Tom Sorensen

Am I an idiot to get excited? Perhaps, but July 4th isn’t the same without this.

Joey Chestnut will return to defend his title in Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July Fourth at Brooklyn’s Coney Island in New York City.
Joey Chestnut will return to defend his title in Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on July Fourth at Brooklyn’s Coney Island in New York City. AP

The older you get, the more your metabolism betrays you. To fight back, I try to eat less unhealthy. And if an allegedly healthy food emerges, I’ll try it. I might like it.

This week, I tried quinoa, pronounced KEEN-wah. It’s a plant that’s high on fiber and protein and low on the glycemic index. What’s the glycemic index? I don’t know.

What I know: Quinoa is where grain and cardboard meet. The best way to eat it is in a bowl that’s not solid. That way, if you dig your fork hard enough, you’ll get a piece of, say, Styrofoam with your quinoa, and the taste will be improved.

As I struggled to finish the last quinoa of my life, I wondered how many bowls Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating champ Joey Chestnut could eat.

Chestnut holds 43 world competitive eating records, and they’re diverse – funnel cake, shrimp cocktails and tacos. I didn’t see quinoa. If somebody I don’t like owned an all-you-can-eat buffet, I’d pay Chestnut to join me there.

I talked to Chestnut when he made a Charlotte (Motor Speedway) appearance. He’s a nice guy. He’s not a huge guy. He’s about 6-1 and about 230 pounds.

Just as NASCAR star Jimmie Johnson is Mr. Seven Time (he’s won seven Cup championships), Chestnut is Mr. 72. He ate a world record 72 hot dogs last July 4 to win Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest. At Coney Island Wednesday, he hopes to win his 11th title.

Coney Island is a tradition. I have a dog, so I’m not going to fling firecrackers or set off fireworks (especially not on July 3 or July 5; you get one day, and it’s a rough day for animals).

But I am going to watch (ESPN2) the hot dog competition. I can’t imagine July Fourth without it. The event is brash, loud, crowded, funny and devoid of quinoa. It began in 1972, the year “The Godfather” was released.

Is it gross? Well, yeah. But so is life.

ESPN will again televise the event, and you can find online a scoreboard that counts down the days, hours, minutes and seconds until the festivities begin. The women’s competition is at 10:50 a.m., the men’s at noon.

The Fourth of July wouldn’t be the same without Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. ESPN will televise the annual Brooklyn, New York event on Wednesday, July 4, 2018. Mary Altaffer AP

To attain Coney Island, you qualify at tournaments around the country. They’re like NCAA men’s basketball regionals. George Shea, the voice of the hot dog eating contest and a really funny guy, once came to Charlotte for a qualifier in the parking lot at Concord Mills.

Even though I lacked a nickname, they let me enter. I stood next to the Black Widow, a 98-pound woman who once ate 45 hot dogs. She devoured the dogs as if they were finger foods. I ate three. But I had a notebook in one hand. I was working. If I could do it again, there would be no notebook. I wouldn’t play.

And maybe it would be me walking Wednesday to the stage at the corner of Surf and Stillwell, as Shea, wearing his signature straw boater hat, stands on the riser and calls my name. And maybe I’ll make the Charlotte Hornets’ summer league team, too.

Shea makes this thing go. He introduces the eaters in such a way that professional boxing and wrestling announcers take notes. He makes the eaters feel like stars, and on this day more than any other, they are.

The hot dog eating contest is an event, and I know that my kids, who live in other parts of the country, will watch and that a lot of my friends will. I hope my 3-year-old granddaughter will. It’s never too early. We’ll talk about it later. And some people will think we are idiots for getting excited. They get to. We get to have fun.

July Fourth is a celebration, the day we became an independent nation. I don’t know how I’ll spend it.

But I know where I’ll be at the end of the morning, and I know what I’ll eat in the afternoon.

Tom Sorensen is a retired Charlotte Observer columnist. Sign up for his newsletter, and follow him on Twitter: @tomsorensen

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