Sunday, July 5, 2009

Don't Count Your Hot Dogs Before They're Eaten

Through the years, I've found many entertaining ways to spend my 4th of July holiday. I've watched the Washington, DC fireworks display from the National Mall. I rode Belmont Park's Giant Dipper on its 75th birthday. And last year I single-handedly put out an apartment fire! But July 4, 2009 will definitely go down in history as one of my most memorable.

The original Nathan's Famous location, at the corner of Surf and Stillwell

They say that the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place at Coney Island every 4th of July, is one of those events that every person needs to attend at least once in his or her lifetime. This year I had an excellent excuse to check that one off my list: I knew one of the competitors!

I hope you're hungry, Sean!

The folks who run this competition do not mince words.

Sean Gordon, a friend of mine who hails from the gastronomic training grounds of Downingtown, Pennsylvania, smote his competitors in a regional hot dog eating qualifier back in May. That victory earned him a trip to the granddaddy of all eating contests and effectively ended any speculation over how I would be spending my holiday this year. I arrived at the corner of Surf and Stillwell bright and early yesterday morning, anxious to watch Sean and his fellow contestants put a hurtin' on those dogs!

George Shea, Chairman of Major League Eating

True to their roots, the good folks of Coney Island put on quite a show for us in the hours leading up to the contest. Our emcee was none other than George Shea, Chairman of Major League Eating, whose incomparable "joie de vivre" kept the amassing crowds entertained as we waited for the main event.

The Coney Island Strong Man dazzled us with his feats of strength. First he laid on a bed of nails, placed an anvil on his chest, and allowed his sons to pound on it with sledgehammers. For his encore, he encouraged them to bend a piece of rebar around his neck! I can only imagine what family gatherings must be like in that household...

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus troupe, which will be performing at Coney Island throughout the summer, was also on hand. They wowed the crowd with balancing, juggling, and tumbling acts, but my personal favorite was the dancing dachshunds! After all, what's a hot dog eating contest without wiener dogs?

Better keep these away from the contestants. I wouldn't trust them with anything shaped like a hot dog on a day like this.

For their part, the crowds were equipped with an ample supply of Nathan's Famous thunder sticks.

Speaking of crowds, boy did they ever turn out--to the tune of 40,000! Can you imagine what 40,000 sets of thunder sticks sound like? I think I will be hearing them in my sleep for weeks.

Sometimes things just have a way of falling into my hands. Like this media pass, for instance. I have no idea where it came from or how I ended up with it, but I was not about to look a gift horse in the mouth!

...Then I took a gander at said "media" area, which had been teeming with elbow-to-elbow reporters from the moment we stepped off the subway. The chances of securing a prime piece of real estate on that platform were somewhere between slim and none, and the chances of my highly inferior zoom lens capturing any degree of detail from that distance were even slimmer. After quickly scanning the mass of high-tech, gadgetized cameras before me and comparing them to my very unimpressive P.O.S. camera, I came to the conclusion that those folks probably had a lot more riding on this story than me. [And yes, my camera is a point-and-shoot model. But that's not what I meant by "P.O.S."] You have to pick your battles in life, and this was one I chose not to fight. (I did, however, continue to wear the badge. It made me feel fancy.)

Sean Gordon: Nathan's rookie but no stranger to victory.

Takeru Kobayashi: Six-time Nathan's champion. He loves hot dogs. I love Japan. I think we could be great friends.

Joey Chestnut: Two-time Nathan's champion coming into yesterday's competition. I prefer peanuts and cashews, but I was still rooting for him.

The pregame show was well orchestrated, but we were there to watch some hot dogs get eaten! Without further ado, George introduced each contestant with all the pomp and circumstance he could muster, rattling off the various competitive eating crowns that each had won and the achievements which had earned them a spot on the Nathan's stage.

Then, with all the formalities out of the way, there was nothing to do but eat...

...and eat...

...and eat some more!

For 10 agonizing minutes--and I'm not sure whether the bulk of that agony fell on the eaters or the spectators--the 19 participants in the 2009 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest stuffed their faces with the most patriotic of all our country's culinary offerings. When the crumbs settled, Joey Chestnut of San Jose, California emerged victorious over his Japanese arch-rival Takeru Kobayashi, devouring a world record-setting 68 dogs to Kobayashi's 64.5! Pat "Deep Dish" Bertoletti of Chicago captured third place with an impressive 55 dog tally.

Nothing spells patriotism like downing 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes. A lesser man may have complained of discomfort after two or three, but Joey Chestnut came to Nathan's to prove that he's willing to risk life, limb, and gastrointestinal system for his country. Chewing is for the weak.

As for Kobayashi, he will have to wait another long year for his next chance to dethrone the new godfather of Nathan's. He was visibly dejected after the loss, but that's nothing his six-figure competitive eating "salary" can't fix. That's right, folks: The best of the best in this "sport" make six figures between prize money, endorsements, and sponsorships!

I think it's time to make a career switch. When it comes to putting down the food, I am small but mighty. I chalk it up to my runner's metabolism. The trick will be figuring out which foods best suit my style. Right now I'm leaning toward pancakes. I'll keep you apprised of my progress.

So how did our friend Sean fare in this bun-soaking bonanza? Quite well for a rookie! His 25 dog total landed him in a tie for 13th place with Crazy Legs Conti and Pete Davekos. Not his personal best, but he was pleased nonetheless. I expect even greater results for him next year. [You are doing this again next year...right, Sean??!]

The hot dog eating contest may have been the focal point of my trip to Coney Island, but I did have the opportunity to snap a few shots of some other--shall we say--local landmarks. Watch for those in a future post!