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Original Issue

The Sinatra of Franks

THE LOS ANGELESDODGERS thought they had a very good idea this season—the All-You-Can-EatPavilion in rightfield. For $35, patrons got a seat and all the hot dogs,popcorn, peanuts, nachos, water and soda they could pound. But the Dodgersdidn't figure on one little problem: Joey Chestnut.

Joey (Jaws)Chestnut is the most devastating eating machine in history. He eats as if he'son his way to the electric chair. He eats the way Paris Hilton shops.

He took the worldhot dog eating title from Japanese legend Takeru Kobayashi on July 4 byinhaling 66 of Nathan's Famous in 12 minutes. He owns 16 U.S. and world eatingrecords, including ones for ribs, waffles and even the dreaded deep-friedasparagus. The man has cleaned more plates than Kitchen Aid.

So when I boughthim a ticket for one of the Dodgers' eat seats on Sunday, I rubbed my handswith glee, thinking, This will be as one-sided as a hanging! This monster willbreak the Dodgers! Are you kidding? He once ate 118 jalapeño poppers in 10minutes! Drinks a gallon of milk in 41 seconds! Vendors will weep just to seehim coming!

You ask, "Howgood is he?" Once, in a chicken-wing eating contest, a judge refused tocount Joey's discarded wings because he'd left too much meat on them. So Joeystarted eating the wings, bones and all. And won.

Of course, if youmeet Chestnut, a part-time engineering student at San Jose State, he looks morelike a Joey than a Jaws. In the hotel lobby I walked by him twice. Only 23,he's surprisingly skinny, about 6' 1" and looks as if he might startshaving any day now. Sort of like Baby Face Nelson with a fork.

The problem was,he didn't look the least bit hungry. Turns out he'd eaten 19 pounds of gritsthe day before in a Louisiana contest. "I found out I really don't likegrits," he said. "It's like eating wet sand."

Still, a columnidea is a column idea, and off we went to Chavez Ravenous. But as soon as wewalked into the All-You-Can-Eat Pavilion, our surprise element was toast.Somebody recognized Joey and told superiors, so that when Joey bellied up tothe counter, a lady shoved 20 10-inch dogs forward and said, "The pavilionrecord is 20."

He destroyed thefirst 10 in a Sunday-stroll 14 minutes, and that included stops for thenational anthem and for picture-taking fans. I was watching Picasso paint."Thanks for bringing the record back to America!" said a beaming manfrom Beverly Hills named Kevin Risor. "It belongs here!" After all, anAmerican doesn't hold the gyoza record. (Oops. Joey does—212 in 10minutes.)

The next 10 dogs,though, did not go gentle into that good gullet. Joey kept squirming in hisseat, poking his left side, stretching to and fro. "It's kind of like whena woman's pregnant," he groaned. "Things stick out. You can't getcomfortable." Despite the fact that Chestnut has ralphed only once in aneating contest (crab cakes), I asked the woman sitting in front of us if shewas worried. "No," she reasoned, "because I know if he barfs, theydon't count."

Everybody's anexpert.

One of six kidsborn to a middle school marching-band director, Merlin Chestnut, and his wife,Alicia, Joey gets his scarfing skills from his dad, who used to push himselfaway from the table, rub his belly and go, "Well, that really hit the spot!Unfortunately, it's a very large spot. What else you got?" Joey's mom, hisgirlfriend and his doctor worry about him, but Joey is quite healthy. He sayshis cholesterol is fine, his weight is average and his digestive track isnormal. For a boa constrictor.

"The key is toget a very strong esophagus," Joey says. When pressed, he can swallow anentire hot dog. "I can't imagine myself choking," he says. "It'd belike a runner imagining himself tripping."

But he seemed tobe tripping on the next five dogs we ordered. The record-breaking 21st wentdown stubbornly, and he looked at the last four with great sorrow. His red facewas covered with sweat. "My jaws are tired," he moaned. "And I'mfeeling the frickin' grits."

But JoeyChestnut's mom taught him to never leave food on his plate. He rose up in hisseat, took a big breath and downed the remaining franks. The 25th went fastestof all—two bites and he was done. Believe it: The man ate 21 feet of wiener. At$4.75 a dog, plus five bottles of water and a Coke, I figure it all would'vecost $151 elsewhere in the stadium—more than a $100 profit.

Of course, as wewalked to the car, it was hard to say who had won. Joey was badly misshapen. Helisted to the left. He looked like a man who'd eaten a box of bad clams.

Worse, in twoweeks he's getting $3,000 for an exhibition at a bar mitzvah. God, please don'tlet it be matzo balls.

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Joey Chestnut is the most devastating eating machine inhistory. He eats as if he's on the way to the electric chair. The man hascleaned more plates than Kitchen Aid.