Even though it turns my stomach, it just has to be said.
Years ago I had an Uncle Max who was a kind, generous, hard-working man. He owned a luncheonette in a questionable part of town, but I assume the real estate was cheap, so that’s why his store was there. He worked constantly. Back then small businessmen knew nothing but seven day weeks, long hours, and no vacation days. They rarely closed for a snow day because nearly everyone had chains on their cars and could get through an avalanche, if need be. So when Uncle Max finally got home after a long day and could take off his shoes, unbutton his shirt revealing his ribbed tank top undershirt ringed with sweat, and could finally sit down for a meal, he didn’t give a damn about Emily Post nor anybody else for that matter. Chances are, Uncle Max had no idea who Emily Post even was, nor would he care.
Therefore, when my Aunt Cele (Max’s wife) would bring out the food, it was every man for himself once Max hit the table. We didn’t see his face until he was done. He would shovel the meat, potatoes, vegetables and bread onto his plate as though it were his last meal, grab his fork in a most rudimentary manner, and have at it, never coming up for air nor conversation. “Max!” Cele would admonish. “Please, take a breath. We’ve got plenty. Don’t eat so fast. You’ll make yourself sick. Max, you’ll throw up. Max, what kind of example is that for the children?”
If Max heard, he chose to ignore, reaching with the wingspan of a UConn Huskies women’s basketball player across the table for yet another piece or two or three of bread, never stopping to put it on the side plate Cele had set at his place, but just jamming it into his mouth. It was not pleasant to be invited to Max and Cele’s for dinner because the scenario never changed, and if you averted your eyes so as not to see the goings-on, there were the unmistakable sounds: slurps, gnashing of teeth, belches, wheezes. You knew you weren’t at the Waldorf.
Fast forward to the annual Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest held each July 4th at Nathan’s original Coney Island location in Brooklyn. This disgusting display of jamming, cramming, and often on-camera regurgitation they call sport started way back in 1916, but first was recorded in 1972. Uncle Max must have been working that day, or no doubt he could have competed. It has grown to where 40,000 people cram into the space in front of Nathan’s Coney Island to watch in person while millions watch on ESPN and throughout the world via the internet (NOTE: Due to the pandemic, there was no audience this year, but it was televised to millions). These viewers are apparently motivated by the same love of bloodthirsty sporting that made thousands of Romans flood the ancient Colosseum to watch gladiators fight each other to the death.
The undisputed champion eater who has won Nathan’s Yellow Mustard belt and $10,000 prize multiple times is Joey Chestnut, not exactly my choice of whom we’d invite over for a bite. This year Chestnut jammed 75 hot dogs plus rolls into his face in just 10 minutes, while the women’s title was won for the sixth year by Miko Sudo, who in such a ladylike manner crammed 48.5 tube steaks into her delicate little mouth.
There is now a Major League Eating Federation and an annual tour for the very “elite” in the sport where they compete by putting away not just hot dogs but wings, pies, tamales, shrimp, milk and cookies, meatballs, Twinkies, pizza, and even baked beans (I don’t wanna meet that winner!) at a host of worldwide competitions and events.
Despite the fact that some competitive eaters have choked and died, the training can cause gastric ruptures, and many have had seizures, George Shea, the host of the event, commented,“The Nathan’s Famous contest is synonymous with July Fourth, America, and the celebration of freedom.” He also introduced Joey Chestnut as “the very vessel of our freedom and the champion of the Fourth of July.”
So to reiterate what I wrote on these pages a week ago, “Have you noticed that as a country we’ve lost our minds?”
Rona Mann has been a freelance writer for The Sun for 18 years, including her “In Their Shoes” features. She can be reached at email@example.com or 401-539-7762.