We have rarely been so pleased to be wrong as we were on Saturday with the Canteen eating contest. The event’s move from Central Park to Canteen Alley had us concerned.
There is, by definition, less open space in an alley than a park. The confines lack the natural amphitheater formed by the gentle slope in Central Park, and we weren’t sure the concrete bulk of the parking ramp would make up for it. It was easy to envision big crowds, a crush of people with bad views, and a disappointing experience for everyone.
But organizers used the space brilliantly. Putting a stage at the east end of the alley allowed two sides of the ramp’s upper level to give spectators decent sight lines. It allowed the crowd to separate itself, with those who wanted to be close to the action able to move up and those who wanted less of a crush to hang back.
It didn’t hurt that the weather cooperated nicely. A few showers passed by, but never really threatened to drown out the event. It was sunny and warm, but stopped just short of being hot.
This year’s contest was, in a lot of ways, what people expected the first year to be. The record wasn’t just passed — it was destroyed. The 28.5 sandwiches consumed by the winner will be tough to top. That’s a full Canteen every 21 seconds for 10 minutes.
Say what you want about professional eating, but Joey Chestnut’s personal charisma, and seemingly bottomless stomach, added to the draw. He connected with people at this year’s home show, and fans adopted him as a favorite when he returned for the competition.
The respect Chestnut is given by his rivals is understandable. But it is clearly reciprocated. Chestnut and Gideon Oji, last year’s winner and this year’s runner-up, both displayed ideal sportsmanship.
The amateur competition with pork chops as the undercard for the event was a nice touch. We’re not sure the crowd needed much warming up, but it proved a good way to keep people entertained while they waited for the main event.
Showing off Canteen Alley this way was a risk. It could have gone wrong. Organizers deserve a great deal of credit for careful planning and their work in coming up with an approach that made the most of what was available.
Figuring out how to top this year’s event is going to be a challenge. That can wait a bit, though, while this year’s organizers take a well-deserved bow. The 2019 contest had a lot of challenges, and they managed to overcome every one of them.