I sat in my English class senior year of high school more than a little distraught. At the time, we were reading Dante’s “Inferno,” and, after discovering that the epic poem was not based on the video game and was in fact an epic poem written in the 1300s, I completely lost interest.
This meant that for the most part, I didn’t pay attention as my classmates discussed the significance of each circle of hell and their own morality compared to that of medieval Christianity. But when the class turned to the sinners in the third rung of hell, the gluttons, I heard the most blasphemous sentence ever uttered.
“Joey Chestnut would probably end up in hell.”
Now, if for some unfathomable reason you haven’t heard of Joey Chestnut, let me introduce him.
You’ve probably heard of the greats in many sports — Michael Jordan for basketball, Wayne Gretzky for hockey, Michael Phelps for swimming or my dad in the “How Long Can One Man Go Out For Cigarettes and Milk Olympics.”
Joey Chestnut is like these stars but better. His athleticism, fervor and game-changing level of play is virtually unparalleled by any of his contemporaries. Chestnut is the master par excellence, the peerless preeminent principle, the supreme to the extreme.
As for his sport, it isn’t what we consider to be traditional. Chestnut doesn’t play on a court, run on a field or skate in a rink. His sport is competitive eating — specifically, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest.
Chestnut has taken home the title of this great American institution a staggering 12 times. For context, that’s more than the number of titles won by any other athlete in a major American sport — yes, even more than Bill Russell. His record for hot dogs eaten in 10 minutes is a number so ridiculous it’s almost unfathomable.
Imagine the number of hot dogs you think you could eat in 10 minutes.
Then double it.
Then double it again.
If you’re a rational and sane person, that number is probably less than Joey Chestnut’s record of 72 hot dogs. That is not a typo. Seventy. Two. I’ve never eaten 72 of anything. Unless my feelings count, in which I have certainly eaten those hundreds of times.
But my point is that Chestnut’s feats border on the impossible. If you would have said to anyone two decades ago that someone would be able to eat 72 hot dogs in 10 minutes, they would have called you crazy. After all, the reigning champ in 1999 ate only 21 1/2 hotdogs in 12 minutes.
That number wouldn’t even get you in the ballpark of Joey. If you would have told someone in 1999 that Donald Trump was the president in 2017, and that in the same year a normal human being ate 72 hot dogs, it’s debatable which one of those claims would have been considered more ludicrous. Joey Chestnut is just that great.
Returning to my English class, the misguided student who slandered Joey Chestnut actually had a decent argument as it relates to Dante’s “Inferno.” Gluttons were punished, according to Dante, for excessive consumption, of which Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, prima facie, is a prime example.
And it isn’t just the logic of medieval Christianity. To this day, people point to the hot dog-eating competition as “excessive” and “unnecessary” gluttony. For many, the competition is a reminder of the plague consumerism has seemingly cast onto society.
But the point these arguments miss is that Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest is not just aimless consumption. It’s a demonstration of the propensity of people to overcome the physical boundaries laid upon them. It’s like any other historical achievement — unnecessary and excessive.
Humanity did not need to walk on the moon, but we did. Kobe Bryant did not need to spend 14 hours a day, every day, shooting a ball through a metal ring, but he did. Dante did not need to devote years of his life to writing “Divine Comedy,” but he did.
It’s a mistake to assume that excessive and inordinate consumption is inherently gluttony. Competitive eaters such as Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobayashi, Matt Stonie and Miki Sudo are not gluttonous for gluttony’s sake.
Instead, these athletes are driven by the same motivation that drives all historical greats — to achieve what was previously considered impossible. They shut down their instinctive nausea, they gain up to 22 pounds of weight and they chug Pepto-Bismol all in the name of greatness. They are, to paraphrase Dante, coming forward to contemplate the stars.
I am unsure if Joey Chestnut, the greatest hot dog-eater ever, will end up in hell. Just as I am equally unsure if there is a hell to begin with. But what I am sure of is that competitive eating isn’t just repugnant, abominable gluttony. It’s greatness, and like all things great, its value comes from the eye of the beholder.
But seriously, can you believe he ate 72 hot dogs?