June 1- 7, 2006
Naked CityGorging to be Free
I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free. And this past Saturday, I bore witness to the citizens who gorge themselves to give that right to me. The Nathan's Famous regional qualifier pitted some of the area's most resilient eaters against nationally regarded competition. The prize: a spot at "the big table": Nathan's Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest.
The crowd, which assembled in front of Old City's Independence Visitors Center, was mostly made up of chuckling tourist families. The vibe was overwhelmingly positive, save for a contingent of pamphlet-bearing PETA protesters playing gruesome slaughter footage on a portable screen.
The eight competitors rocked faces of granite as emcee George Shea read introductions. The gallery roared as the eating period commenced. Watching adults stuff their faces is surrealfor 12 minutes, all the deeply ingrained societal niceties we usually honor are discarded in favor of a singular goal: to out-gluttonize the other gluttons. It's manly, macho American competition at its sloppy, belching best.
This contest, however, was a co-ed affair. Smack dab in the middle of the testosterone-spewing tableau was Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, a pro who took the 2004 Wing Bowl title. Thomas is a shockingly tiny woman of Korean descent, so small that the sleeves of her standard-issue Nathan's T-shirt extended far past her elbows. Shea called her "slender as the sickle in the hand of the Grim Reaper."
Not surprisingly, Thomas was the victor, slamming 36 and a half dogs and buns down the hatch. Maybe you had to be there, but it was the Virginia native's style, not substance, that captivated the masses. While her 200-plus-pound adversaries dry-heaved and tried to shake off the meat sweats, Thomas was a calculated nitrate-downing machine, vaporizing piles of food with the unflappable zeal of the Lost Boys in Hook.
As I approached Thomas after her victory, some guy came up to her and handed her a root beer float. She took one sip, and proceeded to spit it out on the ground, where it splattered onto my flip-flopped foot. "I hate root beer!" she grimaced. "Tastes like poison." If it had been anyone else, I would've been pissed. But The Black Widow? Madam, 'twas truly an honor to be spat upon by you. Also amazing: Thomas wasn't even close to full. Her only complaint was that her jaw was slightly tired.
After the trophies were handed out, I caught up with PETA spokesman Chris Link, whose cohorts waved "Nathan's: Cruelty On A Bun" signs. "We wanted people to know that cows are interesting animals that have unique personalities," he told me. "They have feelings and thoughts. They suffer pain just the same as you and me."
Link's cause is as valid as anyone else's, but I'd be lying if I said I could get behind it. Still, PETA's presence reminded me why America kicks maximum assalthough the protesters, onlookers and cow-munching heroes agreed on little, that didn't stop them from peaceably co-existing. Plus, the staff handed out uneaten dogs after the contest. (I had three.) There ain't no doubt I love this landGod bless the USA.