When you hear the words “American hero” you may think of Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony or Martin Luther King Jr., but a lot of people think of Joey “Jaws” Chestnut. On July 4, the eyes of the world were on Coney Island, host to a gut-busting, Independence Day showdown that provided drama, daring and indigestion.
Two dear friends who relish this outlandish event promised it would be fun. We arrived an hour early, but could not get close enough to smell the nitrates. The smell of America was, nonetheless, in the air. Thousands of us, many wearing wiener hats, gathered to cheer the dogfight for the mustard yellow belt emblematic of frankfurter eating supremacy.
The Brooklyn Community Choir sang, because someone thought gospel music would be a helpful addition to the festivities.
The announcer, George Shea, is a poet. Here is some notable commentary:
“His good cholesterol is low. His bad cholesterol is high. His BMI is borderline presidential.”
“He stands before us like Hercules himself. Albeit a large, bald Hercules at an eating contest.”
“This is like watching Picasso paint.”
“When all the world’s languages are poured into a single bowl, the word that unites us will be freedom.” (I do not know what this means, but the crowd cheered ecstatically.)
Joey Chestnut, the pride of the red, white and blue, claimed his 11th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest title. (LeBron James has only won three NBA titles.) Joey inhaled a staggering 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes – a little less than one every eight seconds. In this stupefying act, Joey consumed 22,000 calories and 1,332 grams of fat. The carb count stirred the hearts of patriots – 1,776 carbs. That’s right – 1776! (This statistic should ensure Joey’s invitation to the White House.) As the crowd chanted “USA,” this gustatory gladiator processed more beef than a slaughterhouse. The lesser competitors suffered reversals, which are exactly what they sound like.
The fine art of oinking out is governed by Major League Eating, which also handles crab cakes, baked beans, butter – just butter – and cow brains. As would be expected when there is a $10,000 prize, there have been accusations of performance enhancing drugs. Some claim that Joey lines his intestines with aloe. Other gurgitators – including Takeru Kobayashi, the legend who is no longer welcome at Coney Island – have been accused of having their stomachs surgically altered. The gastronomic gamesmanship of Nathan’s Famous chow down is for many a celebration of what makes America great.
I love an extravaganza that makes you never want to eat again as much as the next person, but this festival of belching and burping raises questions. Is overindulgence a feat to be celebrated? Should binging be considered a sport? What is the over/under on the date of Joey’s death? Why is he still alive? Should anyone eat 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes while children starve? (My wife, Carol, mentioned this several times, but the good and clever people at Nathan’s make a point of donating 100,000 hot dogs to the Food Bank of New York City each July 4.) Should a cardiologist be doing the play-by-play? Should Pepto-Bismol be a sponsor? Would this be more appropriate on the Food Network than ESPN? What kind of parents raise their child to compete in a gorge-a-thon?
Gluttony seems particularly unattractive when it is televised. We cheer for the wrong things. Our society gives itself to wretched excess. Our insatiable appetite leaves us without an appreciation for what is truly good.
I am still dealing with my feelings about what I witnessed. For lunch today, I had a salad.