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Jun 19, 2024

A Scandal in the Hot-Dog World (Other than What’s in Hot-Dogs)

Some frank conversation once you stop groaning

By Ed Goldman

The first thing I need to tell you is that I wrote but didn’t make up any of the facts I hope you’re about to read. In a decision that rocked the lunatic world of competitive hot-dog eating last week, Joey Chestnut, the reigning title holder of Nathan’s Famous Hot-Dog Eating Contest, will not—repeat not—be participating in this year’s contest.

Chestnut is being charged with having a conflict of interest. During the year, he allegedly took endorsement money from Impossible Foods, the creator of plant-based hot-dogs.

Edgy Cartoon

We’re gonna need a bigger ballpark

As you might imagine, word rippled quickly through the nitrate niche of hot-dog-eating circles. “The news seemed hard to swallow for Major League Eating, which organizes the event,” reported CBS News un-solemnly, “saying in a statement that it was ‘devastated’ Chestnut had chosen to represent a rival brand….”

Okay. This really was an actual news story eight days ago. If you started reading today’s column and thought in my dotage I’d substituted a wacky April Fool’s Day piece, well, no, I never do those—and more to the point, you mustn’t be a native New Yorker. 

When I lived in the Bronx as a kid, a weekend excursion to Brooklyn’s Coney Island simply had to include a stop at Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs, a local stand at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues that became a national fiefdom, convincing millions of people that its greasy (but tasty) product was better than what you’d find at any other stand—or, as the business grew, better than you’d find at any other fast-food restaurant or the frozen-food aisle. Nathan’s got very big. (Surprisingly, its 1916 founder, Nathan Handwerker, didn’t.)

Coney Island itself was and is an old-fashioned amusement park, with booths, an aquarium, the Cyclone roller coaster, go-karts, a boardwalk filled with shops, tattoo emporia, and an international menu of bad-for-you foods. This would include Nathan’s Famous, which doesn’t even feel the need to say what its product is. I think the company assumes no one is going to mistake it for Nathan’s Famous Fine Jewelry Boutique or Nathan’s Famous Long-Bows and Medieval Weaponry Shoppe.

My affinity for hotdogs was and remains about equal to my need to eat pancakes, sip Cognac, jog forest trails and attend political fundraisers in that my doing any of these things more than once a year is unlikely. 

I offer this in contrast to the dethroned weenie-vacuum champ Joey Chestnut. He’s won the Nathan’s contests by consuming 70 hot dogs in 2016, 72 in 2017, 74 in 2018, 75 in 2020 and 76 in 2021. Each contest lasts exactly 10 minutes, which is how long I need to just dress a hot dog with mustard, ketchup, sauerkraut, onions (if available) and polish it off with a cold Alka-Seltzer (if available).  

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If you’re wondering about Joey’s girth, well, he’s in pretty okay shape for a guy who stuffs meat trimmings into his face for a living. At last weigh-in he carried about 220 pounds on his 6’1″ frame. In today’s food-mall culture, this makes him almost trim. (If you’re wondering about my girth, well, so am I. As I’ve mentioned here before, there’s some chemical in my closet that’s been shrinking my clothes overnight. I plan to call the EPA, mainly so I can purchase one of those hazmat suits, which on me are slimming.)

I do hope the top doges of Major League Eating can come to a solution with Chestnut. (Yes, I tossed in an obscure reference to the guys who ran Venice in the 1100s—but will apologize when Trump does.) 

I remember watching a movie about the great all-around athlete Jim Thorpe, played by Burt Lancaster, which depicted Thorpe’s being stripped of the two gold medals he won in the 1912 Olympics. The reason was that he’d played semi-pro baseball to feed his family—and Avery Brundage, the pious president of the Olympics, thought the event should be pure and the participants amateurs. (As I learned some years later when I was hired to adapt a book on Brundage for a TV movie, that upholder of propriety was a bigamist.)

My point? Leave Chestnut alone. He had a chance to make a few extra bucks endorsing a taste-free rival product and took it. It was a move as American as apple pie and—well, you know.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).