A brisk zephyr, blows across the Coney Island boardwalk as a man in blue blazer and an Italian boater hat starts screaming into a microphone, "They say that competitive eating is the battleground upon which God and Lucifer wage war for mens' souls, and they are right!" This is not some Evangelical Preacher proselytizing to the gathered masses, this is George Shea, founder of Major League Eating, and he is just getting warmed up to introduce the first qualifier of the Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest. It is not a battle between Heaven and Hell, but hot dog and stomach... it's weenie war.
The Nathan's International Hot Dog Eating Contest has been held at high noon every July 4, with the exception of 1941 to protest the war in Europe and 1971 to protest the reign of free love. This year however, due to Hurricane Sandy, the contest was in serious jeopardy. As winds and water blew in, flooding over the Boardwalk, Dick Zigun, unofficial mayor of Coney Island, watched from the second floor of Coney Island USA's Freakshow Building, as Fisherman's Vibraphone and countless other memorabilia was literally washed away. Lola Starr, who operates a souvenir mecca, including shirts that read, "Sodom by the Sea" could do nothing as her entire inventory shrunk three sizes in the surf. At the corner of Stillwell and Surf, the original Nathan's -- a hulking building in faded yellow and red neon, with one wall dedicated to the countdown to July 4, listing the mens' and womens' hot dog records (both in 10 minutes, men: 68, women: 45) and the grizzled visage of many competitors (I'm the guy in the hat and gloves) -- a building that has been open 365 days a year, serving millions, clams, lemonade, waffle cut fries, and tubesteaks by the 40 pack -- shuttered it's doors due to damage. The garlicky aroma of a well charred Nathan's dog disappeared from Coney Island for the first time since 1915.
Coney Island has often been the phoenix rising from its ashes and Nathan's was the beacon that highlighted its return. Saturday, Nathan's began doling out dogs on the boardwalk, Lola Starr sold postcards, and Ruby's, the true surviving dive bar and spirit of Coney Island (a guy sitting on their crapper once fell through under the boardwalk. He survived and the bar didn't even close) began serving suds in the cold March air. Sunday, the venerable Cyclone, the Scream Zone, and rides opened. Back to George Shea on the mic, "We will go through a journey, you and I, and we will be changed on the other side... count down with me from 10..."
Nathan's holds 12 to 15 qualifiers around the world, all 10 minutes, all hot dogs and buns, but only the winner of each qualifier makes the final stage, the big show on July 4. We don't like to use the word, "cutthroat" in competitive eating, but qualifying for the finals is fraught with pressure that pushes all 50 ranked Major League Eaters to their satiety and sanity extremes. To win a qualifier, moral compasses have been broken, marriages as well, and the carcasses of great eating careers have been left strewn, like bun detritus floating in a dunking cup, across the intestinal highways of the United States. Today's event was going to be fairly straight forward as the Notorious B.O.B, the sixth ranked eater in the world and a vegetarian away from the pro-eating circuit, announced his presence at the table. Most competitors shied away from this early qualifier due to the cold air -- as any male who has ever skinny dipped in March in the northeast knows, shrunken wieners are hard to manage with dignity. B.O.B, dipping his buns (the hot dog buns that is) in a fruit punch concoction turned his hands blood-red, as if he was strangled the cows that become the dogs, did amazing well, digesting 36 hot dogs and buns in 10 frigid minutes. Larell Marie, aka "The Real Deal" represented the female form -- her purple highlight hair only lightly greased in hot dog run-off -- ate 17 dogs to ensure her place at the table on July 4. As the Frankster, the Nathan's mascot boogied on the boardwalk, George Shea proclaimed the qualifier as epic, historic, and over. Like a communal belch, the crowds exhale, was forceful and poignant.
I did eat on Saturday and in competition -- granted it was the kids division's neat eating contest. One hot dog and bun, garnished liberally with ketchup and mustard must be eaten as slowly and cleanly as possible. On my knees, between a pig tailed girl and a pouty 12-year old I managed to get mustard all over my goatee and even on my nose. I became the first person ever disqualified from the neat eating contest, another blemish to add to my pro-eating resume. I will be out there on the qualifying circuit in 2013 (Moscow, June 1 -- me, "George, can American Citizens eat in the Moscow Qualifier?" George, "I'll have to check with our former contacts at the KGB"). I'll be chasing the Coney dream with hope, intestinal fortitude, mind over stomach matter, and Pepto-Bismol. My stomach will see you soon.