By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Rosey died in 1990, and Shea took over master of ceremony duties the following year. With Rosey's act as a starting point, Shea ran farther with it than the old man ever would have dreamed—starting with the hat. "Max Rosey used to wear this cheap Styrofoam straw hat," Shea says. "When I took over I bought a straw hat in an homage to Max." He built up the act with a throwback carnival barker sensibility layered on top of the patriotic Fourth of July bit. "At the time there weren't any carnival barkers at Coney Island, really," Shea says, but the act fit the crowd's idea of what Coney Island should be like.
Eating contests were the same way. There had been the pop culture flashpoints—the "complete and total barf-o-rama" at the pie-eating contest in Stand By Me, Paul Newman eating 50 eggs in Cool Hand Luke, and my personal favorite, John Candy's attempt at the "Ol' 96er" in The Great Outdoors—but organized competitive eating existed largely as a cultural relic.
That changed in 1997, when the Shea brothers turned the Nathan's contest into a national promotion with seven qualifying contests for the Fourth of July event. They formed the IFOCE as the unifying governing body. On its crest, two winged lions bite opposite ends of a hot dog, crossing outstretched ketchup and mustard bottles above a banner with the supposed Latin motto, In Voro Veritas. In gorging, truth.
Setting up among baffled or oblivious shoppers in some mall, it was even tougher to draw a crowd than at Nathan's. "You go to the center court of a mall in Atlanta or Norfolk, or wherever you go, you've got to fill the tent," Shea says. "You'd be going, 'You, sir, sign up for the contest. Don't turn your back on Uncle Sam!'" He and his brother tried to outdo one another as they traded master of ceremony duties from one contest to the next. "[Rich] was actually the one who first got really big, almost evangelical. And I go, 'Man, I'm definitely doing that.'" His brother calls fewer contests lately, but Shea's carnival barker routine is more and more Southern revival each year—the bowed head as the music begins, the quivering microphone hand, the hushed voice building to a boom as he introduces a total stranger. "If you're not funny, people aren't gonna stop. They're gonna walk by."
Ryan Nerz joined the IFOCE as a master of ceremonies in 2003 and went on the road with the Shea brothers to pick up the proper tone—"satirical," he says, "but never mean-spirited." Rich Shea favored quick one-liners that often flew straight over the audience's heads, while George got more intense over the years, to a point where, Nerz says, "you're concerned he might have a heart attack at the climax of the show."
"When we started, not only did the eaters not have a pedigree, there were no eaters," Shea says. "So you had to get the eaters on the spot and introduce them in a way that was interesting. And you've never met them before." To turn those anonymous walk-ons into something grander, Shea and the other emcees fell back on boilerplate gags, few of them worn so often as the Cap'n Crunch bit, which goes a little like this: "Ladies and gentlemen, he entered his first eating contest at the age of 13. He ate 17 bowls of Cap'n Crunch in just eight minutes. The scars on the roof of his mouth took months to heal, but the emotional scars took much longer."
A paucity of contestants became less and less of an issue, though, as a regular crop of big eaters began gathering around the sport, meeting the Shea brothers' act with shticks of their own as the circuit grew to 25 contests a year. Don "Moses" Lerman tempted Shea's Biblical side with a crossover from matzo balls to hot dogs. Eric "Badlands" Booker, a New York subway conductor and still a prominent eater, recorded a series of hip-hop records about competitive eating, following his debut, Hungry & Focused, with a series of albums from Hungry & Focused II: The Ingestion Engine to Hungry & Focused 4: Fork Knife & Mic.
Along the way, they set the bar for foods that hadn't been eaten competitively before, blew past old records and set some that will probably stand a while longer—like Oleg Zhornitskiy's eight-minute gallon of mayonnaise; Lerman's seven sticks of butter in five minutes; or Booker's 60 hamantaschen (traditional fruit-filled Purim cookies) in six minutes. Mostly, these were very big men in the sport's early days, and former Nathan's champ Ed "The Animal" Krachie hinted at the end of their reign in his 1998 paper—rejected by the New England Journal of Medicine—titled "Can Abdominal Fat Act as a Restrictive Agent on Stomach Expansion?"
To that point, most of America's top eaters were still men of great guts, but Krachie's concern reflected the influx of featherweight eaters from Japan. At the close of the century, the Nathan's Mustard Yellow Belt passed back and forth between American and Japanese eaters a few times—until the Japanese ran the table in 2000, claiming all three top spots led by Kazutoyo "the Rabbit" Arai's record-setting 25-dog performance. The next year, though, rookie Takeru Kobayashi captivated the nation with a sensational 50 dogs and buns, beginning the longest run of Nathan's dominance ever seen.