Doggedly Determined

Article excerpt

A story appeared in the New York papers the other day. The Walt Disney Co. was thinking of building a new theme park in Coney Island. Historically, the idea has great appeal. After all, from the late 1800s to the 1940s Coney Island's three amusement parks, big-name performers, the "freaks, wonders and human curiosities" of P. T. Barnum's sideshows and, of course, the refreshing Atlantic Ocean beckoned generations of sweltering urbanites. The place was Disneyland before there was Disney.

Tastes change, however. Urban masses move to the suburbs and buy air conditioners; new immigrants seek the comforts of their own traditional diversions. The beach is still there, but the place my grandfather and father used to visit exists only in sepia-toned photographs. Coney Island is a broken-down old man.

Yet there is one day of the year when Coney Island relives its former glory. On July 4, thousands of people gather on Surf Avenue to watch the annual hot-dog-eating competition, an American tradition dating to 1916. The contest apparently began when two immigrants got into a fight about which one of them was "more American." To settle the dispute, the pair decided to see who could eat more Nathan's hot dogs--a Coney Island classic and, of course, a most American of foods. The name of the patriotic winner has been lost to history, alas, but his feat has gone down in the record books of what is now an international sporting phenomenon.

Yes, I mean competitive eating. It's often dismissed as the kitsch of state fairs, a stunt for restaurants needing a little publicity. Certainly, that was the image during the early years of the annual Nathan's contest, as brewery workers, telephone-repair men, prison guards and other behemoths would belly up to the table and start stuffing hot dogs into their mouths for the benefit of the cameras. But then something--or, more accurately, someone--happened. In 1991 a former football player named Frank Dellarosa ate 21 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes.

Thanks to America's robust free press, journalists like myself were able to widely disseminate the story of Dellarosa's stunning "21 in '91," as the feat became known. Newsmen from around the country covered his successful defense of his title the next year, as well as his subsequent loss to a brash, young 300-pound engineer named Ed Krachie. As everyone knows, Krachie was competitive eating's Muhammad Ali--the man with a mouth so big that he could stuff 22 hot dogs and buns into it and still have room to brag. …