A new world hot dog eating champion was crowned yesterday at the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. 11-time winner Joey "Jaws" Chestnut broke his own record and took home the Mustard Belt by eating 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
But it's George Shea, the contest's longtime emcee, who's responsible for turning the man into myth. Here he is in 2015, when he notably introduced Chestnut over The Who’s “Baba O’Reilly”: “Through the curtain of the aurora, a comet blazes to herald his arrival,” Shea says, “and his victory shall be transcribed into every language known to history, including Klingon.”
“With Joey Chestnut, what I’m trying to do is get to the heart of who he is in my mind and who he is in America’s mind,” Shea told WNYC’s Richard Hake the morning after the big competition. “He’s the most American and patriotic of all athletes, and he sort of stands as that figure.”
Shea has developed a following for his enthusiastic, all-in emceeing of the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, especially his way of introducing competitors. The introductions have a melodrama to them that never entirely veers into parody—Shea spends time reflecting on each competitor (or, rather, athlete) before drafting up their individual intros. Joey Chestnut is distinct from Juan “More Bite” Rodriguez, who is in turn distinct from Rich “The Locust” LeFevre.
Shea says he feels patriotic about the event, in part because Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest has become a Fourth of July tradition: crowds pack the Coney Island Boardwalk on Independence Day to catch a glimpse of the show, and millions of people tune into live coverage through major outlets like ESPN.
“It’s just a little silly, and it’s sort of like, proudly silly. Like, ‘We will celebrate whatever we want.’ And in this case, we choose a hot dog contest,” Shea said.
At the same time, Shea, Major League Eating and fans across the world do take this seriously. This year saw a small controversy play out after the event, in which a counting error brought the final scores into question. A thorough investigation cleared the air, in part because Shea, the competitors, and officials including the MLE Commissioner stepped in. (A pile of hot dogs had blocked the jurors' view during the competition, leading to conflicting dog counts.)
As for the critics and the naysayers, or for those who might get a bit nauseous at the idea of 74 hot dogs within 10 minutes, Shea encourages folks to give the spectacle a shot.
“I find it like watching the dance, like watching the Bolshoy,” he said. “It’s like physical poetry to me.”