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Eating contests: The great American tradition started by immigrants

It's a strange mix of satisfaction and indigestion when you finish an eating contest. You're triumphant because you've surprised everyone, yourself included, with how much you can eat. Yet all the while, weird things are happening in your stomach.

I went into the Harvest House Hot Dog Eating Competition with two goals: Don't be last, and don't throw up. (Spoiler alert: I accomplished both.)

Watching the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island has become a Fourth of July tradition for me, my dad and thousands of other red-blooded Americans.

What started in 1916 as a test of patriotism between four immigrants has grown into a spectacle so grand that people from all over the world flock to Brooklyn to watch a grown man shove 70 hot dogs in his mouth. If our Founding Fathers could see us now, I have no doubt they would beam with pride at the tenacity and resolve we show as a nation when we guzzle down mystery meat.

Contestants in Monday's hot dog eating contest at Harvest House had five minutes to eat as many hot dogs as they could. Proceeds went toward the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation.DRC
Contestants in Monday's hot dog eating contest at Harvest House had five minutes to eat as many hot dogs as they could. Proceeds went toward the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation.

My dad and I would watch with amazement as Takeru Kobayashi, Joey Chestnut and my personal hero, Sonya "Black Widow" Thomas, wiggled around onstage, trying to move the food packed in their chipmunk cheeks down to their stomachs. One year as we were watching, my mom told me I had actually won a watermelon eating contest at 6 months old. In an instant, everything clicked. I realized my true calling in life.

Folks, I might not be very athletic, but by God, I can eat.

By the time I graduated from high school, I had won four hot dog eating contests with a personal record of 13 dogs in five minutes. I even applied my gastrointestinal skills to life outside contests, spending one would-be prom night inhaling three pints of ice cream.

There were a few wing-eating contests in college that I fared well in, but nothing ever amounted to my former teenage glory years. When I failed miserably at RG Burgers' King Kong challenge, I knew it was time to retire.

Apparently, word got around the Denton Record-Chronicle office (probably because I told everybody) about my amateur eating days and a story was pitched. I soon found myself in stretchy pants at Harvest House, staring down a pyramid of hot dogs.

The rules were simple: Eat as many hot dogs as you can in five minutes. All of the contest entry fees were going to the Denton Animal Shelter Foundation, so I just had to keep reminding myself that I was doing it for the actual dogs.

My strategy was also simple and something that has become standard in the world of competitive eating. As soon as the bartender said go, I took two dogs out of their buns and started chomping away. I dunked the bread in the water to make it easier to chew. A minute in and I felt like I was keeping a steady pace.

But there comes a time in many an eater's journey where they hit the wall. It then becomes a question of sheer willpower, the ability to keep chewing no matter what. I hit that around three minutes, but there were so many cool, hip people cheering me on.

With 10 seconds left on the clock, I shoved everything I could in my mouth, knowing I had an extra 20 seconds to swallow it. In the end, I ended up downing seven hot dogs (really seven and a half, but house rules said halves didn't count).

One person didn't make it through the three-minute "don't vomit" period after the contest, but somehow I was able to keep it down. When results came out, I was in the middle of the pack, but remember, it's all for the doggos. The winner, Lorenzo Gonzalez, somehow put down 14 dogs and, sir, you are a king among peasants.

So as you chase your friends around with bottle rockets (oh, that's just me?) and crack open a few cold ones, raise a dog to those brave and sweaty delegates who wrote to King George III all those years ago in Philadelphia, and take a bite out of freedom. This is exactly what they had in mind.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.