The Rant 

I enjoy celebrating Independence Day much the same way I do New Year's Eve — I stay off the streets. The nation's birthday has become an annual orgy of mattress and auto sales, not to mention the charcoal and lighter fluid. Aside from visiting with family and friends, there's really no good reason to leave the air conditioning for outdoor activities now that the fireworks display over the Mississippi River was moved due to budget issues. However, the amateur fireworks were so loud on my block that we had to sedate the dogs. After viewing the July 4th hot-dog eating contest at Coney Island, live on ESPN, I thought I would need sedation myself.

This has got to be the only country in the world where some people go hungry, while others are "professional" eaters. But who could object to a good old-fashioned sausage-eating contest that's been going on at Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Stand since 1916? I can. The once good-time event has now gone big-time with the formation of the Major League Eating organization. It is the governing body that oversees all professional eating contests in the nation, under the auspices of the International Federation of Competitive Eating. The MLE is looking toward global expansion, but it is limited to places where they actually have food. Other than the U.S. and Japan, I think the league is having trouble fielding a team in countries like Haiti or Bulgaria. And it's no longer merely hot dogs. In a year, there are more than 80 major scheduled events, like the Krystal Square-Off and the Pizza Hut P'Zone Chow-lenge, with corporate sponsors as varied as Smirnoff Vodka and Netflix. The Coney Island competition was co-sponsored, appropriately, by Pepto Bismol. I like a Nathan's hot dog myself, just not 50 at once.

This year's contest was engulfed in controversy when former champion and world-renowned eater Takeru Kobayashi refused to participate because of an "impasse" with Major League Eating. The Japanese challenger left the Mustard Belt up for the taking since the MLE wanted to bar him from participating in "outside competitions." This meant clear sailing for defending champ, Joey Chestnut, who out-gorged the rest of the field, winning by nine dogs plus buns. Without Kobayashi to spur him on, along with the 95 degree temperature, Chestnut fell far short of his own record of 68 dogs in 10 minutes, devouring a mere 54 red-hots and half a bottle of Pepto. The real drama came after the event ended, when Kobayashi, wearing a green "Free Kobi" T-shirt, attempted to storm the stage during the award ceremony and was arrested and carted off by the police. The huge crowd of spectators chanted, "Let him eat," while the Who's "Baba O'Riley" blared over the loud speakers. Just like professional wrestling, allow a league to take monopolistic control, bring in the corporate sponsors, and there goes your "sport."

In the end, the event looked more like the marathon dancers of the Thirties — doing something unnatural and demeaning for the entertainment of the mob in the hope of winning the $10,000 grand prize. The "color commentators," who kept referring to the bingers as "athletes," reported that Chestnut consumed 20,166 calories in 10 minutes while perfecting his technique of shoving two dogs in his mouth at once while doing a little jig to stretch his stomach lining. In his career as a professional eater, Chestnut has won over $200,000, three cars, and a motorcycle. He's also eaten 10.5 pounds of macaroni-and-cheese in seven minutes and 56 matzoh balls in one sitting, even though he didn't know what matzoh was before the competition. While the other contestants looked for buckets, Chestnut waved the Mustard Belt aloft while drooling hot-dog juice down the front of a T-shirt covered in corporate logos like a race car driver. I couldn't decide which was more offensive: the mindless inhalation of massive amounts of food or the corporate takeover of "the sport of competitive eating."

This Super Bowl of gluttony is a typically American spectacle that would be an occasion for mirth were it not for the fact that the gulf between the haves and the have-nots has never been greater since the Gilded Age of Robber Barons. But even then, the "in-your-face" attitude was subdued, lest the proletariat rise up and storm the suburbs. Major League Eating does nothing to help the nation's obesity epidemic, especially now that Tennessee has been ranked second in the country, only behind Mississippi, as the fattest state in the union.

There are many issues to blame, but there is no worse perpetrator in the enlarging of America than the fast-food restaurant chains. I sympathize with people who struggle with their weight, but lately it seems as if most have simply stopped the struggle. Exhibit A is the sandwich sold by KFC consisting of two fried chicken breasts filled with bacon and cheese, a heart attack available in the drive-thru. Morbid obesity is so common here that the front pew in church looks like the Pittsburgh Steelers offensive line. Major League Eating seems sort of incongruous while the Memphis Food Bank is feeding over 186,000 people per year who otherwise would not have nourishing meals. Other than gluttony and sloth, there is a word that describes this big-money, "professional" eating circuit: disgusting.

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