It's tough to know just how to feel about this year's competitive eating lineup at the State Fair of Texas.
On one hand, on this Sunday afternoon at 1 p.m., the main stage is featuring some world-class eating talent, racing to put away sandwiches faster than a team of Jimmy John's workers can make them. These guys are professional eaters, with the stomach capacity far beyond anything seen in the fair's amateur contests in recent years.
Wichita Falls' "Nasty" Nate Biller, ranked 18th in the world, began his eating career here at the fair, downing 12 corny dogs in 10 minutes for the win on the main stage in 2006 (against an otherwise fairly weak field). He'll be joined by two of the biggest names in the eating world: reigning hot dog eating champion Joey Chestnut and third-ranked Pat Bertoletti, who claimed the world jalapeño eating title last May in San Antonio, by outlasting Sonya Thomas in an excruciating extra-innings battle.
And yet. This year also marks the end of the line for the fair's corny dog eating championship, which has grown into a real tradition in recent years. The contest first appears on EatFeats records in 2003, with Rich "the Locust" LeFevre's 12-dog win. Fair spokeswoman Sue Gooding told me this morning that the corny dog contest "may have sort of run its course. I'm not sure if we'll be doing the corny dog competition again."
Gooding says Jimmy John's contacted the fair's marketing department early on as they were planning the lineup for this year's fair. "At one point we were prepared to do both" the sandwich and the corny dog contests, Gooding says, but as the main stage lineup filled up, corny dogs ended up getting the axe. There's just no telling, she says, whether the corny dog contest will come back in the next few years. "We're always trying something new," Gooding says, "and circling back to things we tried."
Until yesterday afternoon, I'd assumed the fair was hosting both contests, as it did in 2007, with a Fletcher's corny dog contest for locals, and a Waffle House contest with Major League Eaters like Chestnut and Bertoletti. (The International Federation of Competitive Eating sanctioned the corny dog contest's early years, but broke ties with the event -- leaving it to local amateurs -- after 2005.)
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Walking through the food pavilion during our office fair day, Jesse "Hophead" Hughey first told me they'd canceled the corny dog contest. He called foul on replacing the contest for locals with the three-man sandwich show.
Eating contests are always, on some level, just an ad for the food sponsor putting on the event -- but the Jimmy John's race, pitting eaters against sandwich-makers in a play on their "so fast you'll freak" slogan, is especially hard to stomach in a fair season without a traditional mass-consumption contest for locals.
Below, a couple videos from past Jimmy John's contests in Chicago and Seattle, including the trembling intensity of IFOCE co-founder George Shea, who'll be introducing the eaters this Sunday as well.