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With plexiglass and piles of hot dogs, a July 4th tradition lives on
WITH Independence Day celebrations cancelled around the United States, one distinctly American tradition continued on Saturday despite the pandemic: the annual pilgrimage of competitive eaters to Coney Island for the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest.
But, with cheering crowds turned away to promote social distancing, contestants instead chowed down amid a chorus of gulping and chewing from their competitors.
Held without fail every Fourth of July since 1942, the event ordinarily draws thousands to the original Nathan's location in Brooklyn.
Spectators sweat beneath foam hot dog hats, cheering as they watch a panel of competitors dunk the sausages into water - to soften the buns - all in the name of America.
"The Nathan's Famous contest is synonymous with July Fourth, America and the celebration of freedom", said the event's host, George Shea, who is known for his extravagantly patriotic commentary.
No crowd this year to cheer raucously
He introduced the winner of the 2019 men's competition as "the very vessel of our freedom" and "the champion of the Fourth of July".
But there was no crowd this year to cheer raucously, and the competitive eaters, who usually hover over their piles of hot dogs shoulder to shoulder, were spaced apart from one another.
The contest was limited to five women and six men to allow for adequate social distancing. One woman was unable to attend because of restrictions on travel to New York from Arizona, where coronavirus cases are surging.
Joey Chestnut of San Jose, California, who won his 13th title last Saturday after eating a record 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, said in an interview a day earlier that it would be challenging not to be surrounded by the deafening cheers from the crowd this year - and for the first time to be able to hear his competitors while they chow down.
"They are going to be burping and groaning, and I'm just going to have to focus on my hot dogs," Mr Chestnut said.
The 36-year-old said the confirmation that the contest would still go on "made it a lot easier to practise". Eating 40 or 50 hot dogs at a time without the certainty that the competition would happen this year was a bit "depressing", he said.
The reigning women's champion, Miki Sudo of Torrington, Connecticut, defended her title this year, winning for the seventh time by scarfing down a record 48 and a half hot dogs.
"This is a competition unlike anything that we have had before," she said.
This year's precautions include plexiglass and at least six feet (1.8 metres) of distance between eaters, as well as testing and temperature checks for competitors.
Discourage loyal fans from flocking to the contest
The location of this year's hot dog slog, which has been held every summer since 1916 except 1941, when it was cancelled as a protest to the war in Europe, was not disclosed publicly ahead of the event to discourage loyal fans from flocking to it.
"Thank you so much for supporting us from your living rooms," Ms Sudo said after winning the competition.
Ms Sudo, who said she was ecstatic when she found out the competition would still happen this year, had three practice events with her boyfriend, Nick Wehry, who also competed on Saturday.
She cooked up "10 minutes' worth of hot dogs" - about 40 wieners - for each training session.
Although unable to "give sweaty hugs to people afterward" this year, Mr Chestnut said he was encouraged that people could still watch at home.
He described the typical crowd as full of "real New Yorkers" who don't leave town for the Fourth - dedicated fans who, up until this year, sizzled under the sun to witness the feast.
"I know they are going to be watching, and even though they are not in person, I'm happy that I'm still part of their Fourth of July," Mr Chestnut said. NYTIMES