Inside the world of competitive eating
In this corner, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, a speed-eating machine who previously devoured 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes to set a world record.
Challenging him in the ultimate gluttony smackdown will be Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas, whose petite frame belies the fact she once inhaled 65 hard-boiled eggs in six minutes, 40 seconds.
Filling the ranks alongside them: a collection of hardcore competitive eaters with nicknames like Crazy Legs, Eater X and Shredder whose idea of a nosh would probably serve two dozen wimpy normal diners.
On July 4, these weapons of mass digestion — as the Major League Eating organization likes to call them — will assemble, Pepto-Bismol at the ready, for the annual Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest.
This exercise in excess, which involves contestants stuffing down the most Nathan’s hot dogs (in buns) they possibly can in 10 minutes, awards the winner both cash and the coveted Mustard Belt.
Major League Eating president Richard Shea explains that in the world of stomach-centric eating, the Coney Island dog-off is "our Super Bowl. Our Masters."
"The eyes of the world are watching," he enthuses. "Putting on the Mustard Belt is like putting on the green jacket at the Masters."
The competition, expected to draw nearly 30 entrants from around the world, also highlights the sometimes bizarre world of competitive eating — a sport with rankings, superstars, breakout performances, hopefuls trying to reach the major leagues and some of the darndest bulk-food items ever to wash down a gullet.
Fancy deep fried asparagus spears? That title goes to Chestnut, who ate 9 pounds, 5.2 ounces in 10 minutes last April. Pickled jalapenos? 275 in eight minutes last May by Patrick Bertoletti. Grilled cheese sandwiches? That’s Chestnut again — 47 in 10 minutes in 2006.
And the list goes on — from cupcakes (42 in eight minutes) to Philly cheese steaks (23 six-inch sandwiches in 10 minutes), oysters (46 dozen in 10 minutes) and chili cheese fries (8 pounds, 2 ounces in 10 minutes).
Major League Eating, which sanctions the events and keeps the records, also, understandably, has EMTs standing by at all contests.
Strangely, none of the high-ranking eaters appears to have the dimensions one might anticipate. Pictures of the top 50 on the MLE website (Chestnut is No. 1) reveal no physiques that look like they could double as the Goodyear Blimp.
Likewise, their biographies suggest a wide variety of backgrounds — including a personal trainer, a subway conductor and a member of MENSA.
Thomas, No. 5 overall and the top-ranked woman, is 5’5" and 100 pounds but thinks her stomach can handle up to 19 pounds of food and liquid.
"I can stretch my stomach by drinking lots of liquids," she explained to NewsCore. "So then it’s still not full."
Thomas, a 43-year-old native of South Korea who lives in Alexandria, Virginia and manages the Burger King at Andrews Air Force Base, reports her favorite food is hard-boiled eggs and she’ll sometimes cook up two dozen or so at home to polish off in one sitting.
Her other records include clams (26 dozen cherrystones in six minutes), catfish (6.75 pounds in 10 minutes) and cheesecake (11 pounds in nine minutes).
She confesses that she doesn’t really like sweets and the cheesecake made her ill — but only after the competition (spitting out food or throwing up while the timer is running is an automatic disqualifier).
As for her "Black Widow" nickname, Thomas says she chose it because all the male eaters had nicknames "and the black widow spider is poisonous. It kills the male. And when I’m in competition, I want to kill them (male opponents)."
The guy she — and everyone else — wants to beat is Chestnut (Thomas gave him his nickname "Jaws"), a mild-mannered, 27-year-old, 230-pound construction manager from San Jose, California.
This year, he told Vanity Fair, he intends to scarf down 75 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes at the Nathan’s contest to break his previous record of 68.
His trick, he told the magazine, is to dunk each bun in hot water before shoving it down his throat. The water both softens the bun and relaxes his throat muscles.
Vanity Fair also reported that last year, Chestnut took home $225,000 from competitions, personal appearances and endorsements — apparent proof that gluttony can sometimes be profitable.
And what would a major league competition be without a young phenom hoping to make it to "The Show?"
This July 4, that slot goes to Aaron Osthoff of Dubuque, Iowa, a 37-year-old safety specialist and father of three who joined the MLE roster only last September.
But he had an early sense this was for him. "Every Fourth of July, I always planned my day around watching the hot dog contest," he told NewsCore. "Last year I turned to my wife and said, ‘I think I can do that. I’m going to make a run for it in next year’s contest.’"
At 5’11" and 190 pounds — and a daily gym goer — Osthoff warmed up at events featuring everything from bratwurst to moon pies and tamales. He won the Nathan’s qualifying event with 28 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
Now his goal is "to break 30 hot dogs" on July 4. "I don’t anticipate winning this year," the rookie says. "I’m approaching this as a learning experience."
Nevertheless, he’s bringing his whole family to New York for the event and will be wearing a good luck bracelet specially made by his daughter.
"I just want to have fun with competitive eating," he says. "I’m going to continue to do it until it’s not fun anymore."
This July 4, for the first time, the Nathan’s contest will feature separate divisions for men and women with a $20,000 cash purse for each. The winner of each division will leave with $10,000 of that.
What’s still missing, though, is a motto for all that gustatory craziness. Perhaps the closest suggestion comes from the MLE biography of Eric Livingston, known as Steakbellie, who competes in Scottish attire and earned his bones eating three pounds of haggis in eight minutes.
The family motto on his kilt, according to the bio, loosely translates to words every competitive eater can live by: "Are you gonna finish that?"