Big appetites come in small packages.
Or at least that's how the adage should go after 115-pound Michelle Lesco scarfed down 28½ Nathan's hot dogs -- buns included -- Saturday outside the Kmart in Bloomingdale to win the qualifier for Major League Eating's Fourth of July finals in Coney Island, New York.
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Lesco, an Arizona native who attributes her abilities to growing up on a diet heavy in rice, narrowly defeated New York's Eric "Badlands" Booker during the 10-minute contest. Booker, who tips the scales at nearly four times Lesco's weight, was bested by one frankfurter. Both traveled to be one of the eight people competing in the qualifier and both earned a trip to the finals.
A pained Lesco said afterward that she was looking forward to "a nice salad" for her next meal, "and burping."
"I can't wait to burp," she said. "The burps are nice."
This was the fifth of 12 qualifiers held around the country over the two months leading up to the finals, which have become enormously popular in recent years.
Fox River Grove's Thomas Coats Jr. was the local entrant in the contest. He barely made a dent in the piles of hot dogs laid out in front of him during the competition. He finished with a total of 10.
"My goal was 30, but it just didn't happen today," he said. "Last night I prepared by eating six pounds of water, protein shakes and beans so it would stretch my stomach."
Hundreds of competitive eating fans turned out for the event -- or it might have been for the free Nathan's hot dogs cooking on a grill nearby -- and to cheer on the eaters.
At eight months pregnant, Lauren Zboralski thought it would be crazy for a pregnant woman to participate in competitive eating.
"That's just too much heartburn," the Carol Stream woman said. "And if anyone eats more than one in this heat, I'll be amazed."
But chow down they did. Lesco steadily plowed through the hot dogs, unfazed by a culinary wrinkle in the contest.
"They toasted the buns," she said. "That's not normally how they do it. It changes the consistency and it's harder to eat as fast."
Competitive hot dog eating is a bit more science than art. Eaters separate the meat and the buns when they devour the hot dogs. The actual hot dogs go into the eaters' voracious maws like wood into a chipper, and then they dunk the buns in water cups nearby to quicken consumption of the bread product. Toasted buns are harder to soak and the whole process takes longer, Lesco explained.
George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating, said Saturday's event was made even more by both Lesco and Booker nearly setting a new Illinois state record.
While there are eating competitions involving a variety of foods, Shea said hot dog-eating contests hold a special place in Americans' hearts.
"Some it is the august tradition of the event," he said. "But there's also some part of it that because everyone knows how many hot dogs they can eat, they can connect with it and marvel at the eaters."