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.