Sunday, August 6, 2023

Sunday Long Read: Professional Chow Hounds

Our Sunday Long Read this week is Jaime Loftus's profile in The Takeout of two world-class competitive eaters: Mary Bowers and "Megabyte" Ronnie Hartman, as they talk about everything from hot dogs to horseshoes to human trafficking.

“You know how many times of the day I answer questions about poop?” an absolutely jacked professional eater asks me. “Every single interview.”

I look down at my notes. Shit, why didn’t I think of that?

It’s mid-July, and by now, the professional eating world is well into its 51 weeks of annual obscurity. The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest held annually on the Fourth of July has come and gone on Coney Island, its usual winners declared in Joey Chestnut (62 hot dogs and buns) and Miki Sudo (39 ½ hot dogs and buns). Brothers George and Richard Shea, the founders of Major League Eating, were there to promote and announce every contestant with typical gusto. The contest aired on ESPN2 this year—Wimbledon took up the main station—and very few competitors outside of Sudo, Chestnut, and their immediate rivals got any airtime outside a passing mention.

So who are these other people?

Their introductions are carefully crafted WWE-grade nightmare fuel, announced as if each competitor is a god come down from the heavens to vacuum meat tubes down their gullets. The intros for these lesser known eaters are largely drowned out by color commentary about the main competitors—still, there they are, forming the outer edges of a Last Supper–style tableau, each with their own stats and training processes and very specific traumas.

What if I were to tell you these are, by far, the most interesting characters in the professional eating world?

Mary Bowers and “Megabyte” Ronnie Hartman, both decade-long veterans of Major League Eating, are unlikely to agree with me on that, since the stars who take center stage are their friends. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen under the spell of Chestnut and Sudo, too—my book Raw Dog: A Naked History of Hot Dogs focuses mainly on the careers of the country’s best known eaters.

Still, there’s so much to navigate beyond each year’s winners. There’s Joey Chestnut’s rivalry with Takeru Kobayashi, the original Nathan’s breakthrough celebrity, and there’s the industry-wide undercurrent of racism and xenophobia Kobayashi was subjected to. There’s Korean American women’s champion Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, who was forced to navigate the 2011 split of the contest into distinct men’s and women’s contests, something no other professional eating event is subjected to. There’s the unceremonious way the women’s contest has been obscured, shoved onto lesser ESPN stations, even as Sudo has risen through the ranks. There’s a guy named Crazy Legs Conti who I don’t have time to get into right now. There’s a lot.

Ronnie and Mary, by contrast, don’t have eating careers defined by high-profile rivalries—they’ve got something better. The Nathan’s Contest isn’t just their chance to achieve their own personal bests, it’s an opportunity to represent causes you don’t expect to hear about on a major sports network: veteran’s affairs and international human trafficking, respectively.

Stay with me.
Do it, this is a fun story and these folks are a lot more complex and interesting than most athletes.
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