Sonya Thomas wetted the hot dog and mashed it into her face.
I cannot use the verb “eating” because she simply wasn’t getting the dog down. It reminded me of watching a baby cousin eat Gerber. The detritus of the soaked bun clumped on her face wet with water and sweat.
I never wanted to eat a hot dog again.
Thomas ate “only” 31 dogs in the 10 minutes, second to repeat champion Miki Sudo, who ate 38. (Third-place finisher Juliet Lee is known for eating 13.23 pounds of cranberry sauce in eight minutes.) On Brooklyn’s Coney Island last Saturday for the Fourth of July, on the corner of Surf and Stillwell, four friends and I attended something I’ve watched on television as long as I can remember: the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. In one unforgettable day, I met a legend, stood in urine and saw one of the greatest upsets in sports history.
“Welcome to center of the universe,” the man yelled. “The epicenter of Patriotism!”
Dressed in his signature straw hat, he took selfies with the cheering crowd, autographed a cut-out of his own head and presided over the event for which he is the Commissioner.
That man is George Shea. And he is a legend.
The women’s event ended about 80 minutes before the men’s was due to start, but it didn’t feel nearly that long. Shea went into full showman mode and carried the event. That’s what I’d been missing all the years I watched the contest on TV. You miss Shea’s showmanship, which can be the greatest part of the event.
To capture Shea’s full character is difficult, however. He seems the world’s best hype man – born to spout food-eating statistics side-by-side with Greek myths and poetry. In the same introduction of famous, professional-eating bad girl, “The Black Widow” Thomas, Shea said, “She’s the physical manifestation of evil…She stands alone under the sun and casts no shadow!” and a short time later easily reeled off her most impressive food-eating achievements from asparagus to turducken. Don’t listen to me, listen to Shea.
At the same time though, he comes across as a grifter. He spoke in permanent, praising hyperbole. He remarked to some scantily-clad K-Pop dancers, “That was extraordinarily hot,” which drew an awkward laugh. He referred to a hashtag as the “pound sign” and claimed he didn’t know what it was. But later, he told the crowd his Twitter handle and offered a “follow for follow.”
But every time I thought Shea might be too over-the-top and ridiculous, I couldn’t help but laugh. He was so likable. He was thoroughly enjoying himself and seeing someone with that uncontainable joy – I just couldn’t dislike him. Throughout the day, Shea goofily pretended to play the piano while singing over an out-of tune beat, rapped a parody of Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise” as “Frankfurt Paradise,” and rode a lift up about 20 feet, in front of a white-robed chorus singing Eminem, to look out over the crowd of 30,000-plus present to pronounce the ceremony’s of the day were open.
Some drunken bros behind us in the crowd shouted his name for much of the four hours that we stood there. At points they urged him to run for President; at others they just yelled, “Hey, George! Look at me!”
We stood next to those bros for the entire time we were there (about four hours). At one point, it became too much and they huddled around each other as one of them relieved himself onto the ground, which flowed down into the front of the crowd. They tried, with moderate success, to soak it up with a cardboard sign. At first I couldn’t believe it; it seemed too gross to actually happen. But then I shrugged. “This is a great anecdote for the blog later,” I thought.
The bros marveled at the huge biceps on the Bun Boys, the pro bros with caricature biceps and (of course) sleeveless red tank tops who sometimes tossed t-shirts and hot dog hats into the crowd and other times sprayed the crowd with SuperSoakers. (Shea coyly remarked, “Here are the Bun Boys, known for spending enormous amounts of time in the library!”)
For the all the cartoonish machismo of the Bun Boys and the hysterical absurdity of Shea’s intros, the event had surprising emotional genuineness at points. Shea became quiet and reserved as he told the story of Little Jimmy, a Brooklyn-born Hot Dog Contest entertainer staple until he died earlier this year. A somber Shea said it was a Brooklyn tradition that, after someone died, to take their hat and walk it around the neighborhood one last time. He brought out Little Jimmy’s famous red, white and blue hat in a glass case and four pallbearers carried it on a platform through the crowd. A band played a New Orleans jazz sendoff.
Then, Shea squeezed the shoulder of Little Jimmy’s sister, who stood next to him throughout the event. Then the sister – visibly quivering, voice shaking – sang an Opera ballad as everyone removed their Hot Dog hats and gave Little Jimmy a moment of silence.
And after, at Shea’s urging, the crowd roared in anticipation for the main event. Joey Chestnut, possibly the world’s most dominating “athlete” in his or her sport (who else do you know who has won their sports championship eight years running?), came to the stage. He faced up-and-comer Matthew “The Megatoad” Stonie. In a year of improbable sports accomplishments, Stonie held off Chestnut after Chestnut scarfed down 10 dogs in the first minute. Once Stonie overtook The King, he didn’t let go and finished with 62 dogs, narrowly defeating Chestnut, who ate 60. The almost wire-to-wire domination of Stonie reminded me of American Pharoah.
After it was over, as Stonie was being interviewed by ESPN, two girls with makeup made to look like their throats had been slashed and faux-blood covering their white shirts jumped on stage and held up signs with said, “It’s not food, it’s violence!” An irritated crowd chanted “Beef! Beef! Beef!” back at them. The lovable loser and consistently third-placed Eater X, snatched the signs. Police approached, but the girls and small crowd of supporters vanished before any action could be taken.
The image which sticks with me after all of this is The Black Widow, her face stuffed and hot dog debris everywhere.
Then my friends and I went next door to the Nathan’s Famous booth and ate hot dogs.
Sam Fortier is a displaced New Englander living in New York City. He likes baseball, crunchy peanut butter and the sound Kanye makes in his songs, which he thinks is spelled “HAAH.” He’s not a fan of grammatical error’s. You can read him here every Monday, follow him on Twitter @Sam4TR, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.