This Thursday, July 4, for the first time in more than a decade, I won't spend Independence Day counting hot dogs in Coney Island. Yes, that was the back of my head you saw on ESPN, watching eagle-eyed as the greatest gastro-competitors in the world inhaled hot dog after hot dog after hot dog — literally ad nauseam.
All for the honor of hoisting the prestigious Mustard Yellow Belt, signifying dominance in the sport of speed eating. And yes, competitive eating is a sport. If you don't think so, tell that to the 40,000 fans who gather at the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island and 1 million viewers on ESPN each year.
My tenure as judge at the Super Bowl of Competitive Eating started in 2007. I watched the July 4 contest on TV and on a lark emailed George Shea, president of Major League Eating. He's also the hilarious, over-the-top emcee at the hot dog contest. I asked, can I be a judge next year?
Ken Hoffman, hot dog judge
He said yes, and in 2008, I arrived at 10 am in Coney Island to check in at the judges tent. I was given a black and white referee's shirt and Nathan's baseball cap, with my assignment on a piece of tape under the cap's brim. For several years, I was assigned lowly ranked eaters at the far end of the table, eaters who had no chance of challenging the legendary Joey "Jaws" Chestnut and his strongest challengers like Takeru "Tsunami" Kobayashi, Tim "Eater X" Janus, and Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti.
It was Japanese champion Kobayashi who brought the "Solomon Method" of speed-eating hot dogs to America in 2002. He broke the hot dog in two, put both pieces in his mouth at the same time, and plunged the whole thing down his throat with a sopping wet bun. Disgusting yet pure genius!
Over the course of 11 years, I've had quite a few wild experiences at the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.
In 2009, after being banned from the contest in a contractual dispute with the governing body, Major League Eating, Kobayashi showed up at the contest to challenge Chestnut … Clubber Lang-style. It was a pre-arranged publicity stunt, but somebody forgot to tell the New York Police. They arrested Kobayashi, and while "Koby" swung his legs trying to escape a cop's clutches, he clobbered my son, who was attending his first Coney Island contest. Lucky kid. He couldn't wait to tell his friends. "Did you see me on TV?"
As I proved my mettle as a judge, I was assigned better eaters who were positioned near the center of the long table. That's where Chestnut and the other betting favorites stood, easier for ESPN to capture the action.
My big break came in 2015, when I was assigned to count hot dogs for rookie eating sensation Matt "Megatoad" Stonie. In what is now considered the greatest upset in sports history, Stonie captured the title with 62 hot dogs, besting Chestnut by two franks. Naturally the world of competitive eating was stunned. Chestnut was the eight-time defending champion and deemed unbeatable.
As veteran eater Crazy Legs Conti once told me, "Maybe you can beat Joey in a chicken wing contest in June, but nobody beats Joey eating hot dogs on July 4." Conti is best known for being buried alive under 70 cubic feet of popcorn and eating his way to survival. When not competing in eating contests, Conti is a window washer, bouncer, screenwriter, and nude model.
After I turned in the paperwork that certified Stonie as the new champ, I was approached by a field producer for CNN. Would I do an interview in front of the stage? I said no, I'm a little covered with wet hot dog chunks and soggy bun bits (competitive eaters are such Messy Marvins), can we do this a little later?
Hoffman on CNN
At 4 pm, I was on the fifth floor of Time Warner Center, in the makeup room for my appearance on CNN International. The makeup woman said she had recently dabbed powder on former President Bill Clinton and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's noses. And now me.
I was placed in a tiny studio, just a chair for me, and a camera with a small monitor under the lens. I could see anchor Jonathan Mann doing the news from London. Then it was my turn. He asked me, "How does somebody eat 62 hot dogs in only 10 minutes?" When I answered, in gross detail, I could see a look on his face that said, "Sorry I asked." My 90 seconds of processed meat fame aired around the world that night and all the next day.
After Stonie's victory, I was on my way. The next three years, I counted the hot dogs for Chestnut, winner, winner, winner, and Miki Sudo, winner, winner, winner. Nobody in the history of competitive eating judging will ever top my seven-peat, plus I did it on the grandest stage of them all, July 4 in Coney Island. I also counted gyros and matzoh balls for Chestnut in eating contests in Houston. I should be in the Major League Eating Hall of Fame! Is there one?
It wasn't all glory during my hot dog judging career. There was the time I noticed Kobayashi experiencing a "reversal of fortune" (use your imagination) into his 64-ounce Big Gulp. That was bad enough, but then he destroyed the evidence with a big gulp. Yikes! Another time, Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas was penalized four hot dogs for creating too much "debris" during the contest. Some of that debris smacked me in the face and landed on my shirt.
Now let's discuss the "Great Hot Dog Scandal of 2018" and why you will see a new, more accurate system of counting hot dogs this year. I was appointed to count Chestnut's hot dogs, as I had done the previous two years. Each of the heavyweight eaters was assigned two judges, one to count the dogs and one to flip over the score card. Last year, I was the card-flipper.
The scene in front of Chestnut was mayhem as usual. There was my judging partner, me, a local reporter, an ESPN runner, and Chestnut's coach. Yes, he has an eating coach. I was told by the ESPN guy to turn around each time I flipped the number card, so it would have been impossible for me to watch Chestnut's every swallow. Meanwhile, I was being shoved and pushed around like a White House press secretary at the DMZ in Korea.
As soon as the contest began, I knew we were in trouble. My counting partner said, "I can't see." I'm told the judges' platform was lower than in years past, but I can't say for sure because I was concentrating on the score card. Each time my partner yelled a number in my ear, I changed Chestnut's score. My partner kept saying things like … "54, I think." That's not good. When the final buzzer went off, I was holding the number 64. I knew the number wasn't right. Chestnut knew the number was off, too. He leaned toward me and shouted, "You &*&*'ed up!"
...and a gross miscalculation
Chestnut actually downed 74 hot dogs and buns, a new world record. We missed by 10 dogs. The judges next to me missed their eater's total by 21 hot dogs. Up and down the table, judges were wrong. I felt terrible because Chestnut's glorious triumph was delayed for several minutes in the confusion. Chestnut is one of the kindest and most gracious sports champions I've met.
My judging partner left Coney Island in a blur, and I was left to take the heat for the miscount. The next day, I did interviews with news outlets across the country. The only long-form interview I did was with the podcast Fink Beats the Stomach. Google it. The hosts are very funny.
This Thursday, I will be in front of my TV, watching the hot dog contest and cheering on Joey Chestnut. My work is done.