Monday, September 26, 2022

Ah, Independence Day! What a great day to celebrate with: fireworks, family-get-togethers, parades, and BBQs. What more can one ask for on this very patriotic day? For many Americans, especially those raised in Brooklyn, the answer is simple: Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. The hot dog eating contest has been a July 4th annual American tradition since 1979. The grand prize is $10,000 to whoever can eat the most hot dogs in 10 minutes. Each year, Nathan’s also donates 100,000 frankfurters to the Food Bank for New York City in conjunction with the event.

(Please note: as Orthodox Jews, I certainly discourage any members to partake in or mimic competitive eating as it certainly violates אכילה גסה. But as a sport, I find it to be an entertaining spectacle to watch.)

Suffice to say, the event hasn’t been much of a competition during the past decade. Regarding the men’s competition, Joey Chestnut has won 15 championships in 16 years, losing only once to Matt Stonie in 2015; regarding the women’s competition, Miki Sudo has won 8 of the past 9 titles, only missing one because she didn’t compete in 2021 due to her pregnancy.

It was not an easy road for either of them, though. Before Joey became the greatest competitive eater of all time, Takeru Kobayashi exploded onto the scene in 2001 by eating 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, doubling Kazutoyo Arai’s previous record of 25 hotdogs. Kobayashi would go on to win 6 titles in a row leading most experts to believe that he was impossible to beat. In 2003, ESPN began broadcasting the event on live national television. Joey Chestnut entered the scene in 2005 coming in 3rd place eating 32 hots, 17 behind Kobayashi.

The next year, Joey trained hard and did the unthinkable at that time by taking the lead on Kobayashi through most of the contest. It wasn’t until the last 3 minutes of the event that Kobayashi overtook him, ultimately winning by 1.75 dogs. In 2007, Joey trained even harder and finally outdid Kobayashi, winning 66-63. In 2008, the contest time was reduced from 12 to 10 minutes, after an investigation into the traditional time limit unearthed a 1986 Times article that clocks the contest at 10 minutes. There, Joey and Kobayashi actually tied at 59 hot dogs, forcing an overtime match in which Joey, who frequently practiced speed eating rounds, wound up victorious.

Similarly, Miki Sudo was not the first supreme female eater. Sonya Thomas won the first 3 women’s hot dog eating competitions between 2011-2013. Even prior to that, Sonya unofficially won the female division each year between 2004-2010, but in those earlier years, men’s and women’s divisions were combined. Still, even against men she finished in the top 6 each year, placing as high as 2nd in 2005 (beating out Joey Chestnut 37-32). However, in 2014, Sudo defeated Sonya 34-27 and claimed her first title. Sonya competed until 2017, ultimately falling short of Sudo each year. Sonya had been considered unbeatable, so it was very impressive for Sudo to overtake such a dominant figure.

Although Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating competition officially started in 1972, the first unofficial hot dog eating contest took place on June 30, 1967, in honor of the 100th anniversary of the invention of the hot dog on that date in 1867. Competing was 400-lb trucker Walter Paul who downed 127 hot dogs in 60 minutes. It is unclear if he had to eat them with buns or not. Paul was also the first 2-time winner, also coming in first in 1974. The first fully recorded contest was not until 1972, taking place on Memorial Day. Since 1979, July 4th has become the special day for the annual contest.

In 2020, my best friend, Jared, and I were Vice President and President of Yeshiva University Student Council, respectively. In those capacities, we had the privilege of hosting a student body Zoom Q&A with Joey Chestnut. For nearly an hour, Joey offered his perspective on his personal gastronomic journey.

We heard his fantastic story about how he became a competitive eater and gained insight into the sport. Joey also shared with us his preparatory training regiment of creating a weekly mock contest and recording himself while doing so. A perfectionist, Joey explained that he would watch the footage of his mock contest to find out where he slowed down, trying to learn from his mistakes. He also shared that he runs a lot to build up his stamina, explaining that out-of-shape eaters often need to breathe through their mouths to swallow more air, causing them to fall behind because it is impossible to breathe and eat simultaneously. While running, he practices breathing through his nose, allowing him to consume a larger intake of hot dogs. The full 56-minute interview with many more interesting facts and stories can be found on my Youtube channel titled “Joey Chestnut Hot Dog Eating Champion Q & A—Monday, November 23, 2020.”

I have watched the Hot Dog Eating Contest on ESPN since I was a little kid. This year, my wife Ahuva and I decided to go to Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, Brooklyn, and I was so excited to watch it in person finally. We walked about a mile and a half down the boardwalk to get to the main contest. The sun was scorching hot causing us to sweat profusely and take multiple water breaks. We passed by the famous Luna Park Amusement Center, notable for having one of the oldest roller coasters in America, the Cyclone. Along the way, many vendors were offering carnival games for people to play.

Each year, the contest is held on a giant stage in front of Nathan’s Hot Dog Shop by the boardwalk. The stage is extremely long, allowing it to hold all the competitors; it was covered with a blue tablecloth imprinted with Nathan’s logo. We arrived at the stage at 10am, 15 minutes before the women’s competition was set to begin, and more than 2 hours before the men’s competition was going to start. Still, thousands of people were already there, and security was preventing more people from entering the main viewing area due to over-capacity. The only possible way to enter was by waiting in line and moving one spot ahead if someone inside were to leave. There was a VIP section on the side of the stage, but I am unsure how to get access to that area.

Ahuva and I found a spot to stand which was behind a metal fence and gave me a decent view of the event. Ahuva, however, could not really see anything, probably because the people in front of her were a lot taller than her. We saw each female competitor walk up a flight of stairs to go on stage. Meanwhile, wearing his signature boater hat and dressed in a suit and tie, the Master of Ceremonies, George Shea, offered an epic introduction of each competitor highlighting where they were from and giving statistics about their competitive eating career. Shae actually co-founded the Major League Eating Organization in 1997 and has been a staple of the sport since then.

Wearing their yellow Nathan’s Hot Dog foam hats that were on sale for $20, the spectators in the crowd looked like a sea of mustard. Several staff members were wearing Nathan’s Franksters—costumed hot dogs with a big smiley face, sporting a green hat that said Frankster on top. Additionally, there were numerous hype men who helped stir up the crowd by waving their arms while clapping and whooping. After each of the competitors was announced, a singer sang the Star Spangled Banner, reminding us of the special significance of the day.

Before the contest, the odds of Miki Sudo winning were extremely high, so for fun, I bet $9 to win $144 that someone else would beat her. I hoped that since she was two years removed from her last competition and had recently given birth, perhaps she wouldn’t do as well and that Michelle Lesco, who had won in 2021, or someone else, might defeat Sudo.

Once all 13 competitors were settled at the table with their drinks and hot dogs prepared, and a clock set to 10 minutes behind them, George began the countdown from 5 seconds to start the event. The highest-ranked eaters all sat in the middle of the table to make it easier for the camera to showcase them. As the competitors ate, designated staff members were holding numbered scoreboard signs, constantly updating them to show how many hot dogs each competitor had eaten. Because I could not see the competition clearly due to the huge width of the table, I actually turned on the livestream on my phone to better follow along.

Within the first few minutes, Sudo jumped ahead by a few hot dogs, a lead which she never relinquished, ultimately causing me to lose my $9. Sudo wound up eating 40 hot dogs (8.5 dogs shy of her world record for females). After the victory, she was handed a ginormous first-place trophy and the famous Mustard Belt. Her fiancé Nich Wehry, who also happens to be a top-tier ranked male competitive eater, went on stage with their newborn son to congratulate her and take pictures. The last place female, Catie Livermore, only ate 4 franks which surprises me because I think even I can beat that.

After the women’s contest was cleared, there were many more festivities before the men’s event began: a band played Journey’s famous song, “Don’t Stop Believing,” George and competitive eater Badlands Booker held a rap battle, an opera singer belted out a song, a band played the tubas and trumpets, and a brief lemonade chug contest won by Badlands, took place. Even Eric Gonzalez, the District Attorney of Brooklyn, joined the party by sharing some meaningful words about the event and the significance of the 4th of July.

A bit after noon, the male competitors came out 1 by 1, and once again George gave each of them an awesome introduction. In honor of the final competitor, a huge metal lift slowly rose to the heavens as the legend himself, Joey Chestnut, was carried to the sky. George gave the most impressive introduction for Joey, calling him the “Shining Arc of Humanity” and the “Champion of the World”! The Star Spangled Banner was then sung once again by a different singer.

Afterward, the 16 male competitors lined up at the table. Joey had to hobble over because he had ruptured a tendon in his leg a few weeks prior. He had claimed before the event that it would not affect his eating ability.

It was a hot summer day with temperatures over 80°. ESPN experts say it is not suitable for eaters to eat in the heat because it makes it harder to maintain a good pace. However Joey had told us in my aforementioned interview with him that he prefers the heat because his nerves are looser and he can eat smoother. Ahuva and I switched to a different spot on the side of the stage, giving us a better view of the competitors from a side-angle.

George once again did the countdown, and the competitors were off! Joey quickly jumped to an early lead, showcasing why he is the world’s number one eater. However, about a minute and a half into the competition, a 21-year-old activist named Scott Gilbertson, wearing a Darth Vader mask and holding a sign that said, “Expose Smithfield’s Deathstar,” bumped Joey, disrupting his rhythm. The sign referred to Smithfield Foods’ Circle Four Farms which supplies pork for Nathan’s products, implying that it is bad that many pigs were slaughtered for this competition, comparing it to the Deathstar in the Star Wars franchise that killed many people. Reacting instinctively, Joey quickly tackled the protester, throwing him to the ground. Witnessing the interaction, many of us in the crowd were quite alarmed, wary that the masked protestor might be a terrorist. Ahuva and I didn’t have a good angle to see the skirmish take place, but we heard everyone around us talking about it.

Ultimately, despite losing his rhythm and stopping to apprehend the protester, Joey ended up eating 63 hot dogs, 16 more than second place Geoffrey Esper, securing his 15th Mustard Belt. In 4th place, Wehry ate 40 dogs, tying his girlfriend Miki. After being handed his trophy and belt, Joey apologized to the crowd for not doing as well as he had hoped (he was 13 shy of his score from the previous record-setting year). He promised to return next year to try and do better, even striving for a total of 80 hot dogs! To cap off the amazing and wild day, Ahuva and I then walked to our favorite Kosher ice cream chain Coney Island Waffles, which has a store that was a 5-minute walk away from the contest.

Overall: Ahuva and I had a great time, and I would rate the contest an 8 out of 10. Being at the event in person was extremely exciting, and the festivities were a lot of fun. I enjoy watching Joey Chestnut, so seeing him compete up close was incredible. My biggest issues with the event were that it was intensely hot, with limited shade, and that it was difficult to find a nearby restroom besides several porta potties. Also, it was difficult to see the competition over so many people, and the sound system wasn’t fully amplified. In 2021, due to COVID, in order to create better social distance, the event was hosted at the nearby Maimonides Park. I hope that in the future, the competition returns to the park because it offers a much better view of the competitors’ eating and seats are provided.

Some tips if you plan on going next July 4th: make sure to bring sunscreen (we got very sunburned), wear a hat and sunglasses, bring lots of water, and if you want to get into the main area to get a good view, arrive before 9am (even as early as 6am if you want the best possible viewing spot).

Admission: FREE Admission (parking not included)

Hours: Around 10am—1:30pm

Unique Feature: See Joey “Jaws” Chestnut devour dozens of hot dogs at a lightning pace!

Address: 1310 Surf Ave, Brooklyn, NY 11224

Zachary Greenberg is a Health & Benefits Consultant Analyst at Mercer and the TABC Track Coach. In January 2020, Zachary took over as the president of the Yeshiva Student Union after the former president resigned from the position due to graduating early. He would win a second term in the following Spring elections. Zachary also recently watched the new Marvel movie “Thor: Love and Thunder” in theaters. If you have any recommendations of fun places for Zachary to cover, please email him at [email protected]

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