Competitive Cheesesteak, Wing and Hot Dog Eating on the Main Line
With Wingbowl, Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest and Chickie & Pete’s World Cheesesteak Eating Championship winners right in our own backyards, we couldn’t resist digging into their secrets.
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One Labor Day weekend a few years back, Sean “Flash” Gordon boasted of having the world record for downing Twinkies—71 in 10 minutes. At the time, it was fiction—pure pomp, with looming circumstance, if he didn’t establish that record before he left Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. “I had something to prove,” recalls Gordon, who lives in Downingtown.
So he cleaned out the base’s allotment of Twinkies, bought the rest himself, and announced the stunt. He unpackaged every one, opened a gallon of milk, and proceeded to set the world record.
Gordon, 36, has always been the mouth to which leftovers were directed. “I’d eat it all, no problem,” he says. “It’s just what I did.”
Then Gordon realized he could also get paid for it.
In many ways, worldwide professional competitive eating is being driven by people in our region. New York was once the hotbed. Then, four or five years ago, it shifted here—thanks, in some small part, to Sportsradio 94WIP’s long-established Wing Bowl. The International Federation of Competitive Eating bills its “sport” as the fastest growing in the world. In February, contests start picking up on the East Coast and continue well into spring.
The crowded local scene also includes veteran Bob “Notorious B.O.B.” Shoudt, whose father was NCAA Division I Track Coach of the Year in 1984 at Villanova University; Phoenixville native Brian “Dud Light” Dudzinski; and Eric “Steakellie” Livingston and Micah “Wing Kong” Collins, both of Drexel Hill. And there are no local “gimme” contests. “You really have to be on your game just to pick up some gas money,” says Gordon.
Like Montgomery County’s Shoudt, Gordon has a day job. Both work in information technology. Both have families.
Competitive eating began to take flight a decade ago, when Japan’s Takeru “Tsunami” Kobayashi doubled the then- world record of 25 wieners in 12 minutes at the revered July 4 Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest in Coney Island, N.Y. “That’s when the boom started,” says Gordon. “It was fringe, and today we’re still fringe—a sideshow.”
Since then, this country’s top-ranked eater, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, has long since re-established the Nathan’s record, twice eating 68 in just 10 minutes. In the years between Kobayashi and Chestnut, Gordon learned of a local Nathan’s qualifier at QVC, where his wife works. The field was full, so he became an active spectator, talking to contestants and seeking advice to launch his own career. “I wanted to be on ESPN,” he says, referring to the sports network’s coverage of the event.
The following weekend, he entered a shoofly-pie-eating contest in Lancaster. He didn’t win, but he out-ate some pros and earned his first gift certificate, plus $500 in prize money.
Once upon a time, Gordon didn’t like crowds, making speeches or publicity. He was a self-described “shy computer geek.” Now, he relishes the IFOCE tour’s 20 contests a year—the roar of the crowd, the adrenaline, the travel. But the Marine Corps veteran remains humble. “I’m a nobody,” he says. “I just eat hot dogs or whatever else they put in front of me.”
Shoudt transforms himself for contests like Chickie’s & Pete’s World CheeseSteak Eating Championship at Dorney Park in Allentown. Once second place in the IFOCE world rankings, he’s since slipped to five. Around his size-18 neck, Shoudt dons a “B.O.B.” bling necklace. A friend made it. “I could’ve never made it myself,” says Shoudt.
When the eating commenced at Dorney Park last May, the contestants were all standing, swaying and convulsing. Really, you’re not sure if they’re dancing or choking. There are bites and tears, but no chewing. As Shoudt later explains, “Chewing is the kiss of death.”
Instead, successful competitive eating requires a strong tongue muscle to “mush and mash.”
The eater everyone knows is Chestnut, a surprisingly thin California native “perched high atop the food chain,” says IFOCE co-owner Richard Shea.
Two minutes into the Chickie’s & Pete’s event, Chestnut has his sixth cheesesteak in hand. Patrick “Deep Dish” Bertoletti, the second-ranked eater in the world, is on his ninth. “B.O.B.” eats 14½ in the 10-minute time limit and finishes third, earning $500. Chestnut, eats 17½.
In the end, Bertoletti, a caterer from Chicago, downs 20 and wins a first-place check of $1,500. Gordon eats 12, Dudzinski nine.
But they all make money. IFOCE eaters are under contract. They earn appearance fees and pick up promotional projects. The IFOCE has been a growing thing—like the stomach lining of its members.
The oldest person on the tour, Shoudt has countless world records. His favorite: 2.4 gallons of salmon chowder in six minutes, with a spoon. It’s not always setting a world record that’s impressive, though. He once ate 19½ pounds of grits in 12 minutes. The day before, he ate 35 burritos. The two-day marathon was enough to inspire a joke on Saturday Night Live.