Joey Chestnut is a Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog powerhouse

I don’t know whether San Jose’s Joey Chestnut is eating hot dogs this Fourth, but I’m guessing probably yes. Anyway, I posted this old column, because my nieces were providing some Facebook chatter about the annual Nathan’s contest and I wanted to share the column with them. (Unfortunately, the Mercury News kills links after a month or so, so you can’t link to old stories.) You’re welcome to read it, too.

Publication:  SAN JOSE MERCURY NEWS Headline:  LUNCH GOES BY QUICKLY WITH THE PAC-MAN OF FOOD Subhead:    Web Headline:    Reporter:  MIKE CASSIDY column Day:  Friday Print Run Date:  3/16/2007 Section:  Local Edition:  Morning Final Page Number:  1 Section Letter:  B Memo:  In my opinion Corrections: Dateline:    Slug    Text:  I went to lunch with competitive eater Joey Chestnut on Wednesday.

He’s still there.

Kidding. Kidding. Just because the guy can eat 47 grilled cheese sandwiches at one sitting, doesn’t mean he spends all his time eating.

In fact, he spends very little time eating. Those 47 sandwiches? Ten minutes. He’s done 182 chicken wings in 30 minutes. And 8.4 pounds of pork ribs in 12 minutes. And, well, feeling queasy yet?

Sure, competitive noshing is nutty, which is why I wanted to go to lunch with the San Jose Stomach. How about an all-you-can-eat joint? They’d never let us in the door. Casual hot dog? Chestnut polished off 52 in 12 minutes in July. Left a bad taste, though. He finished second.

So I ask Chestnut and he picks Iguanas Taqueria just off the San Jose State campus, where he studies civil engineering. Yep, home of the Burritozilla, a 5 1/4-pound burrito that in 2004 launched Chestnut’s competitive eating career.

Chestnut wolfed down one of the bad-boy burritos, won $500 and discovered the world of competitive eating. It’s a world even Chestnut can’t believe really exists.

Gobbling groupies

“There is actually a following, ” Chestnut, 23, says.

The gobbling groupies have embraced him, which they can, because he’s no tub of goo. At 6-1, 245 pounds, you’d never guess the guy could eat a house. Still, he says he’d like to trim down. Just not this weekend.

See, Saturday is one of Chestnut’s biggest tests: The St. Patrick’s Day Chowdown. You guessed it. Pounds and pounds of corned beef and cabbage to be scarfed down at the Savannah, Ga., St. Patrick’s Day parade.

It’s huge, really. The winner gets $15,000. Spike TV will air the contest Saturday night. And Chestnut’s nemesis, Takeru Kobayahsi, a Japanese eating machine, will be there.

“I started training three weeks ago, ” Chestnut says between bites — small bites — of a super burrito.

He tells me he’s deep into his regimen. He goes one day without eating. The next day he eats breakfast, lunch and dinner at one sitting. Trains his body to ignore feeling too hungry or too full. He’s practiced technique — cabbage around beef and gulp.

“We do a lot of preparation for these contests, ” he says. “It’s not just going on stage hungry.”

Marathon effort

Chestnut is like a marathoner. He builds up to his 26 miles — or in this case, his goal of 11 pounds of corned beef and cabbage.

“I think I can do that, ” he says. In 10 minutes.

Chestnut developed his throat and stomach muscles. They’re fast and powerful. He’s perfected his eating rhythm. He practices mind over matter, whether the matter is boiled, broiled, barbecued or deep fried.

And he’s been on the big stage before. Chestnut says he chewed through 25 contests last year and won about $60,000. When he won a chicken-wing contest in February, they offered him a car. “No thanks, ” he said. “I just ate.”

Kidding. He took $15,000 cash instead.

You want understatement?

“I’m not that picky of an eater, ” Chestnut says.

Still, he admits, corned beef can take some getting used to.

“My mom made it a bunch when I was little, so I’m used to the taste, ” he says. “I don’t think anybody is used to the taste of six pounds of it.”

And cabbage? What about cabbage’s particular, umm, challenge?

“Some gas?” Chestnut says, polishing off his burrito. “Actually, I’ve got a pretty good digestive tract.”

True.

“Now, deep fried asparagus, ” he says, “That has some consequences.”

Spoken like a true champion.

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