Let me give you some advice. If you ever do a Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition, don’t do it for the FIRST time AT the original Nathan’s in Coney Island, WITHOUT ever training, AGAINST a legendary professional, ON CAMERA. If you do, you could end up looking foolish.
That’s basically what I did for the grand finale of the History Channel Dot Com Holiday Foods series. I went to the storied Stillwell and Surf location to take on the storied Eric BAAAAAAAADLAAAAAAANDS Booker in a mini three minute version of the 4th of July Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating competition.
Badlands has been a personal hero of mine for a number of years already, if only for the open mouthed poses he has mastered for the camera. But when I was told I’d be going up against him in battle, I did a little research. I knew he held some records, but I didn’t realize he held records for some of my favorite foods: cannoli . . . corned beef hash . . . candy bars . . . matzo balls . . . donuts . . . burritos . . . hamentashen! And it’s HIM up there in the middle of the big board staring at Tekeru The Tsunami Kobayashi, hot dogs at the ready.
I was intimidated to say the least. Badlands is a competitive eating Goliath, and I’m no David. I did spend a summer selling Nathan’s hot dogs at the Single A Cyclones ball park right next door to the original Nathan’s. And any hot dog I couldn’t sell, they’d let me take home for free to my endless bbq in the 2004 Summer of Awesome (as it came to be known). I’d eaten more than my fair share. Still, I thought I’d better train a little so as not to make a fool of myself.
As luck would have it, my best friend Greg bought me a sweet ticket to see my lowly Nats take on the mighty Phillies down at the ball park in Philadelphia the night before the contest. AND IT WAS DOLLAR DOG NIGHT!!!
It would have been the perfect opportunity to get some practice in. Never mind Badlands, I could see what I was up against internally. But the dogs in Philly have less snap than Nathan’s dogs. Nathan’s dogs, the ones at the flagship location at least (I don’t know why Nathan’s Famous would sully its good name by selling snapless franks in supermarkets and franchised locations the world over), are encased in real intestine so they taste way better but they’re harder to eat. It’s an entirely different experience biting through one of those.
I still should have tried eating one in Philly as fast as I could to see how I fared. Instead, I convinced myself that I’d die of nitrate poisoning if I ate a bunch of hot dogs the night before a hot dog eating competition, and so settled for a photo op with Greg, and only really ate two . . . slowly. Rookie mistake.
When the day came I was NOT prepared. After leaving Philly at 11pm, I had to stay up until about 430 writing a paper for school. I was on NO sleep. Aaaaaand I had a shoot early in the morning during which I had to eat a bunch of tacos (delicious tacos at Alma, but not the proper way to start my day).
By the time I got to Coney, I was so nervous. And worse, I felt like a pretender to the throne. People train for years, fight through dozens of qualifiers, suffer through endless heartbreak before they get to compete at Nathan’s against the likes of Badlands Booker. And here I was, a rank amateur, getting a shot at the champ just because I had cameras with me. Shame washed over me when I saw the big man approach.
But anyone who knows Badlands Booker knows he is a great guy. Truly a gentle giant. He greeted me with a “What’s good Famous?” and immediately put me at ease. Even the sight of dozens of hot dogs didn’t really effect me because I was having such a blast with Badlands mugging for the camera and such.
However, when I met the EMT on hand, I got nervous again. It’s funny that even though I should have felt better that there was a trained medic who would be just feet away while we competed, it made me more ill at ease. I guess I was thinking about how dumb I’d feel if I choked on a hot dog.
Badlands told me it’d be a good showing if I ate five in the three minutes we had. I decided I could down 7, at which point Badlands said, “Oh it’s like that, then we’re ON.” That’s how inexperienced I was. I didn’t even know I was challenging the pro when I was challenging him.
I stupidly decided NOT to dunk my hot dogs in water on the logic that dunking is gross and I could eat more if I was actually enjoying them. The competition began, with three cameras set up, a four person film crew, Ryan Nerz – author of the hilarious “Eat This Book” – announcing, the EMT standing by, and about 20 onlookers gathered round. And on my very first bite I immediately realized, “There is NO way I’m gonna eat 7 hot dogs.”
The bread expanded rapidly into every corner of my mouth. The bite I took must have been far to big. I couldn’t swallow if my life depended on it. But I only had three minutes to compete and Badlands was chomping through two dogs and buns (dunked) at a time. So, prematurely, I dunked my dog and took another big bite. Now it felt my whole head was filled with wet bun and chewed up hot dog. There was nowhere for it go. It just went in circles around my mouth. It was not pleasant. And I was making a fool of myself.
After a full minute I hadn’t even finished one. By the time I recovered from the original bite, half the competition was over. I managed to nearly choke on a couple of occasions too because I’d be chewing all that wet bun up front and a stray piece of hot dog would try to escape down my throat. I felt like I could end up like the little girl Moonlight Graham had to save in Field Of Dreams. That’s not how I wanted it to go down.
When three minutes were up I’d eaten less than 3 hot dogs (and I’d chipmunked the last 3/4 of a dog, Major League Eating lingo meaning I had just shoved it into my cheeks) while Badlands swallowed ELEVEN. That’s a really good pace for him considering the real competition is four times longer and his personal best is 30 and a half.
When I finally downed my chipmunked hot dog, I said, “I’m not even full,” and Badland responded with “You wanna go again?!? Let’s GO.” With that, we were off for, as Ryan Nerz put it, “An unprecedented one minute overtime.” None of that part made the cut for HistoryChannel.com so I’ll tell you, I managed just one more hot dog while Badlands downed another FIVE. What a pro.
Badlands had been semiretired from the competitive eating circuit when I met him. He’d lost 120 pounds (then gained another 40) he told me. He’d gone from an XXXXXXL Nathan’s tee shirt to an XXXXL. Everyone wanted to know if he was going to get back into the game. Last week, I heard he won a qualifier in Camden New Jersey and he will be ON STAGE tomorrow at the 4th of July Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Competition. I’d like to think I had a little something to do with it.
Missed the video link at the top? Here it is again: Famous Fat Dave Vs. Badlands Booker At Nathan’s
(Post-competition it’s a classic Badlands pose)
(Badlands Booker you’re my hero)
(Badlands, Melissa, me, and a lemonade)
(Badlands, Ryan Nerz, Me, and the Crew. Thanks History.com)
Visit www.FamousFatDave.com for five borough eating tours where the original Nathan’s Famous is a classic stop