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The history of competitive eating contests

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

The extra long July Fourth holiday weekend is here, and people are making plans.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Willie's hosting a Fourth of July party. And we're learning techniques because he's going to host another hot-dog-eating contest at his house. We're going to have all of us do a hot-dog-eating contest.

WILLIE THIER: I had my tonsils out last September, so there's a lot more space to - in terms of just like airway ability.

DETROW: We met Willie Thier in downtown Washington, D.C., last week, gathered at the foot of a big outdoor stage, waiting for a much more serious hot-dog-eating contest to begin - the final qualifying event for the Super Bowl, Olympics and World Cup of competitive eating all wrapped up in one bun. You probably know it, the annual July Fourth contest at Nathan's New York's Coney Island, the one Joey Chestnut has won year after year after year.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Joey hits the 50 mark - still a magic number, even though he blows by it every year. That's still a significant number.

DETROW: In just a few minutes, nine people would take the stage to gorge on as many hot dogs as they could fit in their mouths. The top finishers would punch a ticket to the big event at Nathan's on Tuesday. Thier is excited - his friend, Becca Harris, not quite as pumped.

BECCA HARRIS: I was just warned to stay out of his splash zone, so I'm backing up a little bit because I am very apprehensive about how this is going to go down.

DETROW: Harris has the same question as so many others in the crowd. Why do Americans do this?

HARRIS: I mean, God only knows, right? God only knows. I feel like it's some kind of, like, inaugural part of their culture at this point, like, hot dogs, so...

DETROW: Alejandra Marquez Janse and I walk around to the back of the stage, where staffers are stacking up plates with five hot dogs apiece.

Do you think one of us could stand, like, right in the wings or something to record the actual contest?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: As long as there's not a medical emergency. If there's a medical emergency, we'll need you to move out of the way because the EMTs that will be here will need to get up on the stage.

DETROW: Fair.

It's almost game time. Master of Ceremonies George Shea, the co-founder of Major League Eating, bounds onto the stage. He's dressed like the monorail salesman from "The Simpsons," and he's ready to pump up the crowd.

GEORGE SHEA: The Houdini of Whizz-ini (ph), Crazy Legs...

DETROW: It's time to begin.

SHEA: Three, two, one - go.

DETROW: OK. We are underway. Everybody is standing up. Several people are dipping the hot dogs in water, eating the hot dogs and then eating the buns after the fact. OK. The guy in the middle is, wow, he's ripping the hot dogs in two, stuffing a half of a hot dog in each mound, looks like he's stuffing the bun in after that, kind of jerking up and down as he does it.

Early on, it is clear who's going to win - the 6'9" Gideon Oji, who's standing in the middle of the stage, demolishing three hot dogs at a time.

Oji has eaten 20 hot dogs with a little more than 5 minutes left. He's finishing up that last clump of hot dogs. He's got his fist full of - it looks like two hot dogs in buns at this point. He is dunking either end into the cup of water in front of him. Taking a little pause there to shimmy his shoulders, maybe get loose for the next round of hot dogs, taking a sip of water, still chewing. Those buns are tricky. Those buns are tricky.

In the final minutes, his pace starts to slow, but still...

Five seconds.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Five, four, three, two, one...

DETROW: Oji's final total is 35. He's going back to the big dance at Nathan's for the eighth time, but he's not satisfied.

GIDEON OJI: I was shooting for 40 today. I was a little bit winded, so, you know, I just - it wasn't really nobody chasing me, so, you know, I just took it easy.

DETROW: Oji is 31 and originally from Nigeria.

OJI: I came to America in 2008. That's around the time that Joey ate about 65 hot dogs. And I was like, I said, I could do that.

DETROW: That's Joey Chestnut, one of the greatest of all time at this contest. Oji has really embraced this. He's even won a kale-eating contest.

OJI: I played college basketball at the highest level. You know, this is by far the most challenging thing, just because you're fighting against your body, being like, stop doing that to me, you know. So you have to keep going for the competition. That's what drives me, you know. So it's very challenging, very spiritual for me.

DETROW: That's why Oji does it, but why is this such a broader thing? Why specifically do Americans do this? And why has competitive eating become so synonymous with a holiday celebrating American independence? To try to answer that question, producer Matt Ozug spoke to some experts who have gone deep on the subject.

JASON FAGONE: Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I remember that I spent two years in the 2000s following competitive eating around the country and the world. You know, I saw some things that I can never forget, even if I wanted to. My name is Jason Fagone, and I'm the author of "Horsemen Of The Esophagus: Competitive Eating And The Big Fat American Dream." Most people are familiar with the Nathan's famous hot-dog-eating contest. That's the one that's broadcast every year on ESPN. But there's all kinds of other eating contests...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Cheeseburger eating champion...

FAGONE: ...For burgers, for cakes, for cannolis...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST: Twenty-three cannoli during last year's face-off.

FAGONE: ...French fries...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: French-fry-eating championship of the world.

FAGONE: ...Just the craziest kind of wildest, most grotesque, nonsensical, you know, and kind of fun pageants that I'd ever had a chance to witness. One of the most intense experiences in my life was attending the Philadelphia Wing Bowl, the country's premier chicken-wing-eating contest, 15,000 to 20,000 actual fans packed into a sports arena in Philadelphia at 7 a.m.

Then there's this whole other aspect of eating contests in Japan. They come with greatly expanded production values. There are, you know, lasers and explosions and, you know, dramatic music. There's a lot more ingenuity in the kind of the structuring of the contest itself, whereas in America, the contests tend to be more just about sort of sheer volume. Competitive eating goes back centuries. It's not only an American thing.

ERIC GRUNDHAUSER: We have record of a famous competitive eater going back to the 17th century.

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GRUNDHAUSER: My name is Eric Grundhauser, and I am a writer and journalist. There was a farmer by the name of Nicholas Wood. Some of the impressive meals that Wood was known to have consumed included eating seven dozen rabbits in one sitting, entire pigs, 12 loaves of bread that had been soaked in ale. He passed out afterwards, but he made it. Wood earned a number of pretty incredible nicknames - The Most Exorbitant Paunchmonger, Duke All Paunch and the Kentish Tenter Belly. Unfortunately, his body was pretty well destroyed from all the eating. He had lost all but one of his teeth after trying to eat an entire mutton shoulder. Wood finally threw in the towel and said, I can't do this any longer.

FAGONE: There are a lot of different cultures that have kind of invented eating contests independently at different points in history. And for the first few hundred years after the American Revolution, eating contests were a regular feature at Fourth of July celebrations. And then this started to change a little in the 1970s, when Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs created a hot dog contest on the Fourth of July. You know, the eaters in that era were mostly big guys from Long Island, right? These are like classic kings at the backyard barbecue.

And in the 1990s, these two brothers from New York took over the Nathan's Famous accounts, George and Richard Shea. And in that age, everyone who was competing in the contest was kind of in on the joke. The eaters had silly nicknames. There was a guy named Frank Large De La Rosa.

COMINIC CARDO: Dominic "The Doginator" Cardo.

FAGONE: Ed "Cookie" Jarvis.

CHARLES HARDY: "Hungry" Charles Hardy, Brooklyn, N.Y.

FAGONE: Eric "Badlands" Booker...

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ERIC BOOKER: (Rapping) Quench my thirst to my heart's content and do it in record time.

FAGONE: ...Who is also a rapper and records competitive-eating-themed rap songs.

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BOOKER: Somebody saying chug that drink.

FAGONE: I have a CD somewhere in my box of recordings here.

And then in 2001, everything changed in an instant when this young Japanese guy named Takeru Kobayashi came to America and competed in the Nathan's hot dog contest. Kobayashi was different from everyone who had come before him. You know, he wasn't a big man. He looked very healthy. He didn't have any kind of a jokey nickname, right? And it turned out that he had been training for the contest as if it were a real sport.

Part of Kobayashi's innovation was that he came up with a completely new way to eat the hot dogs. He separated the hot dog from the bun, and then he snapped the hot dogs in half. And then he would snap the bun in half, dunk the bun in water and eat it. This was an innovation akin to the Fosbury flop in the high jump.

And the record at that point was 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes, which everybody thought was an enormous quantity. Contest starts, everything is going like normal. And then about 3 minutes in, everything kind of stops. And not only the other contestants, but the announcer, they just start looking at Kobayashi with their jaws open. Kobayashi had almost broken the world record, and there was still 9 minutes left to go.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Kid is incredible. Total beating of the Americans. He was like a conveyor belt. He was just putting them in two at a time.

FAGONE: And then he proceeded to double the world record by the end of the 12 minutes.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Sort of waving the white flag.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I can't believe it - new record - 50.

FAGONE: And then after that, everything changed because there started to be real money. Pretty soon, you know, ESPN was broadcasting the hot dog contest live.

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UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: What a crowd out here, Americans of all stripes. There are visitors from abroad celebrating the dream of independence once again on the corner of Surf & Stillwell.

FAGONE: And with that money came a whole new wave of competitors who, you know, like Kobayashi, were training. They were taking it seriously as a sport, and they weren't necessarily in on the joke anymore. They were really trying to win.

Eating is one of the great psychic preoccupations of our species. It's right up there with sex and death. I mean, eating is this animal act that we all participate in to some degree, and this is the most animal version of it, but it's happening in an environment where there are safety rules. So in a sense, it's like this display of gluttony that has been kind of made safe for you to look at and think about. There's like this pane of safety glass between you and the danger.

If you sort of zoom out and you think about, you know, what an eating contest symbolizes more broadly maybe, it does seem symbolic of the outsized American appetite for everything - and not just for food, but for resources, power, money, you name it. It's kind of a Rorschach test for how people see us.

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DETROW: Jason Fagone is the author of "Horsemen Of The Esophagus." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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