Joey Chestnut takes on a West Virginia tradition
No. 1-ranked competitive eater Joey Chestnut prepared for this year’s Pepperoni Roll-Eating World Championship at the West Virginia Three Rivers Festival by exercising.
“I have to be healthy,” Chestnut said. “Otherwise, I’m not going to be able to push myself to a ridiculous limit.”
The 34-year-old Chestnut is listed at 230 pounds in his Major League Eating bio. That’s not exactly the image that comes to mind when one thinks of a man with 43 competitive eating world records, including 74 hot dogs last year at the annual Fourth of July Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island.
“At first, people think like the biggest person’s always going to win,” Chestnut said. “Even when I’m bigger, I get winded. When you’re winded, you’re not swallowing.”
Chestnut said he performs better when he’s running and working out more. Yoga is beneficial too – after all, it involves controlling one’s breathing in uncomfortable positions.
“I’m finding a way to be comfortable even though I’m putting 15 pounds of food inside of me and doing things that … most bodies normally don’t do,” he said.
Eating a world-record 43 pepperoni rolls in 10 minutes certainly falls into that category. That’s what Chestnut did at the May 25 competition, topping fellow competitor George Esper’s 2017 mark of 36. Esper himself downed 37 in the 2019 contest.
The contest and a fireworks display capped off the 40th year of the festival in Fairmont’s Palatine Park. Started as Septemberfest, the event has changed dates, locations and names over the years, also being called the Three Rivers Coal Festival and the Three Rivers Festival and Regatta.
This was the eighth time the festival played host to the world pepperoni roll-eating championship, and Chestnut’s first entry since he won it in 2013. His schedule, including preparing for that Independence Day frankfurter face-off, hadn’t allowed a return trip before this year.
“I’m excited to get back,” Chestnut said in an interview the week before the festival.
Part of the appeal to Chestnut is the regional history of the pepperoni roll – created sometime between 1927 and 1938 by Italian immigrant Giuseppe (Joseph) Argiro as a twist on the common coal miners’ lunch of a slab of bread and a chunk of pepperoni, according to the West Virginia Division of Culture and History.
Building up a tolerance for the food he’s about to devour is a key for Chestnut, but his body isn’t as used to the rolls as foods he grew up eating.
Still, pepperoni rolls are hardly the strangest food Chestnut’s competitively eaten. In 2013, he won a contest at a zombie-themed pub crawl by consuming 54 cow brain tacos in eight minutes – mostly with his eyes closed.
“I normally don’t do things that are weird, but it looked like a fun event,” he said. “I ate one more than the guy next to me.”
To eat a lot of pepperoni rolls, or other food, he said, requires finding a rhythm and getting one’s breathing, esophagus and stomach muscles all working together.
“Time flies by, and you can do amazing things,” Chestnut said. “It’s that perfect rhythm that I’m looking for with any food. Then I can usually get the win.”
Also important is preparation.
Chestnut said he simulates contests by eating about half the food he plans to at the event, then supplementing with water or swallowing air. In addition to running and lifting weights, he does jaw exercises. He fasts before the competition as well.
With proper preparation, “I’m only feeling like garbage for a day-and-a-half” instead of three, Chestnut said.
“Anybody who’s going to push themselves to an insane limit, whether it’s a boxer or a runner or an eater, they’re accepting that they’re not going to feel well … after the competition, their performance,” he said.