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Anthropology in Practice

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How does competitive eating represent us as Americans?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Nathan's of Coney Island, home of the International Hot Dog Eating Contest. | Photo by Rebecca Wilson, CC. Click on image for license and information.

The United States marks its independence today with a few activities: parades, fireworks, and competitive eating contests. While there are many variations of the latter, the most famous is perhaps the one held at the Coney Island landmark Nathan’s, where competitors have to consume as many hot dogs (including their buns) as possible in 10 minutes.

Considering that this is a nation that counts calories but spends heavily at fast food restaurants, it is no wonder the event is a spectacle. Competitive eating is a voyeuristic endeavor in this sense as it breaks from normal food consumption practices but it is also a celebration of plenty. These exhibits are demonstrative of the nation’s ability to provide and the populace’s ability to consume. Taken together, this is a display of wealth that many in the developing world cannot afford.

Further investigation reveals additional examples of how access to surplus enables this activity. Participants “train” by progressively increasing the amount they eat to retrain their stomach to hold larger quantities of foods. This must mean that they have access to plenty prior to the competition, which means that scarcity is not a component of daily life. They often refrain from eating on the day of the competition by choice#812;which is not a choice offered to many people around the world. Competitive eating is further legitimized because it is surrounded with with a host of support systems: Participants can visit a hospital and get medical care if needed, local law enforcement is on hand for crowd control, and sponsorships award prizes and provide the means for the competition to unfold.

The rise of television shows like Man v. Food has popularized the excess of competitive eating, but excessive eating is not a novel—or solely American—activity. It has been a mark of the upper classes throughout history to serve lavish fare with little thought to waste. The example we are perhaps most familiar with comes from the Romans, where the upper classes are reputed to have held lavish banquets featuring exotic or forbidden food items. It was clearly a mark of prestige to be able to procure, serve, and consume these items.

So what makes this instance of excess identifiably American?

The Nathan’s Hot Dog Competition is held on the American day of independence and the featured food, hot dogs, are touted as an American staple. Hot dogs are a type of sausage—and sausage production certainly predates American consumption—but they have been adapted as elements of American identity, like apple pie and baseball. They are parts of the ways we present ourselves on the global stage. In consuming hot dogs, we are consuming the things they represent: degrees of plentifulness and support.

Indeed, this is included in the fabled lore behind the origins of this particular contest. The contest promoter crafted a story about four immigrants who challenged each other to see who could eat the most hot dogs, and therefore was the most patriotic. The story is not true—it was a publicity stunt—but the ethos of the story speaks to a need for connectivity and belonging.

As numerous grills are turned on today to fulfill the mandatory barbecue requirement that goes along with summer celebrations, hot dogs will likely find themselves on the menu, In this way, the competition in Coney Island makes a connection to backyard cooks around the country, serving as one rallying point for how Americans choose to mark the day through one of the foods that represent their identity.

Krystal D'Costa About the Author: Krystal D'Costa is an anthropologist working in digital media in New York City. You can follow AiP on Facebook. Follow on Twitter @krystaldcosta.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. RogerPink 11:02 pm 07/4/2013

    Accurately

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  2. 2. Tue Sorensen 12:17 am 07/5/2013

    LOL! What RogerPink said!

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  3. 3. Richieo 5:48 am 07/5/2013

    As a nation that has exhausted all other options for entertainment.

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  4. 4. dbtinc 8:56 am 07/5/2013

    It’s disgusting and I’ve reached a point where I cannot hit the remote control fast enough. Ricieo got it right – just look at our “entertainment” these days. It’s like the fading days of the Roman Empire.

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