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Joey Chestnut takes NYC and 76 dogs

Updated: Apr 21, 2023

Coney Island, NY – Nathan’s Famous 2021 July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest: It was Joey Chestnut’s New York City, and we were all just living in it. Who knew that a display of pure American gluttony would provide a beacon of hope for this post-Covid world? Through my own, and Joey’s, culinary adventures in New York over the holiday weekend, I gained a new sense of optimism about society bouncing back post-pandemic.

Panoramic view of Manhattan: Downtown on the left, Soho in the middle, and Midtown on the far right.

Joey Chestnut won the Nathan’s Famous 2021 July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest by devouring a new World Record 76 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes.

Some of the best memories in life are often the product of serendipity. During a recent trip to New York City, Joey Chestnut entered my world (or vice versa, I suppose) in just such fashion. Once I entered his once-a-year kingdom of Coney Island, NY, I quickly realized the magnetic hold Mr. Chestnut has on people from all walks of life and a myriad of countries. Who knew that this kitschy slice of Americana could be so wildly entertaining and compelling?

After watching the Westfield, Indiana man inhale 76 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, I have become a begrudging admirer of not only the 14 time hot dog eating champ (including the last 6 years in a row), but the overall experience of the Nathan’s Famous 2021 July 4th Eating Contest.

[Editorial Note: Who knows the actual origins of Joseph Christian Chestnut?!? Based on my extremely limited research, he is either a man from San Jose, CA or Westfield, IN or Vallejo, CA or Fulton County, KY. The mystery only adds to the 37 year old’s aura.]

After spending most of our Covid lockdown in Boston, my wife and I were eager to take the 4 hour trip to visit New York for the first time since January 2020. Even better, our two sons were away at summer camp and it would be a rare opportunity to sleep late, eat at adult restaurants at adult times and wander through post-Covid NYC without incessant requests to hit the souvenir store for more tzochkes or be the recipient of “I’m tired” complaints.

The view from our hotel room at the Nomo Soho on Crosby Street. in Downtown Manhattan.

Much to my wife’s delight, I skipped my usual packed itinerary and went off brand and planned virtually nothing concrete. As we have dubbed it, it was to be six days of “planned spontaneity”. Admittedly, I wanted to get to a game or two in the City, but I had nothing on the calendar when we arrived at our far-too-hip for us hotel in Soho. On that note, one of the secrets of NYC is that it’s relatively cheap on holiday weekends when most business travel ceases, especially during these tenuous post-vaccination days.

The “Jenga Building” as seen from Greene Street in Soho.

We both had heard all sorts of stories about how much NYC had changed post-Covid. While the bones of the New York remained intact, there definitely was a different flow of the lifeblood to America’s biggest city. Streets were emptier earlier in the night. There are a staggering number of vacant storefronts in all types of neighborhoods. Many shops and restaurants had limited hours.

Crosby Street in Soho was relatively quiet at night, but Soho did come alive with shoppers during the day.

Yet as the oft-repeated cliche goes, New Yorkers are resilient. One could feel the desire to return to normalcy at the shops, bars and restaurants despite the lingering effects of a drastically shrunken day-time population in Manhattan. Given all the remote workers, there are not enough people in Manhattan during the workday to support the many restaurants that have reopened. Those restaurants that were open had largely removed interior plexiglass dividers, but there were ubiquitous restaurant “bunkers” that remain a vestige of Covid outside dining. Many of these temporary structures were quite impressive and actually enhanced the restaurant experience.

Restaurant bunkers were everywhere throughout New York, with varying degrees of architectural integrity. The legendary McSorley’s Old Ale House was one of our favorites.

Unfortunately, the signs of urban recovery were quite inconsistent. While Broadway in Soho was jammed with shoppers on the weekend days, midtown was practically a ghost town at times when one would expect the opposite. With some exceptions, most bars and restaurants had closing times that one wouldn’t associate with a 24 hour world-class city. To my friend’s and my dismay, it was shockingly difficult to find a place to grab a drink at 9 p.m. on a Thursday night in Midtown. Even more startling, was the amount of space that we enjoyed on the subways during most times of day, especially at night.

Recently opened Moynihan Train Hall, an extension of Penn Station and homage to the original Penn Station, was a ghost town on a Thursday night.

Times Square on a rainy Thursday night with barely a janky Elmo, scantily clad Lady Liberty or unauthorized Minnie Mouse in sight.

6th Avenue in the West Village felt a bit empty, yet Jefferson Market looked as majestic as ever.

Some areas of Manhattan were pleasantly busy. We were particularly excited to dine in nearby Chinatown and especially pleased that a number of legendary places survived the pandemic and appeared to be thriving. For dim sum, we absolutely delighted in the dumplings from Golden Unicorn, especially the custard buns shaped like a piglet. Equally amazing was the roasted duck at the aptly, albeit boringly, named Peking Duck House. In related news, the current dumpling eating champ is Cookie Jarvis. The 419 pounder from Nesconsett, NJ downed 91 dumplings in 8 minutes.

Left: Dim sum at Golden Unicorn; Right: Roasted duck being carved at Peking Duck House.

Doyers Street in Chinatown, painted as part of a city art project.

A view of the Midtown skyscrapers from Central Park.

One morning, as I was slowly waking up around 10 a.m. (ahhh, no kids), I glanced at twitter and realized that THE one and only Nathan’s Famous July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest was of course happening just a few miles away on the subway in Coney Island. I usually don’t watch the contest because…uh…it makes me want to puke. Nevertheless, I always wanted to see it just once live. I hit up (MLE) to get the schedule and learned that for the first time ever the contest would be moved to the minor league ballpark down the block from the original Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog shop on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, Brooklyn.

[EDITORIAL CONFESSION: The author may have previously been related by marriage to a distant cousin of a descendent of the actual famous Nathan Handwerker, but can assure you that no biases are present in this blog].

My only prior visit to the Cyclone’s Coney Island ballpark was back when it was called Keyspan Park – circa 2003ish.

The fact that the contest had been moved from its usual location into a stadium, made this event all the more enticing to me. Typically, the contest is held in front of the flagship Nathan’s restaurant before as many as 30,000 competitive eating fans at the corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues. Due to the Covid pandemic, the 2020 contest was shifted indoors and without fans. The MLE website already hooked me when it described Joey Chestnut as “the greatest eater in history!”, but I also had never seen an event at the Brooklyn Cyclone‘s ballpark – Maimonides Park. Given its proximity to the ocean and its views of Coney Island, the Cyclone’s ballpark (it has had many names) is one of the highest rated minor league parks by those who rate such things.

But I digress… New York also is home to another fantastic minor league ballpark, the rolls-off-your-tongue named Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George, formerly home of the Staten Island Yankees. Sadly, the SI Yankees ceased operations as part of the Major League Baseball’s 2021 reorganization of the minor leagues, which severed the team’s tie to the New York Yankees. Before their demise, the Staten Island ballpark featured one of the most amazing views of any stadium. It overlooks the Statue of Liberty, New York Harbor and the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines. To enhance the park’s fantastic location, it's only steps from the free Staten Island Ferry. Until a new team moves into the RCBBASG park, we can treasure the memories of their alter ego – the Staten Island Pizza Rats.

Richmond County Bank Ballpark at St. George is just steps from the Coney Island ferry and has an amazing view of New York harbor, the Manhattan and Brooklyn skylines and Statue of Liberty.

On July 4th morning, I woke up with a spring in my step and giddy with excitement to head to Coney Island. Yet, I still had a problem. The shift of the contest to a ballpark meant that a ticket was needed for entry. I checked the MLE website and it appeared that I was too late and all the free tickets had been distributed. I tried the usual channels for tickets like stubhub and seatgeek, but not a single ticket appeared. Would I get to the edge of the promised land and not be granted entry? With a bit of anxiety, I boarded a pretty empty Q train car at Canal Street and headed towards the end of the line in Coney Island, hopeful that I would somehow get inside. For those old Grateful Dead fans out there, I needed a miracle (although, I WAS happy to pay).

When the Q train crosses the Manhattan Bridge, riders are treated to amazing views of Downtown and the Hudson River.

After passing into Brooklyn, I got an epiphany – go “old school” and check out Craigslist. Luckily, there was exactly one post for tickets, which in the spirit of this post-Covid renewal, offered extra free tickets. I hit up my new best friend on my iphone and I had the digital ticket before I even reached the end of the old BMT line in Coney Island. Shout out to Sara!!!!

The calm before the storm on Surf Avenue in Coney Island.

Having secured a ticket, I was now ready to head to the ballpark from the Coney Island stop at the end of the subway line. Despite being a bit famished, I figured I could grab a post-contest hot dog at Nathan’s, which turned out to be a huge error in judgment.

The streets of Coney Island were absolutely buzzing as the contest starting time approached. July 4th, 2021 was a stunning day following a week of excessive heat and it seemed like all of NYC had come to Coney Island to soak up the sun, surf and deep fried food. Both the ballpark and the original Nathan’s were just a few blocks from the subway and the ballpark walk did not disappoint. An eclectic street scene unfolded, with MOST people demonstrating their excitement for the upcoming spectacle.

Not everyone loved Joey in Coney Island.

Once I got inside Maimonides Park, I had only a few minutes until the start of the women’s hot dog eating contest. The Master of Ceremonies, George Shea, was an omnipresent voice throughout the event and is a star in his own right. Besides having a wealth of competitive eating facts, figures and trivia, he was absolutely hilarious. His pun-filled, yet dry and self-aware wit was worth the price of admission alone. [Hmm, a head scratcher given the free tickets. Is it a “Dad Joke” if the kids are away at camp??]

L: Unfortunately, I arrived too late to score a sweet hot dog hat for my sons.; R: MC George Shea, here with Youtuber and Infuencer Kalen Allen, was the underrated star of the show with Mr. Shea’s wit and wisdom.

MC Shea dropped all kinds of knowledge on the crowd, especially during the intros of the various gladiators. During the women’s introductions, I learned that 44th ranked Kathryn Tesch is the “baloney eating champion of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metroplex”; that “Muncie, Indiana is west of here”, that 35th ranked Katie Prettyman from Marysville, WA has teeth that “flash like justice [and her] eyes shine like the knives of righteousness” and “in 1555 famed astrologer Nostradamus predicted, with uncanny accuracy, events that would happen centuries into the future; one prophecy foretold of a woman who would become the pepperoni roll eating champion of Western Pennsylvania.”

Most interestingly, I learned that the number one ranked woman in the competitive eating world, the reigning seven-time hot dog champ Miki Sudo, had to forgo this year’s competition and limit her participation to color commentary on ESPN because she is with child. Not only is Ms. Sudo pregnant with a baby boy, but the baby daddy is none other than the 3rd ranked male on the MLE circuit Nick Wehry. I wonder if I can get odds already on 2043 Nathan’s contest on Draft Kings for this future prince of competitive eating. Mr. Wehry did let MC Shea know that “Nathan” is not amongst the choice of names for the future eating king.

As the ten minutes counted down, each woman continued to scarf down her hot dogs, but it we clear that Michelle Lesko was on the verge of evolving from the hot dog-eating bridesmaid into hot dog bride. The other competitors kept eyeing her, but they could not match her pace.

Once the clock struck zero, Michelle Lesko had consumed 30.75 hot dogs and buns and was the new champion. Following her victory, the crowd was greeted by deeply unpopular New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. While fully embracing his wrestling heel status, Hizzoner soaked in the Maimonides Park crowd’s lusty booing with good humor. The Mayor presented Queen Lesko with her championship belt, thus temporarily shutting down the crowd’s ire.

The crowd’s adulation of the 37 year old, 112 pound women from Tuscon, Arizona helped to drown out the boos for New York City’s unpopular Mayor Bill de Blasio. One can only imagine the excitement when Ms. Lesco faces new mom Miki Sudo next year.

With the electricity already coursing through the crowd, the good people at Major League Eating treated us to even more feats of consumption. Specifically, the “People’s Champ”, a New York City number 7 subway train conductor, the matzo ball eating champ (21 baseball-sized matzo balls in 5 minutes, 25 seconds), Eric “Badlands” Booker weighing in over 400 lbs took the stage. Not only did the man who once ate 15 BurritoVille burritos in 8 minutes destroy his competition on July 4th by downing a gallon of Nathan’s lemonade in 10 minutes, but he treated the Maimonides Park fans to an intoxicating hot dog-related rap.

Badlands Booker destroyed his lemonade chugging competition.

Before the main event got underway, an absurdly beautiful flag ceremony took place. Each of the nations and states represented on stage that day was featured in a procession that only could be rivaled this year by the Opening Ceremonies of the Olympics in Tokyo.

Before the men’s competion could begin, the crowd was treated to an absolutely mindbending procession of tongue in check (not a pun!) descriptions of each challenger to the Chestnut throne. I have been to WWE events. I have been to professional bowling. I have been to freestyle ski jumping. Nothing compared to the self-important and self-deprecating humor of the parade of eaters emerging from the 1st base dugout onto to the field of play.

The MC again was at the top of his game, with gems like, “At the moment of his birth, his mother died of horror” and “the undisputed kale champion of the world” and “he has struggled to master the skills of corporate America.” The bonus, each competitor was cheered on by a hype man that reminded me of the Jason Sudekis’ incomparable sidekick routine on What’s Up With That on SNL. Unfortunately, all of these guys not named Chestnut would barely get a sniff of attention the rest of the day. It was Joey’s time now.

The intros were the highlight of the day for all of the hot dog eating foes of Joey Chestnut. At least, Nick Wehry (lower right) could look forward to his upcoming marriage to eating champ Miki Sudo and their new baby boy’s arrival.

With all of the pageantry out of the way, the moment we had all been waiting for began. It was Mr. Chestnut’s time to shine. As soon as his head popped out of the Brooklyn Cyclone’s third base dugout, the crowd began chanting “Joey, Joey, Joey”. Everyone was there to see this American hero.

Joey Chestnut did some pregame stretching that was unlike anything that I had ever seen.

Like the War in Granada, the 1936 US election and the 1985 Chicago Bears‘ destruction of the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XX, this contest wasn’t even close. The winner was a fait accompli from the start. Joey Chestnut ended up beating his closest competitor by 26 dogs!!!! The only suspense was whether Mr. Chestnut could surpass his own world record of 75 hot dogs and buns.

With each dunk of his dog into a glass of water, Joey Chestnut blew past his closer competitor.

The also-rans were relegated to the wings of the stage and barely were noticed by the crowd fixated on Joey Chestnut.

As the clock ticked towards zero, the crowd’s chants of “Joey, Joey” grew louder and everyone was closely monitoring the flip pad counting up the hot dogs downed by Chestnut. Right at the buzzer, Joey swallowed his final record breaking 76th hot dog and bun. We all knew that we were seeing history in the making.

As had been preordained, Joey Chestnut triumped over 76 Nathan’s hot dogs and buns, surpassing his own world record.

The crowd seemed to be in a party mood as we all exited the park while Joey Chestnut faced a phalanx of reporters, well-wishers and foodie groupies. The streets were soon packed with holiday revelers seeking out more fun at the, still very much worth visiting, Coney Island amusement park, boardwalk and beach.

It was heartwarming to see so many people taking in the sights, sounds and smells of Coney Island.

After viewing so much mass hot dog consumption, I patriotically wanted to jump on line at the O.G. Nathan’s stand for a dog. Guess what? It was not what as my friend had surmised, “Did Joey eat all the hot dogs?”, but that the same patriotic fervor gripped the minds of the thousands of other competitive eating fans exiting the ballpark. I roamed around Coney Island for a bit to take in the scene and try to mentally process everything that went down (again, NOT a pun) at Maimonides Park. With my stomach starting to rumble (a relative thought given what I just witnessed), I grabbed a semi-decent grilled hot pretzel from street cart and hopped on the Subway back to Canal Street and the NomoSoho.

It wasn’t a Nathan’s Famous dog, but the burger at the Nomo Kitchen wasn’t a bad backup.

As I wandered around New York the rest of the trip, I had a new infusion of optimism in my veins. It wasn’t Joey Chestnuts abhorrently disgusting feat of sucking down that much tubular meat in 10 minutes, but the overall vibe emanating from the crowd at Maimonides Park and the Coney Island Boardwalk. New York was returning to life. People were out and enjoying the city, perhaps a bit more carefully than the 'Before Times'. There was a bubbling energy all over Coney Island. It may not be the grandiose Coney Island of past days, but it was alive with folks of every US state and hundreds of countries. It felt like the perfect blend of crass commercialism, sarcastic humor, self-deprecation, urban and culinary history and patriotism in the proverbial melting pot kinda way. To continue the cheesy New York cliche, it got knocked down, but will certainly get up again.

Author’s Note: No hot dog puns were intentionally killed in this blog post.

But we disgress again… No story about hot dogs could be complete without a glancing reference to MY hometown favorite – The Wiener’s Circle on Clark Street in Chicago. Not only are the dogs and the rest of the menu fantastic, but the R rated late night scene is not to be missed. They are currently rebuilding their building, but it will be back better than ever, soon.

The Weiners Circle in Chicago’s old building has been demolished, but the new one will rise like a hot dog phoenix soon.

Epilogue: If I had any doubt that all is right in the world, I learned while preparing this post that the “Hungry Couple” Miki Sudo and her fiancé Nick Wehry welcomed the Maxwell Samuel Wehry into the world on July 8th. Mazel tov to the Hungry Couple and their new “Hungry Baby”!!!

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