#14/52: The Hot Dog Eating Contest

I’m hungry.

I’m hungry and I’m bored.

A devilish combination.

I’m hungry and I’m home and I’m not quite sure what I want. But then again, I’m never quite sure what I want – and that feeling doesn’t simply stop with my summertime snacks.

What do I want out of my life, my career, my next relationship and most important, what do I want for lunch? The latter being the more easily solved.

Questions so challenging I’ve taken to trying technological tricks and tactics as a fast fix. Technology has, seemingly, become my ally in my quick quest for everything from companionship to couscous.

It’s gotten bad. To choose my meals I’ve been using the Wheel of Lunch to sort through the possibilities and narrow the field. For dating I’ve resigned to relying on late night lurking of online profiles.

As I peruse the online prospects and meander through Menupages, one thing becomes clear – no picture on the page of my Macbook (be it a handsome bachelor or a Momofuku Pork Belly Bun) makes my quest any closer to conquerable.

Pork Belly Buns

Jake, The Bachelor

The online search is far from the solution I seek. Finding fantastic food in this fair city and finding equally fantastic friendship is not as formulaic as the reviews would have us believe.

Here’s how my internet interaction usually plays out:

I’m hungry. I go online to seamless web and drool over photos of food – tasty morsels only 30 minutes, 4 flights of stairs and a friendly delivery guy away from my plate and my palate. The food arrives bruised and battered from its journey – 35 blocks is a long way to travel. I end up disappointed that it does not resemble its photos. Somehow, it’s less tasty. My hopes are dashed.

Online dating is just the same. I start out hungry. Hungry for something, some one, some conversation, some compatibility. I log on and drool over photos of a guy – a tasty morsel only 30 minutes, 4 flights of stairs and a friendly delivery away. He arrives bruised and battered from his journey – 35 years is a long way to travel. I end up disappointed that he does not resemble his photos. Somehow, he’s shorter. My hope are dashed.

And what about me? What will he think of the real me versus the fantasy me? Will AmyWVillagegirl match up to his expectations? What if my laugh is deeper and heartier than he thought it would be? What if I curse more than he hoped? And what will he think of me when I don’t match up perfectly to my photos or his fantasies?  He might like the photo with the curly hair and I show up after an hour of flatironing. He might like the picture in the red dress with the view of The Collesium in the background, but I show up in jeans and we’re far away from the romance of Rome. It’s all too much pressure to place oneself on a pedestal to be judged and sized up from the outside in. I mean, I’m fine if you want to judge me as I walk down the street – but I’d rather not pay the forty dollar fee for such a service.

It is a contest I will not win. The buildup, the photos, the supposed perfection of it all sized up in a 400 word essay About Me and About My Date.

At a time when our technology has us seemingly so connected, I started to feel disturbingly distant. I spent more time online than outside. I spent more hours reading NY Times restaurant reviews than being the reviewer myself.

I decided to switch off my ipod, put down my blackberry, and shut down my laptop.

So I officially logged off from online dating and I decided to peruse my plates in person instead of online ordering — all in an effort to reclaim my identity as a self proclaimed old fashioned gal. I will look a stranger in the eye. I will say hello to my neighbor. A little experiment, a little test – far from the cruel contests of online love.

So far, things are seeming more organic, more fluid and I feel more present. My mission is much less a search and destroy, and much more a see and discover. And now the only contest I want to participate in is that all american hot dog eating competition. The only thing I want to judge is my food.

Luckily, I spent my Thursday serving as a Judge for the Concours de Chien-Chaud (AKA: Hot Dog Eating Contest) at the French Culinary Institute. My assignment: The condiment contest. Now thats a contest I can sink my teeth into.

Happy to be the judger and not the judgee of this contest – I sauntered south to SoHo and was welcomed by the staff. I was escorted into a room filled with custom-designed equipment — from Jade ranges to Winkler Wachtel deck ovens to Vulcan Swiss kettles — where eager students stood before me just asking to be evaluated.

I would not judge them on their looks, nor their personality. There was no swimsuit competition in their future. These students will be judged on their creativity, their inventiveness and their skill. Their challenge: To concoct the perfect hot dog accompaniment. And my job: simply to eat.

I move from station to station – from Roasted Red Pepper Date Sauce to Caramelized Vidalia Onion, Pineapple & Mango Relish evaluating each bite for texture, taste and transportability. I look around the room at the serious students standing before me with their brows beading with sweat. I sense their nervous energy as they list their ingredients and instructions for preparation. And as their sentences begin with a stutter, I pause to notice my heart has begun to skip a beat as well. And even though my food — my condiment in this case — is not on the chopping block, I somehow feel uneasy.

As I move from condiment station to condiment station my temperature rises – and not just from the enormous amount of hot dogs of have just inhaled. I diligently jotted down notes, scribbling key words and phrases here and there: sweet vs. savory, spicy vs. mild and inventive vs. old school. The flavors begin to run together. The criteria becomes confusing. The memory of what I tasted only moments before begins to fade. The faces of the students become blurred and my mouth is now ablaze with Spicy Roasted Red Peppers. My belly is full and now — so too is my brain. I escape the room and wander off down the hallway to quietly collect my thoughts.

What right do I have to judge? At a time when everyone seems to be an internet food critic, I wonder: who am I to say which dish shines? Feelings of insecurity come over me and I am sure I am now feeling more pressure than those students in the spotlight. But aside from my own feelings of inadequacy and separate from the stress and the pressure placed upon my palate, one burning question begins to plague me: How will I know when I have found the one – for food, or for friendship.

Will a rating system help or hinder? Should I write down all of my qualifications on paper and check them off accordingly? Should I close my eyes, spin around and pick one? Or, will I just know when the right one – the winner – comes along?

On my way back down the hallway, as I fret over finding a fix and selecting a solid winner, I locked eyes with good-looking guy. With my pact to meet people in person instead of in the online universe, I decided it would be a good idea to simply say hello. So, I said Hello. Then, he said Hello. I smiled. He smiled back. I told him my name was Amy. He said, “I’m Greg.” We stood staring for what felt, in those early stages of attraction, like an eternity but was, in reality, merely a minute, a moment, a second that stood still. When the moment passed and we came back down to the universe we continued to talk as if not a beat was missed. He was instantly warm and easily engaging to the eye. He wore a silly tie and pleat-front pants.

Greg, in the distance - Khaki's and all

We soon were entrenched in a deep discussion surrounding the challenges of choosing the right condiment for your hot dog. Greg certainly knew his hot dogs after having spent a lifetime surrounded by his family’s hot dog business (a NY favorite: Sabrett) and he was a stickler for staying true to what he considered to be the ONLY hot dog condiment that made any sense: Spicy Brown Mustard. Between judging the condiments for their viability and evaluating Greg for his viability I was becoming overwhelmed. And then, I discovered something.

Greg was young – nearly 7 years my junior and well out of the desired age range listed on my online profile. Greg wore an Irish cross around his neck – not even remotely the type of guy I would find in my late night scans through jdate. Greg didn’t match up to my height requirements and his facade on this day – in those pleat front pants and quirky Sabretts tie given to him by his grandfather – would never have passed my initial internet sight test.

But he had something. I felt something. And through his eyes there was a connection that hadn’t been matched in my last series of blind dates. In fact, I discovered, I’d rather not be blind. I’d rather see. Even if that means I have to wait and see – or wait and wait and wait and then see.

And then I discovered something else.

I left Greg and headed back into the condiment contest kitchen. I tasted the last and final topping and I instantly knew I had found the winner. There was no questioning, no notes to refer back to, no tally to count. There was just one clear winner. It felt right and I knew it in a place far, far from my brain. I knew in my gut – that deep, center of the soul that sometimes screams to us so loud even when we try to ignore it. I knew that my taste buds were right on target and worthy of judging all of the condiment contenders. I knew the winner worked well not because of the notes I scribbled on my page, not because of some fantasy condiment criteria or list I had created in my head — but because my body told me so. And I knew greg was a contender as well – for a drink at the local bar, a meal in the east village, and a night out in the meatpacking district – all of which eventually happened.

I’m no longer hungry. And I’m a little less bored than I was before. And even though it might take a little longer and require a bit more energy on my part, I’d rather search for my soup and my soulmate in the real world.

Here’s to my winner – Glen Cinguina and his Spicy Caramelized Vidalia Onion, Pineapple & Mango Relish for reigniting my enthusiasm and forcing me to trust my palate. And here’s to Greg for doing the same.

(get well sandy)

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