Not many men in the world can relate to the plight of the pregnant woman and her ever-changing body. Except, maybe, for the reigning king of competitive eating, Joey "Jaws" Chestnut. It's the end of the competitive eating season, and Chestnut feels the literal weight of another successful year in every joint in his body. "None of my clothes fit. My ankles are swollen," Chestnut laughs. He's put on over 15 pounds since the season started, even with a lot of fasting between competitions, and he looks a little uncomfortable in his skin. How could he not? He's one of only a handful of globally-competitive pro eaters, many of whom are, infuriatingly, thin and small-framed, like "Black Widow" Sonya Thomas, who clocks in at just over 100 pounds.
Chestnut, like many other eaters, had an exceptional capacity for food. "I was in college, normal college guy, and I always loved to eat. I'd eat healthy during the week, and, as a reward, I'd go to my parents' house on the weekends and eat everything. I mean, everything." Little did he know, he was putting in valuable practice that would later inform a successful career, with a little unintended help from his siblings. "There were six kids, so if you wanted seconds, you had to eat fast. I would always get seconds." One of those siblings, Chestnut's youngest brother, entered him into his first contest. The rest is history.
As for his famous takedown of Takeru Kobayashi, Chestnut has been waiting for the day when he might once again have real competition at these events. In defeating his rival, he eliminated his best shot at a real competition for what turned out to be several years. Chestnut's repeated victories have instilled in Kobayashi a Williams sisters-like trepidation about competing, frequently registering for events and then pulling out with complaints of jaw pain.
"Jawsitis," Chestnut laughed. That's the name he's given Kobayashi's mysterious mandibular pain that makes him pull out of competitions with Chestnut and keeps him from signing with Major League Eating, the organization that puts on the major eating competitions in the world. MLE also makes sure the competition is safe, and all MLE contest have an EMT and safety regulators on the premises, as well as their own carnival-barker style announcer wearing a flat straw hat in December. These kinds of regulations ensure a consistently entertaining show (MLE co-founder and announcer George Shea's play-by-play and pre-contest remarks are worth the price of admission alone), and that Chestnut won't suck his last breath through the hole in the center of a shrimp lodged firmly in his esophagus.
And as for those shrimp, it turns out that, in the grand scheme of competitive eating, the St. Elmo's shrimp cocktail is not as bad as it sounds. "Clean protein is pretty easy," Chestnut says. The worst offenders are fried stuff and dairy. "The worst thing I ever ate for a competition was jalapeno poppers. They were made with really cheap cheese. Awful." The best eating competitions, he said, are put on by restaurants. They always have the highest-quality food, and Chestnut was looking forward to last Saturday's competition (at which he ate 10.4 pounds of shrimp cocktail, horseradish included). The worst places? "Usually casinos." Turns out the best way to judge the quality of a restaurant is to eat a few pounds of their best dish and see how it treats your guts over the next few hours.
And to answer everyone's impending question: the "after-effects" of competitive eating are exactly what you think they are. Just like some things, er, eliminate pretty effortlessly, some other foods' lingering effects last long after the competition is over. And the preparation is exactly what you think it is: Chestnut gorges on his competition food, mostly to just get his body used to consuming and carrying around whatever his next competition food is. He refers to this process over and over as "building up a tolerance"—especially when he's up against ten pounds of horseradish-coated shrimp. Then it's a few days of fasting to keep the calories down, and then he starts all over.
I wasn't sure what kind of people would call themselves "competitive eating fans," whom Chestnut summed up as "college-age guys who love food." On the day of the competition, Chestnut was swarmed by young guys and middle-aged men in college football jerseys. Most of them let out a boisterous "WOOO!" when they first made eye contact, and many of his fans road trip to come see him, which is what motivates him to stay in top form even without much real competition at the table. "I'm eating against myself. I have to perform, because there are people who show up and say, 'Joey, I drove four hours to see you!' and I'd be a jerk if I didn't perform."
Chestnut is grateful for every one of them, every shrimp devoured and every chant of his own name. "I'm just a really lucky guy who loves to eat. I have the best job in the world."