Two minutes in and you begin to realize this much: With each extra chew, every labored swallow, with every passing second, you're losing. To your right, they're eating much faster than you are. They are shoveling the food in hand over hand, and so are you, or at least trying to, but the crowd is chanting the names of your competitors—the ones the people really came to see—and you are washing down smaller bites with longer swigs of water, wincing in agony just a few spots from the end of the table, remembering that time in '08 when you were seated dead-center and you were the one they cheered for. You count your empty plates, do the math and realize there's no way you down 45 tamales.
The master of ceremonies barks it's been four and a half minutes—"not quite halfway through"—and it feels a little like forever. You notice on your left, toward the end of the table, they're starting to slow down, and what a relief that must be. You reach down, mouth still bursting with the mash of your last three tamales, pick one more off your plate, and—what do you do?
If you're "Nasty" Nate Biller, ranked 18th in the world, the greatest living eater in Texas competing before a hometown crowd, you shove in all the tamale you can fit, clench your palm around your sputtering mouth and eat.
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This steamy wet September afternoon on the steps of Lewisville City Hall, you eat just like you've done before, when you were televised on ESPN at Coney Island, downing hot dogs against legends like Takeru Kobayashi and Joey Chestnut; like at Red Lobster, when the Endless Shrimp special returned and you went in and ate 400; like at Cici's Pizza where you'd hit the buffet and out-eat three of your high-school friends combined; like at the casino in Colorado just last summer, where the cooks pounded those Rocky Mountain oysters beyond recognition and served them up plain, breaded and fried. You ate 2 pounds and 4 ounces of those veiny greaseballs, and they couldn't even tell you how many testicles it amounted to. You eat, as the straw-hatted hollering shill just told the crowd—one of the few things he's yelled into the mic today that isn't total bullshit—not because you're hungry, or because it feels good, but because eating is what you do.
The crowd's about a hundred strong, peppered with umbrellas for cover from the sun and rain and speckled with signs for eating star Sonya "The Black Widow" Thomas. They cheer as the competitors wince. They chant "Eat! Eat! Eat!" and stare up at the stage, watching for someone to hurl.
His face in a grotesque twist, snot and grease mingling beneath his nose, Biller looks like a likely candidate. Folks who've seen him eat before, though, know that's just his style—why they call him "Nasty."
The master of ceremonies, Dave Keating, a part-time DJ from New York and an official with the International Federation of Competitive Eating, picks up speed as time winds down. "The tamales are cooked, but the passion is raw, ladies and gentlemen," he shouts. As the clouds part, he leads the crowd in chanting the 10-second countdown. All the while, Biller eats. Keating calls time, and staff from the Dallas Tortilla and Tamale Factory, which sponsored the contest, set about counting each eater's tamales. "I have seen the Great Wall of China," Keating shouts. "I have been to the Taj Mahal. I have never seen something as great as what I have just witnessed here today." A Western Days Festival official tells the crowd to stick around for the staged gunfight up next.
Biller's far from the only one at that table who eats like this—competitively, professionally, to the point of failure—and that stiff competition has made it tough for him to crack a top-three finish lately. Today he finishes a half-tamale shy of fourth, with 32.5 tamales in 10 minutes. The two best eaters today are Thomas, with 56, and Tim "Eater X" Janus, with 59. (Janus set the record here in 2007, with 71.) Lewisville Mayor Dean Ueckert walks out in a cowboy hat, gives Janus a hearty handshake onstage and hands him a $1,500 check.
This society of eaters, with more than a decade of shared history, a complex social order and a special way of validating such obviously unhealthy behavior—health is really beside the point—is also what keeps Biller out on the circuit most weekends, on an expenses-sometimes-paid tour of America's small-town festivals, shopping malls and Indian casinos. It takes a certain kind of sickness to join a fraternity like this, but what matters now is that they've found each other.
So he'll be back onstage next weekend trying to do it again, with sandwiches this time, at the State Fair of Texas alongside two of the sport's elite eaters: third-ranked Patrick Bertoletti, the mohawked chef from Chicago, and the hot dog king, Joey Chestnut himself. Biller will wave to the crowd and soak up its approval as he plows a sub sandwich into his face. But right now, Nasty needs a nap.
He's 28 years old, weighing somewhere around 185 pounds. In a backward-facing olive cadet hat perched above his narrow eyes and slender nose, Biller is a soldier in competitive eating's ever-swelling ranks. That so many people are so eager to put themselves through this mess, to distill some personal meaning from the pain, is all to its credit as a sport, but to George Shea, his brother Rich and their business partner Dave Baer—the true godfathers of competitive eating—the IFOCE and its sister organization, Major League Eating, are about the media event, George Shea says, for which clients will pay good money. "You have two primary clients, one of which is the sponsor who's paying for this, the other of which is the integrity of the event."
Eaters rush to register online as soon as a contest opens up, sit on long waiting lists and buy plane tickets at the last minute. Whether it's gyros in Houston, candy bars at Comic-Con or poutine in Toronto, the where and the what hardly matter. It's about stepping up to that table, armed with all the latest breathing techniques and water substitutes—maybe lemonade or fruit punch to wash the food down—with the light tug of remembered wins and the lead weight of old losses wreaking havoc on your empty stomach. It's about learning, once again, how you measure up. "It's a confederation of like-minded and like-hearted people," Shea says. "There's all kinds of internecine craziness, but it is a family."
Along the way, maybe weirdest of all, the sport's attracted a following of dedicated fans who'll follow results online, maybe argue about the rankings and drive hours to watch a 10-minute eating contest. Fantasy leagues sprung up around the sport; at EatFeats.com, an anonymous moderator compiles an exhaustive database of eating results and news. Another site catered to hopeful eaters who didn't want to wait for a contest and preferred to submit webcam movies of their speed-eating travails.
I never went that far, never joined a fantasy league, but after winning a cheesesteak eating contest in 2003, working on a story about an oyster-eating champ in Chicago, I was hooked. I've driven hours to photograph contests—for a bigger project, maybe a coffee table book, someday, I told myself on those long drives. Up front by the table, it's as intense as any other live sporting event. The pictures all end up looking the same; occasionally I'd enter a contest when there was an open slot, and I still have the recording from a grilled-cheese contest in Oklahoma, where longtime IFOCE emcee Ryan Nerz announced my 10-sandwich win: "We have traveled the country, and indeed the known universe, looking for eating talent. And we may have found some here today in the likes of Patrick Michels and this man here in the red Budweiser hat." No greater honor in sport.
The hype peaked two or three years ago, around a bunch of media coverage and—most of all—the epic showdowns each Fourth of July between Joey Chestnut and Takeru Kobayashi at the Nathan's Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. The sport's potential seemed to be growing with every reality special, rumors of Hollywood scripts and news about an upcoming competitive eating Wii video game. There was hand-wringing too, about whether it was all getting too corporate, or what it signified for our wasteful, morbidly obese American moment.
Years later, the hand-wringers have largely moved on, and we're all over the stories of American excess; now we're all tightening our belts. Every now and then another cable network runs an hour-long eater feature, and in the top ranks it seems like everyone's had their flash of fame, in some one-off TV or magazine profile. If you're Fox, after all, where do you go after your TV special with Kobayashi speed-eating hot dogs against a half-ton Kodiak bear?
Still, Shea says the IFOCE held 85 contests this year—more than ever before—with $550,000 in prizes. Though Kobayashi wasn't even in this year's Nathan's final (apart from the post-contest stage-storming that resulted in his arrest), and Chestnut turned in his lowest winning total ever, the contest enjoyed its best TV ratings yet. Along the way, most eaters stuck with the sport, practicing at home, paying their way to a couple more contests every year, never expecting to get famous. The sport didn't explode, but it didn't fizzle out either. Improbable as it is, competitive eating matured.
In the beginning, there was the Nathan's account. George Shea was fresh out of Columbia with an English degree, loose in New York City, and in 1988 he landed at a public relations agency run by Max Rosey. A press agent legendary for outlandish promotions like novelty weddings and elephants on water skis, Rosey and his business partner Mortie Matz had been running the hot dog contest at the Coney Island Nathan's stand since the early '70s. Shea fell into a role as Rosey's understudy. "There were 20 people in the audience and three members of the media, and maybe eight or 10 eaters," Shea recalls. "You got the eaters who were walking by on the boardwalk."
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.
As IFOCE reached new heights of marketability, other contests sprung up around the country at state fairs, strip malls and roadside bars—anywhere a showboating promoter might want to draw a crowd. The Sheas tightened up regulations about eaters entering non-sanctioned contests; top competitors signed contracts pledging their exclusivity to the federation. "It's a very simple equation," Shea explains. "A sponsor is not going to pay money to someone who is literally going to go out the next day and promote a rival brand. They just wouldn't do it."
A rival league grew out of the discord, the Association of Independent Competitive Eaters, led by folks who called Shea's eaters elitists and corporate shills. But without a little of the slick federation treatment, an eating contest could quickly devolve into even more of a crass, carnal spectacle. For a time, IFOCE sent its eaters to Wing Bowl, a Philadelphia contest founded by two radio shock jocks in the early '90s, but it was too much a blue-collar, gut-bumping rodeo of depravity—with judges who played too fast and loose with the wing counts—for the Sheas. The epithets hurled at Korean-American Sonya Thomas could have been right at home on talk radio, but they didn't fit the IFOCE brand.
With the IFOCE, sponsors knew what they were paying for with the fees and prize money they ponied up. Shea says that, on top of covering the cost of food and prizes, it costs sponsors an amount equivalent to a small newspaper ad campaign to host an IFOCE-sanctioned contest, promoted through their agency, featuring their eaters and called by a league official. "The sensibility that we bring to the mic is wry, it's comedic, it acknowledges the absurdity without undermining the drama. So it works with multiple different crowds," Shea says. "The media was very receptive to the tone of what we're doing. In a way, it showed that we're not out here doing this adolescent gross-out thing."
In 2004, Crazy Legs Conti: Zen and the Art of Competitive Eating introduced the film festival circuit to the sport, featuring Conti, a New York window washer, nude model, day manager at the Penthouse Executive Club and a competitive fan who became one of the sport's top performers. The Nathan's final aired for the first time on ESPN that year. Younger, fitter eaters rose to the top of the pack, like Thomas, a hundred-pound Burger King manager, and Tim Janus, a Southern Methodist University grad who split time between a pizza shop and a day-trading operation—more compelling characters for reporters, and prettier faces for reality TV. Two separate competitive eating books came out in April 2006, and by the time Joey Chestnut debuted that summer, finishing just two shy of Kobayashi's 54 hot dogs and buns, competitive eating looked a lot like pro sports.
Ryan Nerz wrote one of the historical records of the sport's mid-decade explosion, Eat This Book, an official IFOCE history covering a year of his emcee work. Nerz says there's no easy analogy for what the Sheas have done, inventing competitive eating as a sport and running such a monopoly on its market, growth and personnel. "It's Vince McMahon meets Stephen Colbert meets the Ringling Brothers," he says. "All within a slightly smaller, esoteric realm."
The Sheas decided the sport had moved past the faux-epic sensibility of the IFOCE and built a new brand around its new identity: Major League Eating. "It's consciously marketed as MLE because that's where it is culturally, that's what people think about it," Shea says. "They don't think about it as Ed 'Cookie' Jarvis driving 25 hours with Kevin Lipsitz and dogs in the car to go to a french fry eating contest somewhere. That's not where we are right now. Where we are is, Joey Chestnut is an extremely marketable national figure, and you have really good brands, major brands like Pepto Bismol, that are on board, and it's a whole different level."
This was the competitive eating Nate Biller first encountered in the fall of 2006, and though the eating records have skyrocketed and a few of the faces have changed, it's largely the same sport a new eater would find today. The old Coney Island hucksterism was still in there, but now as just one piece in a complex ecosystem of corporate promotion, self-promotional antics and honest athletic struggle.
A government and politics major at Georgetown, Biller had moved back home to Wichita Falls after college and an uninspiring internship with North Texas Congressman Mac Thornberry. While he was living back home, he strung together a three-year winning streak in the Beanie Burger eating championship at the town's Texas-Oklahoma Fair. In 2006, he set a record that still stands today, eating six of the giant burgers—each more than a pound, covered in refried beans, Fritos, cheese and jalapeños—in just six minutes.
A friend suggested he try himself out against some tougher competition at the Lewisville tamale contest in early September. Janus was there in a blue IFOCE soccer jersey and blue face paint. Rich LeFevre was there in his trademark Hawaiian shirt. Janus ate 51 tamales, and Lewisville Mayor Gene Carey handed him $1,500.
Biller ate only 20 that day, tying him for fifth place, but he beat a handful of ranked eaters, and it was good enough to get the attention of master of ceremonies Eddie Dunn, who suggested a career in eating might serve him well. "I was like, 'How many of these contests are there?' I had no idea there was a pro level," Biller says.
A month later, Biller was on the main stage at the State Fair of Texas for his third contest. For three years, IFOCE ran the State Fair of Texas' corn dog eating championship, and LeFevre had claimed its $500 prize each time. In 2006, though, the state fair opted to run the contest independently, and Biller squared off against a field of amateurs, including token celebrity competitor Bo Bice, a former American Idol runner-up. Bice spent 10 minutes eating a single corny dog; Biller ate 12 and claimed the $500 first place prize.
A few months earlier, he'd had no idea any of this was possible. Now he'd eaten alongside some of the burgeoning sport's top talents, and even gotten his first paycheck for eating. It gave him plenty to think about heading into winter, typically competitive eating's off-season. In the meantime, he returned to college and applied for a graduate sports business program at New York University, which he'd begin in fall 2007.
There was one official contest in late January, though, a french fry contest at a Bikini's Bar and Grill along Interstate 35 in Austin. Biller drove down. George Shea called the event, announcing Biller for the first time for a few dozen spectators in the parking lot. As the waitresses laid 5-pound trays of fries before each eater, Biller stood at a far end of the table, alongside the toughest competition he'd faced yet, each of them in matching powder-blue T-shirts for the contest. Janus was there, wearing blue face paint and a yellow bikini top like the waitresses. "Crazy Legs" Conti ate with latex surgical gloves, crushing the fries into a greasy potato mash he ate by the mouthful. Joey Chestnut, gearing up for his Coney Island rematch with Kobayashi, creamed the competition, working well into his second tray of fries for a total of 6.5 pounds. Biller fell into a line of eaters, walking through the empty restaurant to a scale in the kitchen. He'd eaten 2.5 pounds, good for seventh place.
This is where plenty of new eaters have given up the dream: their first low finish against such intimidating competition. Biller, though, kept at it, set his sights on Coney Island, and learned how to toughen up for a contest. He'd always eaten big meals, but now he ate them with purpose. He ate 5 pounds of grapes and other roughage with days in between to stretch out his stomach. He drank half-gallons of water at a time. "You've really got to commit; you've got to commit a lot of time and energy to it if you want to really move up to the next level," Biller says. "It's not as much fun as it might sound to just gorge."
He lost to Conti in a Nathan's qualifying event at the Mall of America in Minnesota in spring 2007, but he came in third and ate 18 dogs. Chestnut finally unseated Kobayashi that year on the Fourth, blowing by the old record with 66 dogs and buns, but still just three dogs ahead of his rival. Biller kept at it on the circuit: matzo balls and pigskins, Myrtle Beach to Mississippi. He ate 3.25 pounds of deep-fried asparagus; 20 dozen oysters. By summer 2008, he'd assembled a string of respectable third- and fourth-place finishes, capped off by a six-gyro performance in Houston mid-May that earned him $300—his first paycheck in more than a year. He'd jumped 17 places to a 30th-place ranking in the IFOCE.
It was time to make another run at Nathan's. He entered a qualifier that June in Queens, and improved to 19.5 dogs. Janus blew by the rest of the table, finishing with 42. That year though, for the first time, IFOCE held a Dallas-area qualifier at a Sam's Club in Plano, and none of the top-ranked eaters made the trip. Biller ate a personal-best 20 dogs and buns, but he tied with another eater, Kevin Ross, who'd also gotten serious about eating in 2006 and had been charting a similar course along the circuit. In a five-minute overtime session, Biller put away five to Ross's four and earned his first spot at the big table that July 4.
For eating his way to the Coney Island contest, he was handed his first IFOCE contract to eat exclusively for the federation and a half-year's supply of Nathan's dogs. He spent the night before the contest at the W Hotel in Manhattan, then rode to Coney Island with the other eaters, greeted by a line of fans waiting to high-five him as he got off the bus. He had hours to wait backstage with other eaters and their families, and a torturous buffet spread of hot dogs and burgers. As Shea called his name, Biller took the stage in a Kanye West-inspired outfit—black polo, collar popped, retro shutter shades and scarf—an effect somewhat dulled by the official contest T-shirt he was told he had to wear. The crowd was stunning. "They said they had 50,000 people, but I had no idea what that would look like," Biller recalls. He went in knowing he'd get beat, just soaking up the experience, and he finished with 18.5 dogs and buns—18th out of 21 eaters. Chestnut and Kobayashi each ate 59 that year, and, as with Biller and Ross two weeks prior, the contest went to an overtime eat-off, this time a race to eat five more dogs. Chestnut won, barely, and claimed the $10,000 prize.
Living in New York, Biller fell in with eaters like Janus and Conti, "Badlands" Booker and "Beautiful" Brian Seiken, and they'd all pile into a car for weekend contests up and down the East Coast. "The eaters go out and have a real party," Shea says. "Think of it from their perspective: These are largely young men who have made friends within the community...They meet in a new city, they make money, and they have zero responsibility relative to someone who has a family. In many ways, it is the life of a professional athlete on a much lower scale."
Along the way, Biller and other eaters would have long talks about where the sport was headed, and how it was growing—conversations he combined with his research to write a case study on competitive eating. He finished second in Lewisville last fall with an impressive 42 tamales, ate 4 pounds of catfish in Davenport, Iowa, but as he finished grad school, Biller moved to Queens and took a job overseeing ticket sales for the U.S. Open. Suddenly, in between contests, he was also working 70 hours a week. By spring he was the 18th-ranked eater in the world, but heading into the winter off-season, Biller dropped way off his training regimen.
After last year's Open, Biller moved back to Texas with his fiancée and took a job running group ticket sales for the Frisco RoughRiders. He'd end up working weekends as well, and had trouble finding time to travel to eat. From April to August, he entered only three contests.
He'd grown accustomed to serious partying on the circuit and living in New York, but he discovered that Collin County was no place to overdo it. In four months, he says, he was arrested three times for being drunk in public, for things he'd never worried much about before—pissing in the parking lot or passing out in bars. His fiancée took it more seriously, he says, got tired of bailing him out of jail and convinced him to start a rehab program. Again, his eating took a hit. "Drinking and eating kind of go hand in hand, if that makes any sense," Biller says. "When I'd get home from work, a lot of times I'd do a run of cabbages where I'd try to eat 5 pounds of cabbage as fast as I could...Instead of doing that, I was focusing on doing my steps, working with my sponsor, having conversations with my family. Not to say those things are bad in any way, but I just wasn't focused on eating."
After five years together, Biller and his fiancée split after the season ended. He quit his job and moved back to Wichita Falls to look for front-office work at a sports team in Texas or Oklahoma—something with weekends free, maybe even travel perks. He's keeping up his training, gearing up for next season. "I think from here through next year'll be my best stretch of contests yet," Biller says. It was a tough year for his eating career, but he's still by far the top eater in Texas. After all, he's the one the league chose to eat with Chestnut and Bertoletti at the state fair.
The format of that sandwich contest at the state fair may say the most about where the sport's headed. The state fair canceled its own corn dog contest this year, and instead the main stage is hosting a Jimmy John's "Eaters vs. Makers" race, an invitation-only event in which three pro eaters race to finish all the sandwiches three Jimmy John's employees can make in five minutes. MLE's been running these events for years and the eaters have only won once, but it ties the speed-eating brand in with the company's "freaky fast delivery" marketing campaign.
"There's a lot of change that's going to happen in the sport in the next 10 years," Biller says, but the league still only focuses on its biggest events. In the case study he'd written, Biller recommended a strong national NASCAR-style network to promote competitive eating. "We've got all these contests, two a weekend this whole summer," Biller says. "Those contests usually aren't on the news, they aren't on TV...But if we tie it all together, people would be more interested."
Shea, though, doesn't see the sport growing in fantasy leagues and live TV coverage. He says this was the year MLE really went international, with contests in Singapore, Canada and Japan. They sent Bertoletti on a barnstorming tour, guzzling Slurpees across Australia. "Where we are is as a brand promotion vehicle and a live audience event, and I think that's where you will see the growth," Shea says.
That's a very different thing from a budding sport's fans picking favorites among the eaters. Before this year's Coney Island finals, Nathan's decided to update its "Wall of Fame," covering up images of old-timers like Don "Moses" Lerman, "Hungry" Charles Hardy and "Badlands" Booker. "You can talk all day and night about a 50-year-old house-husband or a worker and so-and-so—there's no story. There has to be a narrative for the media," Shea says. "Sonya Thomas weighs 100 pounds and she can beat Joey Chestnut. End of story."
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."
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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.