NEW YORK CITY- The New York Times tends to view America as bipolar, with red and blue state residents so far apart that never the twain shall meet. But take the D-train from Times Square to Coney Island on July 4, and America looks more like red-white-and-chew.
Coney Island, part of New York City, is famous in American literature and film. In The Great Gatsby, Gatsby invites Nick to go to Coney Island, and in Clara Bow's 1927 silent film It, the neighborhood's amusement park is practically a co-star. But after 1950, waves of officials such as New York City Parks Commissioner Robert Moses looked down on the "tawdry" amusements that characterized the boardwalk area. They pulled strings to substitute for them tawdry housing projects that became gang havens.
Coney Island went through bad decades, but the presence of the beach and the aspiration of enterprising individuals who built townhouses on empty lots finally is starting to overcome the sandcastles of planners. And in good times and bad, as an army of steamrollers rolled through Coney Island, as it was erased like a blackboard, built and erased again, the one constant through all the years has been not baseball, the hero of Field of Dreams, but Nathan's annual July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest, the 91st of which came on July 4 this year.
People have certainly come: This year 50,000 spectators (according to police estimates) crowded into a small plaza next to Nathan's Famous restaurant to see how many hot dogs 17 contestants could rapidly devour. An additional 2 million households watched the contest live on ESPN. The crowd at the scene had two favorites: the winner for the past six years, Takeru Kobayashi, age 29, a slender 154-pounder, and challenger Joey Chestnut, 23, a 215-pounder (taller, not fat) who last month broke Kobayashi's world record by eating 59 wieners with buns in 12 minutes.
Let's pause here for a moment: Is this serious? ESPN's presence notwithstanding, is "competitive eating" a sport? The announcer who worked the crowd for an hour before the contest was playing it both ways. He introduced one contestant as a direct descendant of Daniel Boone: "He doesn't explore the woods, he explores the malls of America . . . the paths to the food court." Is that an indication of American decline?
And what of other contestants who strode onto the platform to Rocky-like fanfares and a listing of their "accomplishments": "She ate 11 pounds of cheesecake in nine minutes . . . the shoofly-pie-eating champion of the world . . . the deep-fried asparagus-eating champion of the world . . . a vegetarian who eats meat only in competition . . . a physical therapist by trade but an eater by disposition." (Aren't we all?)
So, is this serious? Not really, but it's fun, and it is what George W. Bush hoped to be-a uniter, not a divider. It arose out of bottom-up competitiveness: The first contest supposedly came in 1916 when four immigrants argued about who was the most patriotic, so they saw who could eat the most of the most-American food. The contest then grew, an authentic rather than a manufactured piece of popular culture, one helped along only recently by network attention.
We need the good humor of a crowd made up of many races and nationalities, polarized not by politics but by mock-fierce cheers for the reigning Japanese champion and chants of "USA, USA" for the challenger, who had trained intensely-exercising and running to lose 20 pounds, eating just water, milk, and protein supplements for three days out of four, then devouring as many hot dogs as he could in 10 minutes on the fourth day.
That training paid off. Last year Chestnut lost to Kobayashi 53 to 52, but this year he won 66 to 63, setting a new world record and winning $10,000 plus a mustard-yellow belt. Nor did he head to a toilet immediately after winning: He patiently answered questions from reporters and fans, saying, "If I needed to eat another one right now, I could."