Aisle Of Wit

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A Hard Act To Swallow

It’s The Fourth of July, which of course means despite all of the warnings and admonishments from my building any involvement in fireworks will result in an immediate eviction notice, an awful lot of my neighbors either never got such a notice or truly don’t give a rat’s ass.  So I’m awake, the still night constantly punctuated by eruptions, and of course my mind reflects back upon how this is yet another anniversary of how I achieved the independence I so desperately needed to merely have the chance to live.

But while fireworks may be technically illegal where I live, another icon of this holiday is anything but, and later today for the 20th consecutive year it will be celebrated nationally on ESPN.  And this past weekend, FRONT OFFICE SPORTS’ Mike McCarthy took an appropriately deep dive down the gullet of exactly how and why while there will be plenty of other live events, including national concerts and morning baseball games in Washington and plenty of local parades in small town America, little else will be as celebrated or relatable as this:

(T)he world’s top competitive eaters will once again gorge themselves at the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island. It’s part reality TV show, part circus. 

(R)oughly 30,000 fans from around the world will make the pilgrimage to the intersection of Brooklyn’s Surf and Stillwell Avenues for Coney Island’s annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest. 

Millions more will watch the TV coverage as reigning champions Joey Chestnut and Miki Sudo speed-scarf dozens of hot dogs for the coveted “Mustard Belt.” Besides them, this year’s competition will feature male and female eaters from Canada, England, South Korea, Japan, Brazil, and Australia.

The annual all-you-can eat gorge-fest is funny, kitschy, and gross all at once. In sweltering New York summer heat, fans wear hot dog costumes and carry signs reading: “Don’t Throw Up.” It’s classic Americana.

Damn right.  Because this is now as much of a signature event on the national sports calendar as Christmas Day NBA, Thanksgiving Day NFL, New Year’s Day bowls and Memorial Day doubleheaders–well, scratch the last one, sorry.  Even July 4th baseball takes a back seat to this spectacle, as McCarthy reminds:

Like it or not, competitive eating is now a worldwide sport. The competition is organized by Major League Eating (MLE) and its governing body, the International Federation of Competitive Eating. Just ask MLE president Rich Shea.

“This is our biggest day. If you look at the Major League Eating calendar, the sun rises and sets on Coney Island. This is our Masters — and the Mustard Yellow Belt is our green jacket,” said Shea.

The modern Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest dates back to gritty early-1970s New York. The sleepy affair was staged on different dates, including Memorial Day and Labor Day. 

The watershed moment came in 2001, when rookie Japanese eater Takeru Kobayashi ate 50 hot dogs — nearly doubling the old record. Competitive eating took off, and 10 years later, Nathan’s added a separate women’s championship. 

The event doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is part of its charm.

Rich Shea’s brother George, whom the Brooklyn Paper dubbed “The P.T. Barnum of Bile” and the “Bob Barker of Barf, has served as the event’s fast-talking emcee for decades. With his straw boater hat and outlandish, carnival-barker competitor introductions, he’s a big part of the attraction.

He touts Tuesday’s competition as the “crucible through which greatness will be forged.” He likens the venue at Surf and Stillwell to the storied “parquet floor of Boston Garden.” 

He has introduced (reigning champ Joey) Chestnut by declaring, “Through the curtain of the aurora, a comet blazes to herald his arrival.” 

MLE holds 70 events per year, but Nathan’s is the league’s Super Bowl, World Series, Olympics, World Cup, and Masters Tournament rolled into one, according to Rich Shea. 

While his brother, George, struts around the stage with a bullhorn, Rich will call the action on TV with ESPN anchor John Anderson and reporter Renee James.

Yep, the same John Anderson who also co-hosted ABC’s WIPEOUT.  And believe me, there’s scant little vicarious pain that I felt watching the competitors he described on that series that compare in intensity to what his narrative today will describe.  I never had the skill sets to compete in those sorts of battles, and I doubt you did, either.  But we’ve all eaten hot dogs.  And in some cases, some really dear friends created careers from that reality.  Careers that ultimately converged with my own declaration of independence, and ultimately helped save my life.

Fact is, while MLE and Coney Island own July 4th, the other 364 days of the year belong to the rest of us.  In South Florida, for decades those indulgences have best been served by the likes of the Hot Dog Hotties, who were described in a 2011 NEW TIMES article by Alexandra Leon by Miami entrepreneur Louie DiRaimondo as like Hooters girls, only it says Louie’s All American Hot Dogs on their shirts, and Hot Dog Hotties on their butts.

And a couple in particular are pretty damn special to me.  One, in fact, rose to national prominence as a result.  You can see for yourself if you’re so inclined, and if you’re OK with NSFW content.  Which, I assure you, compared to what one might see from what might be regurgitated on ESPN today is still a lot less revolting that anything you might see should you decide to click on this video:

Scoff if you will at how these people make a living.  They befriended me when I needed it most, and that’s what matters to me to most, as I would like to believe it should you as well.

But as well as those special people have done, they still have a ways to go to match the success achieved by those who can succeed on the Coney Island boardwalk,  particularly those with track records like Chestnut:  Again, per McCarthy:

The 39-year-old Chestnut has an estimated net worth of $2.5 million. The self-proclaimed “world’s greatest eater” has launched his own line of condiments for hot dogs, sausage, and sandwiches. Flavors include “Boardwalk Coney Sauce” and “Firecracker Mustard.”

My friend does pretty well for herself, thank you, but I’m fairly sure she wouldn’t mind a few more endorsement deals like those to round out her own brand.  And as a sport, even in decline there’s a pretty substantial audience, especially for a lower TV usage day like today.  Once again, McCarthy provides context:

ESPN, which controls media rights through 2029, drew its biggest Nathan’s audience ever in 2014 with 2.77 million viewers, but Chestnut’s long reign has arguably sapped some of the drama. He’s won every men’s event but one since 2007 — and last year’s coverage averaged 1.03 million viewers, down 24% from 1.37 million in 2021.

Look at today’s ratings ranker when they’re released, and I can pretty much guarantee not a lot else will come close to a seven figure audience delivery on any platform.  Even Howard Stern’s programs.

So I won’t be lighting any fireworks on my own, thank you, because I do like where I’m living these days for the most part.  Perhaps not as much as where I lived when those who once sold hot dogs for a living entered my life.  Thanks in large part to them, my appetite and capacity for overindulging has ended for good.

So I will salute them, as I do everyone who fought for others’ independence over the centuries, as appropriately as possible today.  With a smile on my face and a wiener in my mouth.

Until next time…