This is the most fucked-up thing I’ve ever seen, and we’re killing Joey Chestnut because it’s fun to watch. This man is dying. I can see the blood being pushed to the surface of his skin and his breathing change as he pushes his own guts around to accommodate the record the people want. He’s going to get to 76 if it kills him, and it doesn’t today, but surely soon?
10 seconds: George Shea is foaming at the mouth as Joseph crosses the 75-hot-dog threshold. Joseph is all focus, and I miss the artful touch of Kobayashi as Joseph grabs the final dog and “clears” it (nothing hanging out of his mouth) before the buzzer sounds. The crowd loses their shit as the unsuspecting theme park attendees scream in the distance.
He wins. America wins. I love him. I win.
The roar of the crowd fades some five hundred years later and they begin to filter out to a boiling hot afternoon. Still, Joseph has to jump through his final hoop of the day — remaining onstage for a full 45 minutes to answer questions from the press, again to prove he doesn’t leave the stage and immediately vomit his brains out. The press section is not just allowed but encouraged to line up and ask Joey their single question, one after the other, most of them asking how he’s feeling in body and spirit. Joseph burps up different versions of the same answer with the same crooked smile, glancing over to the Bounty-sponsored tent where he’ll get to wipe his mouth and exhale when the crowd disperses.
“What are you gonna ask?” my boyfriend whispers to me. My mind is completely blank as Joey can be heard saying, “Feels good!” a few feet away.
Henry approaches. “If you want to ask a question, you should get in line,” they say to me softly. I can see the two hours left in their shift reflected in their eyes. I look to Joey, to them, to him. I have no question.
“I have no question,” I hear myself saying, in spite of the fact that a reporter has one job and it’s to have a question.
They shrug and walk away and I grab my boyfriend’s hand, suddenly overwhelmed by a need to get the fuck out of here, and nearly walk right into a day gig worker holding an enormous plate of hot dogs that passerby pluck up in one of the most unsanitary event moves I’ve ever witnessed. I’ve seen this plate before.
“Is that—” I say.
“Joey’s leftovers,” the worker confirms, pushing the plate toward us. It’s disgusting and of course I take it, it’s delicious, I want a second, they really grill those things up nice for him. Moments like this are why I save my meatpacking-industry research for when Hot Dog Summer is over — in moments like this, one can’t handle the truth.
As we pass through the bowels of the building, the volume kicks up behind me because Joey’s reached the end of the press line and is making a beeline for the bathroom, flanked by a small entourage. The line for the bathroom is long, but the sweaty, beefy men in the line know what to do when a living legend needs to shit himself.
“You can get to the front of the line, Joey, it’s okay!” Joey smiles at his fans, a thick sheen of sweat covering his body.
“Don’t worry about it, guys,” he says, nodding into the distance. “I’ve got my own bathroom.” He goes back to the VIP area and presumably throws up 76 hot dogs in the same shape they entered his body.
Why did that make me horny? Joseph Chestnut is America, USA, he is gross and complicit and smart and weird and I hate how much I like him in spite of all of it being so hard to watch. I love him. I could fix him. Right?
*Jamie’s little aside: A year later when I was in the trenches of editing this book, another curveball. My brilliant friend Annie Rauwerda, who curates the Depths of Wikipedia and has chronicled some of the world’s most cursed facts, informs me at our first in-person meeting that the woman who turned down the wedding proposal was her. The man in the tank top was comedian Johnny Gaffney, whose calling card is, and stay with me here, staging viral failed wedding proposals with people he knows. It was all fake, but standing in the middle of my Fourth of July sweat puddle, it meant something to me. Hi, Annie.
From RAW DOG: The Naked Truth About Hot Dogs by Jamie Loftus. Copyright (c) 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of Tor Publishing Group.