The pages of history will report that on March 17, 2012 at the third annual TooJay’s World Class Corned Beef Eating Championships in Palm Beach Gardens, FL, Joey Chestnut ate 20 TooJay's corned beef sandwiches, to set a new record and advance his worth by $5,000. Further examination will reveal that Patrick Bertoletti came second with 18.5. A close won thing, to be sure, but future fans of Major League Eating competition will never know how close by reading these cold, naked facts alone. It is with the hope of bringing illumination to our children’s children that I write these words. It is my duty.
Chestnut. Bertoletti. They are each the other’s biggest threat, yet each the other’s true passion. For Joey, there is victory, and there is beating Patrick. And for Patrick, there is winning, but the thrill of beating the world’s number-one ranked eater remains unparalleled. They take not for granted setting a new record—say, 390 CP shrimp wontons in eight minutes as Joey did in Bangkok, Thailand, in February—or rewriting history, as Patrick did in 2011 by winning an unprecedented 18 Major League Eating titles. But victory over the other stands as the ultimate validation, proof that this life they’ve chosen is worth the going. Testament to the fact it matters, damn it.
Make no mistake—we would not, could not, be talking of a new TooJay’s World Class Corned Beef Eating Championship record belonging to Joey Chestnut if Patrick Bertoletti was not standing to his immediate right during those 10 minutes that matter most. At the seven-minute mark it was Patrick, and not Joey, who was in the lead—by as much as three-quarters of a sandwich according to onlookers.
“I thought I had him,” Bertoletti told me after the contest. He looked out to the parking lot—Acuras, Sentras, an occasional Lexus—as the handsome dressed fans strode through the Florida afternoon light to their rides. His face tightened. “I thought I had him.”
So did Joey. Nothing else can explain his performance. Seasoned fans of our sport will know that competitors slow as each contest careens to her end. Such is science; anything else would be madness. This did not happen today. As his competitors conformed to the laws of nature, Chestnut forged ahead, neither stopping nor slowing his advance. Fourteen sandwiches, fifteen sandwiches—the chants of “Joey! Joey! Joey!” booming from Downtown at the Gardens’ attractive mezzanine level. Sixteen—he’s caught up with Patrick—seventeen, eighteen, until the clock read 0:00 and his stomach owned 20 TooJay’s corned beef sandwiches. It was as if upon passing Patrick, Joey was unbound by natural law, his stomach at that moment unburdened by politeness or gravity, his mind finally free. A dream that punched through the atmosphere, to fly unbridled in space.
Others ate, yes, and their achievements are not without merit. But this was a dance between two men—a close dance in which each brought out the best in the other. More than that, each helped the other to more fully know himself, as eaters and as men. This is what beating the other means. This is what drives our sport’s most distinguished competitors. Beat Patrick. Beat Joey. Do that, and you’re golden.
It is middle March. Both Chestnut and Bertolleti find themselves in mid-season form. I would hate to be a Nathan’s hot dog and bun right about now.
by Royce Jones