Most folks assume Upton Sinclair's seminal work, "The Jungle," about the Chicago meat-processing business, is the current state of affairs regarding hot dog production, but they would be as wrong as pink slime. I am one of the few civilians to tour the SFG Specialty Foods Group, Inc's not-open-to-the-public Chicago factory which formerly made 98% of the Nathan's hot dogs in the world. As a fourteen year Major League Eater, I was allowed to visit this hallowed hall of cased meat - like a gustatory gladiator in a non-filmed reality show titled, "America's Next Top Dog!" I can unequivocally claim that it was professional, stunningly clean, and a wonderful processed food facility. I wore three lab coats, a hairnet and even a goatee net and all I will write now (until I write my digestive memoirs), is that it was a cross between a dry cleaners and a car wash, that churred out pure beef dogs on three floors of production. Nathan's hot dogs are currently made by the John Morell company who know what pesky gluten is and how to get rid of it like an unwanted house guest. John Morell has a connection to Nascar and in the lead up to this July 4th hot dog eating contest, Joey Chestnut has been touring Nascar events featuring Nathan's hot dog qualifiers. Some say the 8-time chomping champ is getting pointers from the race cars to use in his own ingestion engine, but I believe that he is simply spreading the good love (and mustard) regarding the John Morell recipe. As for me, I have been buying packs of the John Morell produced Nathan's dogs hoping to find "The Golden Weenie" - the invite to tour their factory. If any Morell reps are reading we can discuss the factory dress code at the unofficial official hot dog after party (July 4th, 7:33 pm, Professor Thoms at 219 2nd ave, the password is, "Swordfish.")
American hot dog production is on the level meaning that the creation of NJ's beloved Pork Roll is below the level or perhaps below the belt. From the ubiquitous hot dog to the niche specialty meat, pork roll, we are talking about two different animals - the God-like revered cow (at least in India and David Duchovny "Holy Cow" novel) and the lowly swine (other than the three little, the one at the market, the one from "Charlotte's Web, and Babe. I believe Porky is on the fence may be an anti-hero) Speaking of, "The Babe" in George Miller's, "Beyond the Thunderdome," pigs in shit produced methane to run Bartertown ("Who run Bartertown? Not Master Blaster, not Tina Turner, but the pigs) but eventually Genius George turned his productive pigs into a superfluous farm cute who smiled a lot and went to the city. I can't remember if Orwell was pro-piggy, but there is something Orwellian in the pork roll production. Granted, I am no stranger to the potted meat genre of food. I worked for the film company that produced Billy Bob Thornton's "Sling Blade," and got to sample all the potted meat critical to the plot (most people remember the french fried per-taters.) I went to college in B'More and ate my share of Scrapple, the Maryland and PA regional breakfast side. If Scrapple is poor man's head cheese, than Pork Roll is the destitute down-and-out Liverwurst. NJ claims that Pork Roll is in the Bologna genus or a distant cousin of Spam, but I feel it's more like a pate of all the pig parts that people assume hot dogs are made of. Pork Roll is the foie gras of farm unmentionables and this coming from competitive eater who once did a dog food taste test for the "Dig and Scratch" newspaper (Alpo Chophouse T-Bone with Gravy had a couple bone chips but was tangy with hints of sandalwood.)
Before my dislike for the pork roll discipline gets me suspended from Major League Eating (poo poo'ing a sponsor's food is big no no), The World Pork Roll Eating Championship held at the Meadowlands Race Track and Victory Lounge was a stellar event. The people were kind (there was only one fist fight between fans over who got to sit nearest top ranked female eater Miki Sudo), families were out at the harness racetrack (betting on the trifeca in the fifth race is cheaper than a babysitter), and the production of the contest was top notch (I liked that they advertised the eating event on the backside of an Ostrich and Camel race billboard.) I do have some issues with NJ Transit and perhaps the State of NJ in general. I am very pro public transportation, but the NJ transit driver chose not to mention that the bus would go to a proper drop off, instead, everyone attending the contest was let off at the closed old racetrack instead of the new human-attended one. What could we do a mile and half from the event, but trudge forward watching 400 pound Badlands Booker (an MTA conductor and flagger no less; Go MTA yeah!) sweat through his "Hungry and Focused" clothing line.
I've written about harness racing and competitive eating before in, "They Shoot Wild Harness Horses, Don't They," so I knew how to bet on the trotters versus the flats and indeed, just before the pork roll contest commenced, I bet the three horse to show in the sixth race. I could see the three horse pulling ahead and then winning outright. The eating contest started and I was secure that if I didn't take home any of the top five prize money (each with a big novelty check) I had a winning betting stub...for how much, I did not know. I was tearing into the harsh Portuguese roll and the 5 thick slices per sandwich pork roll. (Later Wild Bill Meyers would insist his third sandwich had 7 slices in it and I would respond that if he was counting slices, he wasn't eating fast enough.) It was a dunking contest, but it seemed no amount of liquid could penetrate the dense almost meat-and-bread football. We were eating jockeys, riding a run away pork roll mudder and then mid-contest, deja vu replaced digestion as I recalled a previous Meadowlands eating contest and the worst event in Major League Eating history.
The Pork Roll contest seemed to blur in time and nitrates. I could hear fill-in MC Diamond Dave Keating work the mic but he was only present because MLE founder George Shea had called in sick, his first time in twenty years of the pro-eating circuit. George's claim was laryngitis but I don't believe it. George Shea is the guy in the Italian boater hat on the 50-ft riser on stage July 4th, the blazer wearing gent popping and locking with the bunnettes, the announcer who screams to the Stillwell and Surf Aves 40,000 person crowd that, "Competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer wage war for Men's souls." George is the best in the ballyhoo business, a caloric orator, a raconteur of the reversal of fortune, but even the finest chowdown commentator couldn't return to the scene of the World Pigs Feet Eating Championships, held at the Meadowlands, NJ over a decade ago. I was there, driving up the Jersey Turnpike, leaving a wonderful Eastern Maryland hippyish party titled, "Love Fest," to attend what was the saddest, most incomprehensible eating event ever. The Italians know what to do with the swine hooves - cook them for 8 hours in sweet tomato sauce, until they are palatable. These pigs feet were boiled, white, with giant toe nails and some hairs stick clinging to the calloused hooves. The prize money was for four places but only three eaters showed, Erik the Red, Arturo Rios, and myself. Pat from Moonachie was in attendance but claimed he could not eat pigs feet or who have to seek medical attention. Hungry Charles, the MLE commissioner convinced Pat to simply take the stage and he could have the 4th place prize money. Pat from Moonachie did, and simply put the pigs feet on his bald head (making all the News cameras perk up.) The pigs feet were impossible to eat, all skin and cartlilege. It was like trying to eat a flip-flop. Post contest, George Shea's wingtips would be sloshed with pigs feet cooking juice run-off as the scales malfunctioned. The eating event was preceded by a Sparkle Motion Dance Troupe, 13 year old girls in synchronized spandex outfits shaking their under-aged stuff in unsynchronized fashion. The Meadowlands staff was hurrying Hungry Charles and George to weigh the pigs feet because an ugly baby contest was suppose to take the stage and that was the evening's biggest draw. In the end, we guessed that Arturo Rios ate 1.1 pounds (the lowest total in MLE history until pork rinds would top out at .9 pounds and everyones gums were cut to bloody ribbons.) Arturo earned his only world record and title and I raced off, driving back to the welcoming party, cursing NJ the whole way until I could open a can of Natty Boh beer on a dock on the Chester River.
From feet to skin to roll, Major League Eating has waged a scarfing battle against the porkers in every form, fashion, and butchered part. How many records are there in the other white meat category? According to Major League Eating's record keeping department and my digestive track there are over a dozen pork or pork-related world records including Baby Back Ribs (5.24 lbs in 8 mins), Sliced Ham (2 lbs 10 oz in 5 mins), Pork Ribs (13.76 lbs in 12 mins), Pulled Pork neat (9 Pounds, 6 Ounces Smoked in 10 mins), Pulled Pork on Bread (45 sandwiches in 10 mins), and Pulled Pork Sliders (62 in 10 mins) where clearly smaller buns yielded a 38% increase. I am not even including Vienna Sausage (8.31 lbs in 10 mins), Bologna (2.76 lbs in 6 min) and Ham and Potato (6 lbs in 12 minutes). However, I don't know where to put Pork and Beans since the 84 ounces of baked beans was quaffed in 58 seconds on Oct 8, 2008 by Wing Kong Collins so perhaps it only counts as a drinking contest?
At the Buffalo Chicken Wing Festival George Shea has announced that the war between humans and poultry stands at not one human life lost, while millions of chickens are on crutches. Pigs are craftier than fowl though. I think the Pork Roll event was finally, "The Pig's Revenge." It may have started with the feet 10 years ago, knocking George Shea out this week, and then hammering the last eater standing into satiety submission. Matt Stonie the world bacon eating champion (182 Bacon Strips in 5 minutes) would go on to win agains the pork roll beast, but I believe the pigs, via pork roll, had their revenge on me. I finished run-through and hurting and in sixth place, just outside of the prize money. But I had my winning three horse ticket and I cashed it in thinking of fortune and gold doubloons. My three dollar bet paid three dollars and thirty cents. That's right, I won three dimes. That, and an aching belly, was my take for the night. Upon exiting The Victory Lounge (not as aptly named in my case), NJ transit was late. I smoked a non-victory cheroot and lamented being stuck in one of my least favorite states. Yes, they have The Boss and Kevin Smith (I think exalting Bon Jovi is like saying Canadians pride themselves on Justin Bieber) but NJ is just not for me.
Somewhere in the distance the "What Trenton Makes the World Takes" sign was lighting up but isn't that slogan a bit defeatist? Still rumor has it that come late September only one of the two different and separate competing pork roll festival will have a Major League Eating event. Perhaps I'll be banned for trash talking NJ and their love of the pork roll delicacy. That said, I insist the state motto should be, "New Jersey: Why Bother?" As the delayed NJ Transit bus careened toward the Holland Tunnel to return me to my New York snobbish breakfast patty lifestyle, the bright jumbotron billboard advertised the pork roll festival as if to taunt me - your belly might steal our pork roll, but NJ has taken your soul.
Crazy Legs Conti lives and loves NYC but Jersey meatheads can send their misspelled and shoddy syntax hate email to www.crazylegsconti.com