Grand Old Day, 6/1/14

Categories: Last Night
Photo by Tony Nelson

Grand Old Day
with Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, General B and the Wiz, White Iron Band, and Heiruspecs
Grand Avenue, St. Paul
Sunday, June 1, 2014

Grand Old Day was shaped, but not defined, by Sunday's overcast and rainy weather. Though the showers in the morning and early afternoon kept crowds slightly subdued, the festival still had plenty to offer. It lived up to its billing as the first rite of summer -- crowded, loud, over-the-top, and lots of fun for all.

See also:
Slideshow: The Faces of Grand Old Day 2014

My Grand Old experience began early. I live on Grand, so I was able to watch the parade from my front porch. There was a drum line, there was a hot air balloon basket spewing flames into the sky, there were bagpipes, there was U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar. After listening to the incomparable Ramsey Middle School Marching Band play "Celebration" by Kool and the Gang, I began to walk down the avenue against the flow of the parade, like a salmon swimming upstream, toward the festival gardens at the eastern end.

Photos by Tony Nelson

The first event of the day was what fairs and street festivals are to many who attend: an eating contest. Specifically, Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. St. Paul's edition, held at Dixie's on Grand, was one of the qualifiers for the big dance on Coney Island on July 4. The winner would go on to face Joey Chestnut and the rest of the titans of competitive eating in the super bowl of the sport. Several of the competitors flew in from around the country to compete for a shot at immortality in the world of gastrointestinal strength.

It was part professional wresting, part colosseum spectacle, and as American as baseball -- I'm surprised they didn't begin the ceremony with the National Anthem. Instead, George Shea, the chairman of the Major League Eating group, kicked off the introduction with a well-placed dubstep music cue -- showing that the tendrils of that genre have reached further than we had previously imagined. Shea, who wore a trademark straw porkpie hat with a red, white, and blue ribbon to complete his summer suit, delivered a bombastic and tongue-in-cheek monologue to open the ceremony.

His imagery and delivery throughout the contest was marked by strong literary and biblical overtones. Hot dog eating is "sanctified by tradition and honored by time," Shea said, and the annual contest formed "the battleground on which God and Lucifer battle for men's souls." It set the tone perfectly for what was to follow: a self-aware spectacle so visceral and gluttonous that it would be grotesque to take it entirely seriously. At the same time, competitive eating can be serious business for those who take part, and there is sometimes money at stake, so a little bit of gravitas is warranted.

"When you get that full, it's the last thing you ever want to do again," said competitive eater Josh Miller, ranked 36th in the world by Major League Eating, from Montana by way of Denver. He took third in the contest, eating 19 hot dogs and buns. From watching the proceedings, I can believe it. This particular match went into a rare overtime. Both Yasir Salem of New York (ranked 12th in the world) and Steve Hendry of California (ranked 24th) downed 27.5 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. They both used the same efficient and unappetizing technique, eating multiple hot dogs at once, and then dunking the buns in water to make them go down easier. In the two-minute overtime, both struggled and seemed to still be neck-and-neck. "We may have a Roman Moment here," Shea said at one point near the end of the contest, foreshadowing what was to come.

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