Letter From New York: Conspicuous Consumption
It is the Fourth of July, and I have come to Coney Island to see what makes this country so great. Thousands of people of all shapes and colors have gathered here at high noon on what may be the hottest day of the year, to pay tribute to an American tradition. Patriotic rock music blares from giant speakers. Women decked in red-white-and-blue sequins form a kick line. And a 6-foot-high hot dog dances onto the stage.
It was on this very spot at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues that a poor Jewish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker set up a simple hot dog stand in 1916. He grilled up frankfurters made from his wife Ida’s recipe, and sold them to passersby for a nickel a piece. And a Nathan’s was born.
Today’s 87th Annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest is my first. A friend who has been here before explains the simple rules: 12 minutes, as many hot dogs - and buns - as you can eat. That which goes down must not come up. So says the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE), which oversees contests from London to Tokyo where everything from Vidalia onions to pickled quail eggs is supped for sport.
The 20 competitors are introduced, each to his (yes, they’re all men) own theme song. I learn that these are multi-talented masticators, the elite “eathletes” of competitive gorging. The top-ranked American eater, a New York subway conductor named Eric “Badlands” Booker, is also the World Egg Eating Champion (38 eggs - hardboiled - in 8 minutes) and the Burrito Champ (15 in 8 minutes). A Manhattan window washer known as Crazy Legs Conti is the World Oyster Eating Champion, having downed 14 dozen raw in 10 minutes at the Big Easy Eat Off in New Orleans (laws of kashrut are not usually observed).
The world’s butter-eating and mayonnaise-eating champs are represented and the local favorite, Brooklyn’s own “Hungry” Charles Hardy, once ate 12 feet of sushi at a contest in Japan and 15½ matzo balls in five minutes. The three-time Canadian hot dog champ is here (he perfected his own side-eating technique known as “Canucking”), as is Germany’s Sausage King (28 bratwurst in 12 minutes). Other competitors hail from as far away as Thailand and Ukraine.
But we’ve all come to see The Tsunami: Takiro Kobayashi, a 24-year-old, 5′6″, 113-pound wunderkind from Nagano, Japan, who burned the competition in 2001 by downing 50 hot dogs (and buns), doubling the previous record. We’ve come, despite the 105-degree heat index, to see if his judicious “Solomon method” - snapping the hot dogs in half, then simultaneously shoving both pieces into his mouth - would work biblical wonders again (okay, that’s a little much). And some in the large crowd may have been lured by greed: for the first time, an online sportsbook accepted wagers on the event, though the odds aren’t very even - Kobayashi is a 20-dog favorite.
The emcee announces a young R&B singer from Yonkers (”where true love conquers”), who steps forward to deliver a very slow, sensuous interpretation of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” As his voice fades, someone shouts, “Play ball!”
From the starting horn, Kobayashi’s early pace is torrid: 30 frankfurters before the halfway mark. Behind him, a sequined scorekeeper flips her numbered cards like a rolodex. “He’s gonna break it!” screams a guy standing behind me. “Then he’s gonna break Barry Bond’s record and Wilt Chamberlain’s, too…!” We all take up the chant: Eat! Eat! Eat! EAT! This must be how the rest of the planet feels about the World Cup.
Yet it almost isn’t to be. The Tsunami buckles a bit and in the end, a new record is barely set: 50 and one-half hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes. Victory is total - Booker finishes second with 26 dogs - but not shattering. “I was expecting him to break the record by a lot more than that,” shrugs one of my friends, another veteran spectator of last year’s final. She glares like an old-timer who remembers what it was like to be there when history was really made, when the American grip on the title was lost, when the little Japanese challenger ate so many, so fast that the card girls ran out of numbers. “This year was a lot of hype,” she says.
Onstage, Kobayashi raises the mustard-yellow belt, and then he raises his shirt to reveal his sloping mound of a midsection. He steps onto the scale: 129 pounds. In 12 minutes, he has added 14 percent to his bodyweight. The other competitors huddle nearby like a bunch of expectant mothers, paunches pressing against their official Nathan’s Famous T-shirts. For the next three hours, they will mingle with the press to discuss their 12 minutes of fame. Mostly, they have competed for pride. Besides the belt and a trophy, the winner here only gets a year’s supply of Nathan’s frankfurters, not much compared to the $25,000 Kobayashi won this winter at the Las Vegas Glutton Bowl for ingesting 17.7 pounds of cow brains in 15 minutes.
Inspired, we line up for our own hot dog lunch. I’m only able to put away two, leaving me 48½ shy of the record. Which is probably a good thing, considering our next mandatory stop: Coney Island’s “world-famous” Cyclone roller coaster.
By the way, the record there is 2,361 consecutive rides, made in just less than 104 hours.
What an amazing country.