By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
Nerz doesn't see it that way. Chestnut and the rest of the clean-cut new generation of performance-minded eaters might be whitewashing all the old records, but for sheer spectacle, they can't compare to the eater-showmen who got the sport off the ground. "I happened to have been around for the era of the best characters that competitive eating had, or ever will have," he says.
Shea, of course, doesn't doubt the league's chances at growth—but Nerz isn't so sure. He left the IFOCE in late March after an interview with Salon.com in which he said the sport was "plateauing." He broke from his character as an IFOCE mouthpiece to seriously discuss the "inherent ceiling" in a sport where the athletes stand in one place and put food in their mouths. A decade after Kobayashi's Coney Island debut introduced the sport to its biggest audience yet, the Shea brothers face their biggest challenge yet: keeping fans' attention once the novelty wears off. And so long as Kobayashi refuses to eat exclusively for them, they'll have to do it without their biggest star. "They are excited for it to be that media moment," Nerz says. "They just want it to be under their dominion."
In Dallas the night before the state fair contest, I meet Biller and Bertoletti at the Keller's Drive-In on Northwest Highway. We stand around Bertoletti's rental car as they each down a pair of burgers and he takes swigs off a gallon jug of iced tea.
Bertoletti, a culinary school graduate, says he's never been able to stop eating once he finds something that tastes good. He's trying to rework his mental approach to food, but competitive eating helped him channel his binge-eating tendencies. "I had to do something in my life to change my way with food."
"I just like swallowing things," Biller says.
They each have been lucky enough to find an excuse to travel and binge. "It's taken us so far, it's really unbelievable," Bertoletti says, but he knows, even after he ate 55 hot dogs at Nathan's and a record 275 jalapeños just last May, he's replaceable enough on that stage. "What effect do we really have? It's all about George. It doesn't really matter how we eat, actually."
Right then a woman drinking a beer in a truck bed begins shouting, "Nasty! Nasty! Nasty!" Biller perks up and looks at her squarely, clearly wondering if, really, someone would have recognized him. She's got her back turned, though, waving her hands at a guy standing across from her. She says, "Nasty's a great name for a dog."
It's crowded the next day at the fair, with a few hundred people gathered in front of the stage as Shea walks out in his straw boater hat and blue blazer. They cheer as he introduces Biller, the greatest eater in Texas; they gasp when he calls out Bertoletti amid a string of his eating records; and when he shouts for "Joey Chestnut, the eater of the free world," the people go wild. Bertoletti's mohawk is freshly spiked, and all three wear matching red Jimmy John's T-shirts.
"The introductions that we do are very often hyperbolic and just absurdly grand, but the truth is that everyone out there has this element of heroic drama within them, everybody out there is searching for a narrative of heroic drama in everything they do," Shea says. "There is a narrative that fits inside our DNA, and when you explain that these individuals who otherwise may be undistinguished or unrecognized—if you can touch on what makes them amazing, it is both absurd and very true."
The contest is over in five minutes—the eaters eat 17 but the Jimmy John's people make 23. Shea congratulates the eaters on a good performance and leaves the three onstage. A TV camera catches Bertoletti for a quick interview, and then the eaters disappear into the Sunday crush of double-wide baby strollers and motorized mobility scooters. They grab some fried Frito pies and lemonades before they leave the fair, and then Bertoletti catches his flight back to Chicago. Biller and Chestnut drive to a Bone Daddy's outpost in Grapevine, where they sit and watch the Cowboys game on TV with a bowl of chips and queso, staring at their menus for a while before deciding that they could eat, but after all, they'd rather not.