Sweat stinging his eyes, George Shea, wearing a straw hat and blue blazer, stood on an outdoor stage in Salisbury, Maryland on a recent Sunday afternoon and yelled at a crowd of 200 spectators.
“Are you ready, people?” Shea howled, and the crowd cheered back at him. “It’s go time. It’s go time-time. It’s see you on the other side time-time!”
Behind Shea on stage, more than a dozen men and women in orange Major League Eating t-shirts stood over metal bowls containing 24 pounds of chicken wings. The audience cheered louder. Here were the world’s most decorated competitive eaters, and they had come to Winterplace Park on the Eastern Shore to see who would go home as the nation’s most prolific consumer of poultry.
"There is something about the notion of eating performatively under a short period of time that brought a community together,” said Vivian Nun Halloran, a professor of food studies at Indiana University. “It's a very strange concept.”
That community, as we know it today, emerged in 1972, when two public relations agents, Morty Matz and Max Rosen, organized the first iteration of the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. After graduating from college, Shea got a job with Matz and Rosen who tasked him with expanding the Nathan’s competition from a local public relations novelty to a national sports spectacle. Today, the contest is a multi-million dollar media extravaganza and has spun off into a standalone league, with international competitions centered around everything from mayonnaise to pepperoni rolls.
"When I started, there was no phrase 'competitive eating.' There was no anything," Shea, who chairs Major League Eating, the sport's governing body, told me. "There was no Joey Chestnut, there was no Kobayashi, there was no nobody."
The hot dog rivalry between Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi, the leading Japanese eater, is the best known scandal in competitive eating, and has hurled the sport to international fame in the mid-2000s. For spectators, Chestnut and Kobayashi's feud, which lasted until the league terminated Kobayashi for breach of contract, represented a narrative of global proportions—our country versus theirs.
It also garnered Shea lucrative television contracts—exclusivity with ESPN until 2017—a rapidly growing audience, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual prize money, though Shea declined to provide numbers around the company's revenue. Shea’s venture is profitable, and even spin-off events, like the chicken wing contest I attended in Maryland, draw the nation’s top competitors and a dedicated base of watchers and amateur eaters.
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Staring at a vat of chicken wings backstage before the Eastern Shore competition was Crazy Legs Conti—who, when I asked for his real name, produced a driver’s license with the name Crazy Legs Conti—and two female colleagues preparing for the afternoon’s binge.
“With the chicken wings, you figure out a strategy. You take a look at the paddles, the drumsticks,” Conti said when I asked what he was looking at.
His eyes moved along the line of chicken bowls. “Which has more meat,” Conti, who ranks 17th in the world, asked me. “The drumstick or the paddle?”
“The drumstick,” I said, deciding the wings looked a good deal scrawnier.
"You would think that. But the meat-to-bone ratio is .49 for the drumstick, and the paddle is .66," he said. Conti took 100 wings, wore a lab coat and safety goggles, and measured out across five trials the specific meat measurements of the chicken wings.
Conti's pre-contest preparation is remarkably scientific and not uncommon in its rigor—especially among top-ranked eaters who take seriously the cerebral and high-endurance elements of their sport. Some eaters have been known to undergo hypnosis, practice daily hand-eye coordination exercises, and fast for days to maximize their body's potential for efficient and massive food intake.
Many eaters, like “Wild” Bill Myers, who came to the Maryland contest with his fiancée of 15 years, were quick to remind me that competitive eating demands much more from the eater than the ability to guzzle huge quantities of food—it’s also about precision. Stuffing your face is a helpful but not sufficient victory plan when you’ve got only 12 minutes to win.
A good eater, according to Myers, needs to be strategic about which bites to take, how often to chew, and when to maneuver between swallowing and eating more food. This is especially tricky with chicken wings, which are irregularly shaped and have bones. The winner is determined by weighing the bowl before and after the competition, in order to establish the total weight eaten.
With this kind of focus from participants, it might seem reasonable to place competitive eating among the ranks of other legitimate sports; a strong audience base, highly organized league structure, and meticulous training regimen add an element of validity, and Major League Eating considers competitive eating a demanding athletic undertaking.
But what kind of well-founded sport calls attention to such brazen gluttony and the revolting digestive processes of the human body? Instead of zeroing in on an athlete’s physiological vigor and agility, competitive eating plays an antithetical role—a sort of sport in reverse.
The Nathan’s Hot Dog eating competition, Shea’s showpiece summer contest, debuted on live television a decade ago and will draw more than 35,000 people to Coney Island this Fourth of July, but the sport—and this term is debatable—lacks any semblance of physical grace or athletic form. Its winners take in very little cash and their celebrity is limited to a niche group of competitive eating fanatics. Why, then, would anyone risk public humiliation, potential damage to long-term health, and a grueling training routine to perform an activity which, to some, serves a gimmicky marketing need and, even worse, a conspicuous display of American gluttony?
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“Go, go, go!” Shea yelled over blaring techno music as the competitors rushed to gulp down more meat. “Two minutes and thirty seconds left!”
Juliet Lee, a 48-year-old Chinese immigrant who owns a hair salon near College Park, Maryland, was struggling to keep her mouth closed as she stuffed handfuls of chicken scraps into her cheeks. Because there isn’t much time to chew, Lee downs tennis ball-sized clumps of food with water before digging back into her bowl. The audience’s response alternated between cheering her on and grunting with disgust as they wondered if, just maybe, she might puke it all out.
As Lee’s 100-pound body heaved, I couldn’t help wondering whether my fascination with her public eating was oddly sadistic. Here was a woman—a small-business owner, a mother of two teenage girls, someone with no evident or outward antisocial behavior—voluntarily compromising her body and exhibiting her physical vulnerabilities in front of hundreds of screaming watchers. The voracity and determination with which she devoured her chicken made me uncomfortable: How much humiliation will one go through for competition? But for Lee, the exercise of competitive eating is cathartic and has, over the past seven years, freed her of a range of body image issues that she’d suffered from since childhood.