America’s greatest orator won’t be found pounding a desk in congress, or addressing an Ivy League lecture hall, or beseeching the bench of the Supreme Court. No, America’s finest orator is a carnival barker and ad man for wieners, and he’ll be found every Fourth of July on the boardwalks of Coney Island introducing contestants for Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, the world’s acme of competitive gluttony.
For 30 years now, George Shea – failed novelist, successful PR man and founder of Major League Eating – has served as the eccentric master of ceremonies for the delirious binge-fest, and helped transform it from carnival sideshow to an event attended by tens of thousands and broadcast live on ESPN to an audience typically larger than that for any Major League Soccer match. That’s more than a million.
Shea’s a gifted pitchman, but his real genius is literary, and it can be found in his introductions to contestants. “He will do whatever it takes to win,” Shea said of Yasir Salem, doughnut specialist, in 2015. “Three days ago, he broke up with his girlfriend and euthanised his dog to leave a void of emptiness inside of him that he can fill today with hot dogs and buns.”
But Shea’s best work is reserved for Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, a 15-time winner and the competition’s undisputed GOAT, and for whom he’ll ingest Flannery O’Connor and excrete pure carnie lyricism: “He is the citadel, and he shall endure forever … He will fight until the dome of heaven collapses and the black avalanche of space pours down around him.”
And: “There will be a day that is the end. The collapse of time and all that stood within it. A day of nothing, of no one, of nowhere. But that day is not today. Today we burn bright. Today we blind the earth with our desire. And while it is still ours, we will bend history to witness this moment – to witness this man.”
And this Fourth of July, it was George Shea’s great pleasure to welcome to the stage, for the first time in history, an Australian: 33-year-old James Webb, aka JWebby Can Eat.
A superhero needs an origin story and James Webb has rehearsed his. Last year, during a regional road trip with his girlfriend, the two stopped at a country pub in Cessnock, New South Wales. There was a promotional challenge: consume an obscenely stacked five-kilogram burger – plus chips and wedges – inside half an hour, and claim the kitty and dubious glory. After 50-odd failed challengers, that kitty had grown to about 500 of the Queen’s dollars.
“I ate it comfortably in like 20 minutes without even trying,” Webb says. “And this drunk fool, he went to be a smart-arse and he bought me two big pieces of cheesecake and they poured half a tub of cream on top, and so I ate that as well. Half of Cessnock was cheering me on, they couldn’t believe what they were seeing.”
A light went on for Webb – or at least it did after the pub’s manager contacted the local rag and then word spread among the country’s lazier news producers. “It made national news,” Webb says proudly. And he thought: Maybe I can do this seriously. Maybe I have a gift.
An obscure door opened, and soon Webb was dominating the domestic scene. The 2022 Sausage Sizzle Throwdown was a cakewalk – $1000 and a trophy, thank you very much. It was time to try for the big boys. Time to qualify for Nathan’s. And so he flew himself – he’s a little bitter about the sudden withdrawal of sponsors – to New Jersey for qualifiers at a local fair.
He nailed it, then zealously trained for the Big One. Training means eating 10 kilograms of food every day, as well as replicating the forthcoming contest. For Nathan’s, that meant setting a 10-minute timer each day and consuming as many hot dogs as he could.
There are a few ways you can do this. The Japanese hot dog-eating champion, Takeru Kobayashi, favoured separating the wiener from the bun, splitting it in two and then inhaling each portion like a submarine accepting a torpedo. Then the naked bun would be soaked in water, and the pulpy mess slurped, rather than eaten. The method’s called “dunking”.
Sickened? Same. But stay with me. Webb resents dunking, but says it must be done to remain competitive. “The thing I relate it to is [being] a boxer,” Webb says. “They don’t want to get punched in the face. But they love the sport. They love winning, right? And they do what it takes. So same as a competitive eater: you’re not always going to enjoy the food. But you love the sport, you want to be good at it, so you do what it takes.”
Game day. It’s steaming hot, almost 40 degrees. The streets are closed and the crowds gather. About 40,000 this year. That might be a record. There are camera crews, interviews and a competitor who once ate 50 boiled eggs in three minutes.
Contestants have 10 minutes. Vomiting, or “reversal of fortune”, as they call it, is not allowed. “I was shocked, speechless, nervous, excited,” Webb says. “Honestly, I think every single emotion I was feeling. On the day, I was literally picking up my jaw off the floor every two seconds. I feel like what I say doesn’t do justice for that day.”
As George Shea introduced him before the screaming flock, Webb jogged up the stairs to the stage, focused on not tripping over before the cameras. “He lost the confidence of his co-workers when he mixed together all the food on his plate and said, ‘It’s all going to the same place,’ ” Shea announced. “Sadly, they did not see the wisdom, because today he’s universally acknowledged as the most efficient eater on the circuit. From Sydney, Australia, ranked No. 1 in the southern hemisphere – which is half the planet, by the way – please welcome James Webb.”
It wasn’t Shea’s finest work. But Joey Chestnut was still to come. Lifted to the stage in a cherry picker – Chestnut was wearing a moon boot after rupturing a tendon a week earlier – Shea heralded the champion with his unique tongue: “Indifferent to the gods, for he does not envy their power. He will not plead their pardon. He will curse and spit and sneer and shout his name to the heavens: I am the shining arc of humanity, yield to my dominion!”
The 10 minutes began. Webb could both hear and not hear the rapturous pilgrims. It was like “white noise”, he says. Webb was in a state of intense concentration, which accentuated the necessary senses and muted the redundant. He could hear, however, the nauseating medley of gagging, slurping and violent mastication produced by his competitors. “You’re kind of just trying to block all that out so you don’t get distracted, and the time flies by,” Webb says. “It doesn’t feel like 10 minutes.”
An activist, protesting against the cruel practices of the Virginian slaughterhouse that provides the pork for Nathan’s wieners, rushed the stage in a Darth Vader mask and jostled Joey Chestnut. “Expose Smithfield’s Deathstar” his sign read, and Chestnut, mouth full and leg busted, grabbed the protester and placed him in a quick chokehold before security dragged him – and his Storm Trooper mates – off the stage. Chestnut resumed his prodigious gobbling. Webb, meanwhile, was so absorbed that he interpreted the scuffle as a cameraman falling over.
After the 10 minutes, Webb had consumed 41.5 hot dogs: good enough for third place. “The fact that I finished third, man, honestly, I’m still shocked. Crazy.”
Joey Chestnut, injured and rudely interrupted, still triumphed with 63 – a winning number, but 13 short of his 2020 world record of 76.
For a man whose website says, “I don’t take myself too seriously and know there are way more important things going on in the world”, I was a little surprised to see Webb, via Zoom, wearing an official Major League Eating sweatshirt, and backgrounded by professional bunting that bore his name and cartoon likeness.
You’ll want to know why Webb does this, but I don’t know. I’m sorry. He tells me that his GP thinks it’s fine. Some friends are sceptical, others supportive. Perhaps it’s enough to say this: after the Nathan’s contest, Webb joined the other competitors in a nearby bar to celebrate. Webb doesn’t drink, but Chestnut likes to cap his historic binges with a few Jameson whiskeys. The bar was crammed. Fans asked for selfies and Webb signed the cast of a man’s broken arm. It was one of the best days of his life.
About the same time, a young man crouched on a building’s roof in Chicago and sprayed his semiautomatic firearm into a Fourth of July parade. Seven people were slaughtered and a newly orphaned toddler wandered in a park looking for his parents. Meanwhile, the coincidentally named James Webb Space Telescope, history’s most powerful, and an astonishing refinement of our talents and curiosity, was orbiting the sun 1.5 million kilometres from Earth, preparing to send home its first images of the origins of the universe.
In another life, George Shea might have introduced his own country to the stage: “America contains multitudes but its arc of history is still untold. And perhaps it bends towards shameful catastrophe – collapsed beneath the weight of its own delirious contradictions.”
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 23, 2022 as "Excess all areas".
This month marks 10 years since the first edition of The Saturday Paper. The paper is as audacious now as it was then: a rejection of conventional wisdom about what makes the news and who will read it.
To celebrate those 10 years - and the issue-defining journalism produced in them - we are offering all new subscribers a two-year digital subscription for the price of one. That's $298 worth of journalism for $109.
Get more of the best journalism in the country - and celebrate the success of a newspaper built on optimism.
Select your digital subscription