Competitive eating occupies a strange place in American culture. Once the domain of county fairs where contestants buried their faces in blueberry pies, competitive face-stuffing has become professionalized in recent decades. There's a governing body, Major League Eating, which organizes and promotes about 70 competitions a year, including the annual Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July 4. The league even ranks its 50 most fearsome eaters.
And yet: Even though ESPN televises the Nathan's Famous challenge - considered the Indy 500 of professional gorging - the jury's still out on whether competitive eating is a sport or simply gluttony fashioned into a kind of circus attraction, the sporting equivalent of a traveling freak show. Before I watched a single frame of director Nicole Lucas Haimes's ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, "The Good, The Bad, The Hungry," I would have sided with the circus-attraction contingent. I find it impossible to watch 11-time Nathan's Famous champion Joey Chestnut shovel hot dogs down his gullet and draw a single comparison to LeBron James.
Haimes's sharply drawn, surprisingly intimate documentary changed my mind about the skills necessary to compete on the professional eating circuit, but it did something else, too: It confirmed that the patriotic, us-versus-them language used to hype an event can assume a life of its own, one that can turn cruel and dehumanizing. It underscored the fact that in a nation where the lines between politics, sports and reality TV have become increasingly blurred, some folks do not know where the truth ends and the hucksterism begins. Or they don't care, because it's just too much fun to watch and participate.
"I'm a person who's really fascinated with niche activities and obsessive persons, having some of those in my own life," Haimes said in an interview with The Washington Post. "I was really interested in what's making these competitors tick."
The director basically follows three people: Takeru "Kobi" Kobayashi, the willowy Japanese native who shattered the stereotype of a beer-bellied competitive eater, just as he shattered the record at Nathan's Famous in 2001 when he gobbled down 50 dogs (almost doubling the previous high of 25 1/8 dogs); Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, the introverted-but-ambitious Californian who was determined to unseat Kobayashi and become the greatest competitive eater on Earth, and George Shea, the frustrated writer-turned-public-relations-man who, along with his brother, Rich, transformed the sleepy Nathan's Famous contest on Coney Island into a summer blockbuster on ESPN.
Shea used the tools of his PR trade to generate hype. He created a "trophy," a championship belt originally fashioned from a mustard-yellow weightlifter's belt adorned with costume jewelry. He pressed himself into the master of ceremonies duties for the event, where he invented a strutting, straw-hatted character who's part tent revivalist and part carnival barker. But most of all, he amplified the "threat" of competitive eaters from Japan, a country that had a long history of professional gluttony.
The Mustard Belt "created a very powerful rivalry between America and Japan. Everything just became enormously fun," Shea explains in the documentary. "How can the Japanese guy beat the American? America's honor besmirched. A dark day for our country. That's really where things just got off and running."
In laying out her tale, Haimes explains how Kobayashi, almost single-handedly, put competitive eating on the map in America by treating the competitions as a sport. He trained. He developed techniques that allowed him to suck down more hot dogs than any biped before him.
Kobayashi basically rewrote the book on how to turn pleasureless gluttony into a profession. (I use the term "pleasureless" to draw a distinction between his job and my own profession of pleasurable gluttony - or mostly pleasurable gluttony.) Kobayashi's technique involves removing the hot dogs from their buns, snapping each link in half and slamming both halves into his maw at the same time, so the molars on each side of his mouth can quickly grind the sawed-off meat sticks into a digestible mush. It's called the "Solomon method," so named after the King Solomon story in which the royal threatens to cut a baby in half to determine the child's true parent.
Kobayashi then soaks the buns in water so hot that it's sensitive to the touch. The water contracts the spongy roll into a small, soggy mass, easy to shove down your throat. But the warm water also, apparently, opens up the stomach, allowing Kobayashi to wolf down more dogs than fans in the left-field bleachers at Wrigley Field. For a five-year run, from 2001 to 2005, Kobayashi was unbeatable on the Fourth of July at Nathan's Famous. In due course, he became a competitive-eating legend, whose fame followed a well-trodden path from kooky subculture to the heart of mainstream America.
"Kobayashi was the man," says Chestnut in the documentary. "The other competitive eaters, they thought of him as unbeatable. . . . He wasn't an eater. He was a god."
Over the course of her film, Haimes shows how Kobayashi and Chestnut essentially switched roles: The American became the dominant eater, adored by legions, and Kobayashi became the man lost in the champion's shadow. Haimes breaks down their reversal of fortunes piece by piece, heartbreak by heartbreak. She reveals the fissures in Kobayashi's personal and professional life, and how they affected both his ability and desire to compete. She illustrates Chestnut's single-minded pursuit of Kobayashi's title, and the stomach-stretching, esophagus-strengthening exercises he performed to get there.
Haimes also revisits the moment when Chestnut and his brother, Will, realized that Kobayashi was vulnerable: It was a 2003 Fox reality TV show in which Kobayashi went head to head with a Kodiak bear in a hot dog-eating contest. "We saw him lose to a grizzly bear," Will says in all earnestness, "so we knew he was beatable."
But there's a deeper, more troubling current that runs underneath the main narrative in "The Good, The Bad, The Hungry": Haimes shows how, over time, the pro-America rhetoric used at the Nathan's Famous contest hardened into something more jingoistic and harsh. When Chestnut unseats Kobayashi in 2007, the director features a clip from the contest that shows Kobayashi trying to congratulate the new champion, while the crowd waves American flags and yells, "Go home, Shanghai boy!" and "Go home, kamikaze!"
"We have our confidence back!" Shea shouts as Chestnut claims the crown for America. "The dark days of the last six years are behind us!"
Haimes then cuts to an interview with Kobayashi, recalling the moment when America turned its back on him. "I was shocked," he says, tears welling in his eyes. "They used to cheer for me, and I started to feel I wasn't welcome in America anymore."
It's impossible to watch this story unfold and not think about American politics and the current occupant of the White House. President Donald Trump and George Shea are, at heart, salesmen, their rhetoric just a means to an end. Neither seems to care much whether his words have a toehold in reality. To them, the victory is everything, whether it's generating national attention for a hot dog-eating contest, or winning a presidential election.
But as Haimes subtly points out, these games of mass manipulation have consequences that the salesmen don't always see. It could be an irrational, dehumanizing hostility toward a sensitive and once-beloved Japanese competitive eater. Or it could be that a sizable chunk of America no longer trusts any branch of government besides the executive one. Either way, Haimes seems to say with her brilliant documentary that many of us are incapable of listening to our own hearts and minds when the hype rings so loudly in our ears.