At the Great American Ball Park, on a cool and rainy night in June, I raise the last inch of a Big Red Smoky hot dog to my lips with a trembling hand, put it in my mouth and slowly, resolutely begin to chew. I'm like a cow chewing the cud. This is slow work.
It's the bottom of the seventh inning. Down on the field — well-tended and bright green though a steady rain — the Cincin-nati Reds lead 10-1 over the Baltimore Orioles. But I am not watching. Perched high in the air, way up in the bleachers, I am trying to swallow the last pieces of my fourth and penultimate hot dog.
And I'm struggling.
There are onions on my shirt. There are, I suspect, onions in my beard, too.
And there are definitely onions in my beer. I can see them bobbing around in there like little onion boats. My thumb bears a stubborn mustard stain, like the nicotine stain of a heavy smoker. And I'm chewing. And the fans are shouting. And it's raining. And my jaw is aching. I have to rest for a minute or two. I loosen my belt a notch. I am a hot dog casualty.
First down the hatch tonight, just a couple of hours ago, was a kielbasa, smothered with onions and green and red peppers and slathered with ketchup and yellow mustard. Sitting in my hand, it has a satisfying heft to it. It must weigh at least a half-pound. If I threw it at someone, it would hurt them.
But I'm hungry. I've fasted all day in preparation for this evening, and I dispatch it easily. Spicy and flavorful though it is, I'm still hungry. I am ready for my next dog.
Tonight's hot dog challenge is one I've accepted with curious intent. CityBeat's assignment: The ballpark as restaurant.
The conceit: I shall attend a Cincinnati Reds game and sample one of each of the several different hot dogs for sale at the various franchises within the stadium. The menu: A kielbasa, a bratwurst, an All Beef hot dog, a Big Red Smoky hot dog and a dog purchased in the stands from a circulating vendor.
Five hot dogs in considerably fewer hours; it shouldn't be too difficult. It seems like a realistic proposition. After all, legend has it that New York Yankee Babe Ruth once ate 24 hot dogs in the break between the two games of a doubleheader. On July 4, Takeru Kobayashi of Japan won the 2005 Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest in Coney Island, N.Y., by downing 49 hot dogs in 12 minutes. And I have several hours to eat just five.
I have brought friends with me. They are good friends. We all sit together in the bleachers and watch the rain falling on the fans seated below us.
My friends are eager to see me eat five hot dogs within the space of a couple of hours. I think they are hoping they might see me vomit on myself; nevertheless, they are decent and sensible people. Occasionally, they say reasonable things like, "You don't have to eat the whole hot dog." To me, this is a sign that they might not fully understand the challenge.
Next up to bat: A bratwurst, glistening with its own juices and nestled comfortably in a white, fluffy bun. I squeeze the contents of a couple of packets of sweet pickle relish across its lightly browned camber and take a bite. It is juicy and hot, a little peppery, delicately seasoned, and it rivals the kielbasa for taste.
Great American Ball Park is a fitting location to enjoy tonight's hot-dog-a-thon. Summer, baseball and hot dogs have always gone hand-in-hand. In 1957, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, presumably enjoying a rather slow day, made it official and designated July National Hot Dog Month. And according to the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council — oh, you just wish I'd made that up — Americans were expected to consume more than 150 million hot dogs during this year's Independence Day holiday weekend. Also from the Council's vault of hot dog statistics: 27.5 million hot dogs are eaten annually in major league ballparks in the U.S. This many hot dogs, laid end to end, would stretch from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Meanwhile, down on the field, Felipe Lopez has just hit a grand slam homerun for the Reds. The ball arcs high in the air. It's going ... going ... and it's gone. The fans are wild with excitement. Fireworks explode over the river. There is mustard on my shorts.
I show my appreciation for fine batsmanship with another hot dog. This time I try an All Beef hot dog, covered with chopped onions and several layers of mustard and ketchup.
Frankly, I can tell it would be delicious if I hadn't already eaten two baby-sized hot dogs within the last couple of hours. My stomach is gurgling.
By the seventh inning, the rain has stopped falling, the Reds enjoy a 10-0 lead over the Orioles, and it's time for yet another hot dog. I make my way, a little unsteadily this time, hands now cradling my straining belly, to the concessions stands and purchase a Big Red Smoky. I return heavily to my seat. I think I might be sitting on someone's peanuts.
I realize I have no clear recollection of the last three innings. The players on the field are starting to look like little hot dogs, running around in uniforms. The bats look like big bun-less kielbasas. A hot dog-shaped cloud has just drifted slowly across the face of the rising moon. My beer tastes of hot dogs. In my notebook, I have written: "Feel sick."
Tentatively, I take a bite and slowly chew. Scrawled in my notebook are the words: "The Big Red Smoky is big, red and smoky." And then again: "Feel sick."
It is around this time in the evening that I realize: We all know what's in hot dogs and yet, at the same time, we tell ourselves that we don't really know what's in them at all. In fact, denial is necessary just to enjoy them. This makes hot dogs a unique kind of food.
Not long after first arriving in Cincinnati from England, I clearly recall learning from a magazine article that a major ingredient of hot dogs was "Cow Lips." I remember thinking: How dare they tell me the truth. I can't eat cow lips. But what I really meant was: I can't know I'm eating cow lips.
Speaking of cow lips, I now hold in my hand a lukewarm foil-wrapped package, which one of my friends — my decent and sensible friends — has helpfully procured from a vendor in the stands.
This friend of mine insists that I have to try one of these dogs. The last time she was at a ballgame, she says, she had one that resembled a shriveled penis. I don't want to eat anything that resembles a shriveled penis. I really don't.
I unwrap it. And it doesn't look too shriveled. My stomach lurches. I eat it anyway: Number five. Its surface is unusually resistant to my teeth. It tastes ... weird. But it is gone.
The game is over. My hot-dog-a-thon is over, too. My belt is too tight. The fans stream happily from the stadium into the night, and I waddle painfully to the parking lot, dreaming of Tums. ©