I've always wanted to enter an eating contest. Well, not always. For a long time, I had no idea competitive eating could bring fame, money, and prestige. (Think it doesn't, Google "Joey Chestnut" and see how many pages come up.) But once I realized you could eat for sport, I wanted to try it. I love competing and I love eating. (Sure, the first time someone says you remind them of a T-rex when you eat may be disconcerting, but eventually you get used to the comparison.)
I eat well. Usually faster than everyone else around me and usually finishing all my food. And your food if you don't. (I have strict internal rules about when I can ask if I can eat your food.) It wasn't always like this though. When I was younger, I pretty much lived on a diet of chicken fingers, mac and cheese, and noodles. I was a strange child who liked fish sticks but not fish and ketchup but not tomato sauce. That ended in my teenage years when I began eating anything and everything and was greatly bolstered by J. Michael Floyd's policy of unlimited food at the UGA dining halls. (Let the Big Dawg eat!)
Back to Kazakhstan though. My co-workers were the first to tell me about the hot dog eating contest. But by the end of the day, the signs were posted all around town. "Hot dog eating contest. Sholpan night club. April 12 10:00. First prize: $100." Quickly, everyone was encouraging me to enter the competition. For those of you that only live in America and have never been to Kazakhstan, you may not know that hot dogs are our national food. I had to enter the competition. It wasn't an issue of eating prowess, but protecting the pride of an entire nation.
I figured I would be able to sign up the day of the competition, but Aidos and Asela were wiser. They went by the Friday before the competition to learn what was what. They found out they had to sign up, but there were only two spots left. Even though Asela wanted to compete herself (why, I don't really know. No one would ever compare her eating to a dinosaur.) she decided to sign me up instead. Aidos and I were registered. Now I had less than a week to train.
But I didn't train. I read somewhere once (or rather saw on MTV's real life, I'm a Professional Eater) that the pros eat a lot of lettuce to expand their stomachs. I figured I could do the same with cabbage. I thought a lot about that, but in the end it was just thinking. I also ate no hot dogs because hot dogs here are actually really disgusting.
This brings me to my primary concern prior to the compeition. I had no idea what they meant when they said "hot dog." Much like "Chinese food" in America is not real Chinese food, hot dogs in Kazakhstan are not real hot dogs. The problem begins with the sausage. It's very soft, kind of like a log of bologna. Then the bun is hardly ever a bun but a lipeowka cut in half. (That's a round bread popular here.) Way too much bread for the amount of meat. But they compensate by smothering it with ketchup, mayonnaise, and vinegar soaked carrots. Mustard? Ha! Way way too spicy for people here. (Side note: there is one place that serves almost American hot dogs in Taraz. The sausage is better and they put mustard on it. Ironically though, they call it "The French Hot Dog.")
The second concern were the rules to the contest. Would there be water? Was dipping the hot dog allowed? How many minutes would it be? Was it just one round of competition? I guess I could have gone by and asked, but I didn't. They remained questions until the day of the competition.
Wednesday came and I implemented my preparation strategy. Starving myself before the competition would be no good. My stomach would shrink and I'd get no where close to my maximum number. I ate a small breakfast, a full lunch, and one stick of shoshlik at dinner. I set a goal of eleven hot dogs at English club. I was ready.
At ten, Aidos and I arrived at the club. Mark, Jessica, and Courtney came along to cheer us on. It was my first time at this particular club. I had avoided it for some time because of its reputation, but I was there for hot dogs not for dancing. I figured it would be okay. Jessica said it reminded her of a frat house she went to once. The dance floor was in the middle of a octagonal room. The top floor was open allowing a balcony to look down at the dance floor. There were neon lights and strobe lights flashing. But the music was really good.
So we got there punctually at 10, but in local tradition we had to wait two hours for anything to start. Eventually they called all the competitors together to explain the rules. Eyeing the competition, I saw about three girls, a few big guys that seemed like threats, but mostly regular sized guys (also threats though.) The rules were laid out. Because the room was small, there would be three ten-minute round with six eaters. But we were all in competition against each other. They'd give us a liter of water (without gas) to help. They'd put fifteen hot dogs in front of us but they'd give us more if we finished them. I asked Aidos if we could dunk (despite Krishenya, I still don't know that word in Russian). Yes. We could dunk. Excellent.
Then about twenty minutes later, they started the competition. The asked for six of the registered participants to volunteer for the first set of six. And they asked again. And again. No one wanted to be in the first six, including myself. The final six are at a distinct advantage of knowing how many hot dogs need to be consumed. They can also pick up strategy tips from the other competitors. Finally, though, the nerves and waiting just got too much. I stepped up as competitor number four.
The dance floor was transformed into a hot dog eating stage. There were six round table placed in a circle around the floor. On each table, there was a tray with fifteen hot dogs, one mug of water, and a bottle with extra water. They also placed a stack of napkins there. On the floor next to each table was a bucket in case we had to… well, you can figure it out. In addition to these items, I placed my cell phone on the table so I could monitor the ten minutes myself and filled up my mug to optimize dunking. None of my competitors seemed as serious.
Then it started. I reached for hot dog number one. The bread was not a lipeoshka, and was only slightly bigger than an American bun. There were also no carrots, but it was slathered in ketchup and mayonnaise. I grabbed the meat out of the first dog and crammed it in my mouth. Chew chew chew. Swallow. The meat is the easy part. Then the bun. Dunk. Chew chew chew. It takes a long time to get the bread down. Dunk. Chew. Dunk. Chew. I finished the first dog in about 40 seconds. Dog two took about the same time. And so on.
At about minute five, I was about four and a half dogs in. I started noticing my competition. Two guys were keeping pace, but were not dunking. Major mistake. I seemed to be slowing down but never stopped. Pacing myself to the cheers from my fans. No one else seemed to have fans, but my blasties did a good job with the "Michael, Michael, Michael." And I even appreciated Mark's "Do it for Uncle Sam."
I finished another hot dog and looked down at the clock. One minute left. I had no idea how many I had eaten. But I said, one more. Get it down. Dunk. Chew. Dunk. Chew. It almost came up a couple times, but finally the last bite of bread was in my mouth.
By the official rules, that dog shouldn't count, but they had counted it. At the end of the first round, I'd put down eight. The two guys I had been concerned about had put down six and seven. But I knew the major threats were still to come. The pros would wait until round 3. And maybe even there would be some major eaters in Round 2, which was scheduled to take place in fifteen minutes.
The biggest surprise was that I felt fine. My stomach was full, but was by no means bursting. The strangest sensation was around the throat. It did feel like if I put anything else down, it'd all come up. But I was able to dance and boogie when they played Lady Gaga. I was confident but nervous. How would the eight hold up for the rest of the night?
To be continued…