John Grindrod: Gluttony, a Coney Island tradition

With tomorrow’s Independence Day, I got to thinking recently about all the traditions that surround summer’s grandest holiday. Of course, there’ll be many folks hoisting the flag who don’t ordinarily do that each day, a flag vastly different than the one attributed to Betsy Ross, one which had thirteen five-pointed stars arranged in a circle on a field of blue and its accompanying seven red and six white stripes.

There’ll also be a whole lot of splashing going on at our local watering holes and a lot of aromas emanating from grills teasing the olfactory wafting over the neighborhoods. The evening will be a nocturnal onomatopoeic extravaganza with bursts of illumination accompanied by all those pyrotechnical hisses and booms.

But the one tradition to which I’m drawn each year is the one that takes place at 1310 Surf Avenue in Brooklyn on Coney Island at a walk-up eatery where I’ve noshed its most famous product on a very memorable trip back in 1988 with my pals John Williams, Ric and Greg Stolly and our Brooklyn native, a guide for our Big Apple times, Jimmy Puma, someone who brought a delightfully healthy helping of Brooklyn to scores of schoolchildren in the Lima area during his decades in education.

Of course, I’m talking about Nathan’s, the place for hot dogs on the boardwalk since 1916 when Nathan Handwerker secured a $300 loan and started selling those ‘dogs slathered with his wife’s special secret sauce.

I think of my New York guys-only vacation each Fourth of July when I see the coverage of Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, featuring the current pre-eminent super-eater, Joey Chestnut, who’s truly elite when it comes to cramming the most frankfurters and accompanying buns into his pie hole in the allotted 10 minutes.

My, what strange competitions have evolved over time, and competitive eating surely is at the top of that list, nudging out the likes of log rolling and toe wrestling. According to Major League Eating, the governing body of competitive eating (and, yes, there is such an organization), the roots of the “sport” are deep, embedded in the year 1916, when Handwerker organized the first contest with four immigrants, one won by the Irish fellow who downed 13 hot dogs, at least that’s the legend.

As for tomorrow’s contest, Chestnut has dominated since winning his first title in 2007 when he took down Takero Kobayashi by knocking down 66 to Kobayashi’s 63. Since that first title, he’s won every year but one (in 2015) and has grown the number of consumable tube steaks. Like Babe Ruth extending his own home run title in the Roaring Twenties, Chestnut pushed the number last year to 76.

The rules for tomorrow’s contest are pretty simple. The winner will be the man or woman (and, yes, the feminine gender will be represented) that downs the most dogs and accompanying buns in the allotted time of 10 minutes. Eaters will be allowed to drink while eating, and the final rule is the same as for Paul Newman’s Luke Jackson in that memorable scene from the 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke when Luke claims and successfully accomplishes eating 50 hard-boiled eggs. That rule is tomorrow’s winner has to retain all the ‘dogs.

As for what’s at stake at Nathan’s tomorrow, the top eaters will split a purse (last year’s purse was $40,000), and the winners, one male and one female, will also receive the coveted Mustard Belt, named, of course, for the proper condiment for hot dogs (sorry, ketchup-on-hot-dog people, you’re just plain misguided).

As for the top female, although Michelle Lesco won last year, many feel that was only because Miki Sudo, who’s been the top female eater every year from 2014 through 2020, sat out last year’s contest because she was pregnant, following what doctors, and I think all of us, agree was appropriate prenatal care. Sudo’s 48 1/2 dogs consumed in her winning 2020 effort far exceeds Lesco’s 30 ¾ last year. You’ll note fractions are indeed estimated!

And, just as the other inmates did bet on Cool Hand Luke’s quest to knock down those 50 eggs, there will be those who will bet on tomorrow’s competition. Last year was the first year there was ‘Vegas betting lines established. Chestnut last year was such an overwhelming favorite that, on the money line, he was a -3000, meaning that the bettor would have needed to wager $3,000 for every $100 he wished to win.

So tomorrow, enjoy those holiday traditions, as many as you can, but try to carve out just 10 minutes in the afternoon to watch those dogs disappear. It’s indeed a testament to that belly-bursting fifth of the Seven Deadly Sins, gluttony.