In the “Moral Epistles” the author, Seneca, a Roman statesman and philosopher who was an adviser to Nero, writes: “They vomit so that they may eat and eat so that they may vomit.” Seneca goes on to characterize Roman banquet protocol: “When we recline at a banquet, one [slave] wipes up the spittle while another, situated beneath [the table], collects the leavings of the drunks.”
American popular culture has transformed this Roman worship of gluttony into competitive eating contests, where Roman overindulgence in sensual pleasure is replaced with the meaningless pseudo sport of speedy food engorgement.
And just when you think this kind of absurdity has reached its height, pop culture literally regurgitates on itself with an off-off Broadway show called Hot Dogs: the Competitive Eating Musical. The show is a musical tribute to Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest held every July at Coney Island.
The musical was written by Kristyn Pomranz and Katherine Steinberg, the duo behind Sauce and Co. that also wrote and produced last year’s NYC Fringe Fest hit, I Can Haz Cheezburger: the MusicLOL.
Competitive eaters take themselves and these inane competitions very seriously. Contestants liken themselves to world-class athletes. Joey Chestnut, ranked No. 1 in the world by the International Federation of Competitive Eating, says his success results from intensive training, comparing himself to a bodybuilder or a marathoner. Chestnut attributes his accomplishments to hard work, not gluttony.
“Joey Chestnut! Joey Chestnut is like the greatest American eater, so in our version we have a guy named Johnny Cashew,” says Pomranz. “And, instead of Kobayashi, we have Adakoshi.” Takeru Kobayashi won Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest for six consecutive years.
Chestnut reportedly trains about once a week, eating mass quantities of whatever food he’s expected to consume for the next eating contest. The list includes hamburgers, hot wings, oysters, deep-fried asparagus, key lime pie, chicken wings, cheesecake, and lobster.
“We were definitely inspired by them,” says Pomranz. “I mean, I’m a huge competitive eating fan, I’ve gone to Coney Island a bunch of times, and I even”is this embarrassing?”I used to go to other little competitions, like stops on the circuit. So I’m a huge, huge fan of these eaters. We have nothing but respect and love for them and you can see that in these characters that we built, you can tell how much we love these guys. So yes, it’s inspired by the people, but not based on the people.”
Annually, there’s over one hundred “Major League Eating”events worldwide sponsored by The International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) which established eating as a sport in the 1990s. The IFOCE awards hundreds of thousands in prize money and attracts big time corporate sponsors like Alka-Seltzer, Johnsonville Brats and Krystal hamburgers.
All these food eating contests and musicals about food eating contests takes place against the backdrop of a culture struggling with an epidemic of obesity and diet-related disease that costs well over $147 billion a year in the U.S., and where record numbers of the unemployed are on food stamps.
During an interview, Pomranz, the musical writer, mulls adoringly over the ongoing rivalry between the two eating competitors Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi at Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. Pomranz recalls Joey Chestnut’s victory. “But when Joey Chestnut brought the mustard belt back to the states it was interesting because hot dogs are so American. And all of a sudden it was like ‘Yes, the mustard belt is back, it’s in the states, it’s American, it’s patriotic to love this.'”
And there you have it — pop culture. Need I say more?