View From Lodi CA: Independence Day and Hot Dog Gluttony
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Last Independence Day marked the return to excellence for American hot dog eaters.

On Coney Island at Nathan's Famous, Californian Joey "Jaws" Chestnut brought the crown back to the U.S. and established a new world record when he ate 66 hot dogs and buns (HDBs) in ten minutes—or one every 10.9 seconds— thereby ending the six-year run by Japan's legendary Takeru "The Tsunami" Kobayashi. [Chestnut Smashes World Record, Beats Kobayashi for Title,  Associated Press, July 4, 2007]

And Chestnut, by winning the coveted, bejeweled Mustard Belt, pulled it off without any "reversals," competitive eating parlance for barfing.

For Americans in the fast growing sport of competitive eating—the Coney Island event is televised live by ESPN— Chestnut's triumph is a glorious moment.

I'm obviously not enough of a globalist to be comfortable with the concept of a non-English speaking Japanese guy being the world record holder in a hot dog eating competition.

Japanese don't even eat hot dogs at their baseball games preferring instead, of all things, battered and fried octopus nuggets.

But I do admire Kobayashi's dedication to his art. He trains tirelessly, spending hours each week on stomach stretching and jaw strengthening exercises.

Local favorite Chestnut arrived on the competitive eating scene in April 2005 when he consumed 6.3 pounds of deep fried spears in 10 minutes at the Stockton Asparagus Festival. Last year, Chestnut upped his total to 8.6 pounds, setting a new world record.

So popular is the Nathan's Hot Dog championships that this year qualifying rounds will occur in eleven nationwide cities. For interested Lodians, there's still time. Get yourselves to Daly City on June 28th and start eating hot dogs!

Chestnut, currently ranked number one in the competitive eating standings, is the odds on favorite at Coney Island. But one of his main challengers, and a former number one, is an unlikely figure.

She's Sonya Thomas, a Korean-born, Virginia resident who has dazzled the eating community with her achievements. Thomas' entourage refers to her as the "Black Widow" because when it comes to eating, she "devours" her male opponents.

Thomas holds world records in, among other categories, baked beans (eight and a half pounds in just under 3 minutes), 11 pounds of cheesecake, 10 minutes; 80 chicken nuggets, five minutes; 9 pounds of cheeseburgers, 27 minutes and 44 Maine lobsters, 12 minutes.

Needless to say, with intakes of that volume of food in such a brief time period, competitive eating has its detractors—most of them from the medical profession.

University of Pennsylvania gastro-enterology professor David Metz fears that competitive eaters run the risk of stretching their stomachs so much and so often that inevitably their bellies will look like baggy old sweaters and will never be able to shrink back to their original size.

Metz also points to research that indicates that obese people have larger stomachs than lean people. A 2004 study found that obese binge eaters have the largest tummies of anyone. A permanently and severely over-stretched stomach can lose the ability to contract and empty itself, necessitating surgery to relieve the consequent nausea and vomiting.

Dr. Thomas Zarchy, another gastro-enterology professor from the University of Southern California, agrees with Metz. Zarchy claims that competitive eaters put themselves at risk for a Mallory-Weiss tear, a rupture where the stomach and esophagus meet. And, over the long haul, doctors say, these eaters might become obese. [Competitive Eaters: Are Winners Born or Made? By Karen Ravn, Los Angeles Times, May 8,2008]

Obviously Metz and Zarchy have not met Chestnut, Kobayashi or Thomas, all of whom are fit and trim. Thomas barely tips the scales at 100 pounds.

Whatever your personal opinion is of competitive eating, it does offer one positive feature. If anyone accuses us of over-indulging during the Independence Day weekend, we can always point to Chestnut and his rivals as examples of what gluttony really looks like.

Joe Guzzardi [email him], an instructor in English at the Lodi Adult School, has been writing a weekly column since 1988. It currently appears in the Lodi News-Sentinel.

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