On traditions, the Fourth of July, and a hot dog eating contest.
2016 Nathan's Famous July 4 Hot Dog Eating Contest
“It’s tradition,” Amber said, when I asked if I could crash on her pull-out sofa for Fourth of July weekend this year. And, I suppose, it is a tradition. I stayed on her couch for the first time in 2011 when her then-husband, who I only knew from Twitter, offered it up. I swear that’s less creepy than it sounds.
Since then, I’ve stayed on her couch every summer I’ve been in the U.S.
I suppose that if there ever is a time to form traditions, it’s a holiday. And, on the Fourth of July, Independence Day, every American has their own. For some, July Fourth means neighborhood parades complete with high school marching bands, local dance groups, fire trucks. For others, a good old-fashioned barbecue with hamburgers and potato salads. And, I’m sure, there are others who could never go the day without witnessing a spectacular fireworks display. Or lighting one of their own.
For me, the Fourth of July, Independence Day, only means one thing: the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest.
I used to watch the hot dog eating contest on TV, rooting for the gurgitators stuffing their faces with hot dogs and buns (HDBs), wondering who would win, wondering how many would be eaten. I’d watch on TV as Takeru Kobayashi won year after year, broke records year after year. And I watched on TV, in 2007, when Joey Chestnut ate 66 hot dogs, took down Kobayashi, and shattered the world record.
Back then I never dreamed that it would become a yearly tradition to see the contest in person. I never dreamed that all those eaters eating on TV would one day be my friends. I never dreamed that I’d become so obsessed with watching the contest that I’d borrow a cable password and set up a VPN just to watch it from overseas. I never dreamed that I myself would one day eat in the very same contest.
I also never dreamed that someday someone would come along and beat Joey Chestnut.
But it did become my tradition.
In 2008 I saw the contest live for the first time and since then have traveled to New York for it every year (minus those two I was out of the country). When I was out of the country I watched from Thailand and Costa Rica (even holding my own hot dog eating contest to celebrate in Chiang Mai). I do hang out with the eaters, I even live above one of their restaurants and work for them occasionally. And I did compete myself, one year, securing a solid last-place finish.
In 2015 Matt Stonie did the impossible: he won the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, beating eight-time champion Joey Chestnut. Though his numbers had been inching up, though he’d proven himself time and time again on the circuit, there was still doubt that he could win on July Fourth. There was still doubt that anyone could beat Chestnut. But Stonie did it. Stonie out-ate Chestnut by two dogs, finishing with 62 over 60. Stonie won.
Was Joey just having a bad day? Was Matt that good? Was it a fluke? Was it luck? Was it fate?
Who knows what happened that day. But, a year later, July 4, 2016, Joey Chestnut was back. And he was ready.
A few weeks before Independence Day, he sent Matt Stonie, he sent the world, a message. He ate 73.5 hot dogs and buns, a record-demolishing 73.5 hot dogs and buns, in an exhibition.
He was coming back. He was coming back to reclaim his title. He was coming back to win.
On July 4, 2016, thousands gathered at the corner of Surf and Stillwell in Coney Island, and more at their computers and televisions, to see who would take home the Mustard Yellow Belt, who would take home the $10,000 first-place prize, who would take home the pride of being the hot dog eating champion of the world.
Joey Chestnut and Matt Stonie took their prime spots at the center of the table and, from the moment the clock started ticking down, they were both fully focused on the win. For the first few HDBs they were neck and neck but, by two minutes in, Joey Chestnut had eaten to a steady lead. As the minutes ticked down and more hot dogs were eaten it was no longer a question of who would win, it was a question of whether the record would or would not be broken.
With a minute left it was clear that Joey wouldn’t reach the 73.5 he’d eaten two weeks before but, with seconds left, he was able to swallow that last dog and reach 70, beating his own day-of 69-dog record by one, surpassing every other eater at the table, winning the prize and the glory.
Joey Chestnut reclaimed his title, reclaimed his tradition. He is, once again, the hot dog eating champion of the world.
Will Joey Chestnut’s streak continue? Will he someday retire? Will Matt Stonie come out on top again? Will someone new, someone like Carmen Cincotti who came out of seemingly nowhere to cinch third place, rise to take them all down? Will it happen next year? Or the year after that? Or the year after that?
It’s hard to say what the future holds. But, I suppose, I’ll see next year. And the next and the next.
Because it is tradition after all.
1. Joey Chestnut, 70
2. Matt Stonie, 53
3. Carmen Cincotti, 42
4. Gideon Oji, 38
5. Geoff Esper, 37.5
6. Adrian Morgan, 36
7T. Yasir Salem, 31
7T. Erik Denmark, 31
9. Rich LeFevre, 29
10. Marcos Owens, 28
11. Juan ‘More Bite’ Rodriguez, 27
12. Eric ‘Badlands’ Booker, 25
13. Brian Dudzinski, 24
14. Steven Schuster, 16
15. Dan ‘Big Cat’ Katz, 12
16. Crazy Legs Conti, 1
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget about the ladies! I’ll be back later with photos from the women’s contest!