Behind a long, Last Supper-ish table, topped with ketchup, mustard and Solo cups of water, stand the thirteen competitors in this year's Vegan Hot Dog Eating Contest. Among those ready to snarf on this cool Austin, Texas, afternoon: A baby-faced, shaggy-locked, stoner-eyed teenager, wearing a neon yellow astronaut's helmet, and a plush stuffed parrot on his shoulder; a young woman with electric blue hair, who tells one of the two emcees for the afternoon that her name is Anita Bonghit; and, towering above his foes, the returning champion, an enigmatic middle-aged film technician with a Cosmo Kramer haircut who competes under his nom de food "The Dog Hammer," and who, when asked to identify the grossest thing he's ever eaten, answers that he once ingested half a cheeseburger he found in the front seat of his friend's car.
A DJ plays the Michael Buffer "Let's get ready to rumble" track from the first Jock Jams album, and they're off: The contestants begin to stuff their faces with as many vegan wiener dogs, in between egg-free, whey-free, all-vegan wiener buns, as they can, in the ten allotted minutes.
This is the ninth annual Vegan Hot Dog Eating Contest, and the fourth in a row to be held at the Fun Fun Fun Festival, a three day music-and-arts event in Austin's Auditorium Shores park that this year featured performances by artists as diverse as Slayer, MGMT, Tenacious D, and Jurassic 5. Though the rules for the Vegan Hot Dog Contest are similar to the ones you probably know – entrants must eat as many dogs, and buns, as they can hold down, in ten minutes, and dunking the hot dogs in water is encouraged—this Austonian contest is not associated with the official Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place on New York's Coney Island each Independence Day, and which has turned competitive eat-letes like Kobeyashi and Joey Chestnut into minor American celebrities for their wiener-gorging abilities.
No, the Vegan version of the contest is a local concoction – both in the sense that it was founded in Austin, and that it feels so representative of the city itself. There is something so Austin, referee and organizer Chris Ledesma told me, about a Vegan Hot Dog Eating Contest, and that rings true, at least for the "Keep Austin Weird" section of town. The driving concept cleverly turns on its head a piece of new Americana and modifies it for one of Austin's progressive subcultures. The competitors themselves, haphazardly poached from hotdog lines at the festival, seemed to somehow epitomize the general Austin population, too: Stoners, burnouts, clean-cut college students, fun-loving European emigrants, hippies, and the bearded, bicycling, bandana-wearing uncleaned fringe were all represented.
And then, too, there were the oh-so-Austin condiments of the afternoon itself: a trio of fresh-faced cheerleaders (or "cheer-wieners"), galloping through the crowd with pompoms, leading a chant of "WIE-NERS! WIE-NERS! WIE-NERS!"; the ironic appropriation of the campy Jock Jams soundtrack; and the heartfelt dedication, by Ledesma, of the competition to his ailing mother, with a final request for the crowd to think of their own mothers at the festival, whether they're " listening to music, drinking beers, rolling on X, whatever: Make her proud."
Microcosm or not, it turns out that Austin's Vegan Hot Dog eating contest is part of a larger constellation of clever public theater. Ledesma is behind an Austin-based culture and arts organization called iLoveMikeLitt, named for co-founding artist Michael Litt (Ledesma promised me that "Michael Litt" is, indeed, the man's birthname). The organization throws a series of cultural events aimed at spreading awareness of liberal political and social causes, including a veggie speed-dating night, a John Keynes-themed "mixed economy bar crawl," and a Vegetarian vs. Meat-Eaters arm wrestling competition.
The point of these events, Ledesma says, is not to exclude meat-eaters and create a quinoa social bubble for vegans; rather, the events are meant to be inclusive, and to open up non-vegans and non-vegetarians to alternative dietary habits, if even for a meal. The Vegan Hot Dog Contest, for example, does not require that a participant be vegan, or even vegetarian; contestants were poached at random from food truck lines around the festival in the days leading up to the competition, and simply asked if they would consider the event. Vegan, vegetarian, or carnivore, all you need to be in order to participate in the Vegan Hot Dog Contest is hungry.
This year's competition ended in something of a controversy, as the 96 hot dogs that Ledesma ordered were devoured at around the 8-minute mark, with two minutes remaining. The winners were declared to be those who had finished the most wieners at that point; and so it was that last year's champion, "The Dog Hammer," was victorious again, having eaten 9 vegan hot dogs in 8 minutes.
"It was disappointing," the Dog Hammer (the nom de food of Dan Cofer, the technical director at Austin's landmark Alamo Drafthouse movie theater) told me later in an email. "I knew I could have eaten at least two more. Mostly, I was still hungry."
And yet, in the true Austin spirit, the Dog Hammer abides. When I asked him if he would return to Fun Fun Fun next year, to defend his vegan hot dog eating crown and attempt an unprecedented vegan hot dog eating three-peat, Cofer answered with two succinct words that could, perhaps, in some futuristic setting, work as an Austin city motto.
Would the Dog Hammer defend his title?
"Fuck yes," the Dog Hammer said.
(Topmost photo by Jason Gilbert. All other photos by Dave Mead.)