“You know how many times of the day I answer questions about poop?” an absolutely jacked professional eater asks me. “Every single interview.”
I look down at my notes. Shit, why didn’t I think of that?
It’s mid-July, and by now, the professional eating world is well into its 51 weeks of annual obscurity. The Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest held annually on the Fourth of July has come and gone on Coney Island, its usual winners declared in Joey Chestnut (62 hot dogs and buns) and Miki Sudo (39 ½ hot dogs and buns). Brothers George and Richard Shea, the founders of Major League Eating, were there to promote and announce every contestant with typical gusto. The contest aired on ESPN2 this year—Wimbledon took up the main station—and very few competitors outside of Sudo, Chestnut, and their immediate rivals got any airtime outside a passing mention.
So who are these other people?
Their introductions are carefully crafted WWE-grade nightmare fuel, announced as if each competitor is a god come down from the heavens to vacuum meat tubes down their gullets. The intros for these lesser known eaters are largely drowned out by color commentary about the main competitors—still, there they are, forming the outer edges of a Last Supper–style tableau, each with their own stats and training processes and very specific traumas.
What if I were to tell you these are, by far, the most interesting characters in the professional eating world?
Mary Bowers and “Megabyte” Ronnie Hartman, both decade-long veterans of Major League Eating, are unlikely to agree with me on that, since the stars who take center stage are their friends. And don’t get me wrong, I’ve fallen under the spell of Chestnut and Sudo, too—my book Raw Dog: A Naked History of Hot Dogs focuses mainly on the careers of the country’s best known eaters.
Still, there’s so much to navigate beyond each year’s winners. There’s Joey Chestnut’s rivalry with Takeru Kobayashi, the original Nathan’s breakthrough celebrity, and there’s the industry-wide undercurrent of racism and xenophobia Kobayashi was subjected to. There’s Korean American women’s champion Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas, who was forced to navigate the 2011 split of the contest into distinct men’s and women’s contests, something no other professional eating event is subjected to. There’s the unceremonious way the women’s contest has been obscured, shoved onto lesser ESPN stations, even as Sudo has risen through the ranks. There’s a guy named Crazy Legs Conti who I don’t have time to get into right now. There’s a lot.
Ronnie and Mary, by contrast, don’t have eating careers defined by high-profile rivalries—they’ve got something better. The Nathan’s Contest isn’t just their chance to achieve their own personal bests, it’s an opportunity to represent causes you don’t expect to hear about on a major sports network: veteran’s affairs and international human trafficking, respectively.
Stay with me.
The day before of the Fourth of July contest, Major League Eating kicks off the Nathan’s media blitz with a press-only “weigh-in” event, where the top 15 eaters in both leagues are announced in the boisterous style that’s become synonymous with the league and its lead emcee, George Shea.
“Just in from Seoul and representing South Korea here today, an eating veteran who’s traveled the nation, in her eighth visit to Coney Island, the great Mary Bowers!”
I’m at Hudson Yards watching the Great Pre-Game take place. It’s a quiet event with maybe a hundred onlookers, a few TV cameras waiting for their chance for one-on-ones with a big name, a dutifully parked Nathan’s truck beside the contest’s Pepcid-sponsored step and repeat. I spot Mary behind Joey and Miki (who are snarling at each other for press shots), her custom-made hot dog hair piece and red sequined skirt unmistakable even as she hangs back, catching up with other people on the middle card. There’s Crazy Legs Conti figuring out who’s going in the party bus; Badlands Booker with the social media following as huge as his capacity for lemonade chugging; a new favorite who’s been dubbed “Glizzy Lizzie”; and Megabyte Ronnie with his gigantic muscles, looking for a phone charger.
I flag Ronnie down, hoping he’ll recognize me from our string of introductory DMs. He finishes the conversation he’s having with a fan and fellow veteran, and I tell him I’d love to talk once I’m done interviewing Mary.
“Wanna just do it together?” he asks.
It’s hard to believe Mary and Ronnie ever would have crossed paths outside of the hot dog world—he’s an Army veteran turned professional eater turned indie-famous pro wrestler, she’s a Department of Homeland Security project manager turned human rights advocate—but the interview offers them rare one-on-one time not only to reflect on their professional eating careers, but on their decade-long friendship.
Mary finishes her social media rounds in front of the step-and-repeat, then consults with her cameraman. She’s working with him on a documentary—not about competitive eating, but rather the least discussed, most fascinating story currently playing out on the hot-dog-eating circuit: her recent discovery that her adoption out of South Korea was highly illegal, something she’s carefully documented in her effort to get the U.S. government to launch a formal investigation about the trafficking of herself and 15 other Korean children by an adoption agency in the declining years of Korea’s military dictatorship of the early 1980s. (More on this later.)
Mary gives Ronnie a huge hug, and we agree to chat before the hangry hits; most competitors try to switch to liquids a full day before competing, and it ekes out into their mood. Major League Eating provides contestants with hotel rooms, but they are otherwise left to navigate the city on the subway in their competition jerseys with nothing more than what I’m told is a very disappointing goodie bag.
One crowded Uber ride later, our crew wanders up to Ronnie’s hotel room; it’s in this setting that they’ve been swapping night-before-the-contest tips for a full decade now. She shares a technique, he recommends a water flavor that’s been working for him, and I’m sworn to secrecy about any other trade secrets that come up.
“Should we say how we met?” Ronnie asks. Mary laughs.
“My version is that I design food-themed clothes and outfits for every contest I compete in, so I made a food-themed outfit calendar, and I thought I would just boost military morale by sending a box to Ronnie,” she says.
Ronnie can’t help himself. “Oh, she boosted morale a lot,” he says. “Miss Mary Bowers was probably the most popular person with my friends in Afghanistan.”
The two met at the Nathan’s Contest in 2013, Mary’s second outing after impulsively entering her first contest in 2012. She didn’t realize it would pit her against Kobayashi and be broadcast in 14 countries.
“I had nothing to lose, so why not?” she says. “I did terribly, but I was the only woman, and that was enough to get the attention of Major League Eating.”
Ronnie’s journey to professional eating was less of a lark, and intimately connected to his time in the Army. His first appearance on the Nathan’s stage was as a “special military appreciation” entry, where Mary remembers him as quiet, soaking in the weird, intense world of professional eating she was still settling into. He wasn’t the boisterous guy we’re talking to, the one who’s judging a fried-Oreo-eating contest over Zoom later tonight.
“To see this evolution over time,” she says, “and now I’m like, okay, Ronnie, it’s a lot. It’s great, but it’s a lot.”
Megabyte Ronnie is a lot. “Ronald Hartman” if you’re the government, “Hotel Alpha Romeo Tango Mike Alpha November Hartman” if you’re George Shea. He first became interested in the sport in his early twenties, after getting two weeks’ notice that he’d be deployed to Afghanistan.
“It was really a shock to my system,” he says. “I was like, ‘I need to do some bucket list things, because I may die.’”
High on that list was completing a restaurant challenge, inspired by years of watching Man Vs. Food. Ronnie demolished a 3-lb. burger and a pound of fries in 16 minutes, and he daydreamed about expanding his palate after deployment. A military cook in Afghanistan suggested he go for the Nathan’s Contest while on leave, and Ronnie signed up for a qualifying contest while still in Afghanistan. (Every Nathan’s competitor needs to prove their mettle at a Major League Eating–approved event prior to being admitted to the Big One.)
Later that year, he ended up eating 16 hot dogs against high-ranked Louisiana eater Adrian Morgan’s 38, a feat he didn’t recognize as all but unheard of for an untrained newcomer.
“Adrian had to convince me to dip the buns in water before the contest,” he laughed. “I thought I did bad.”
In a pattern I’ll learn is typical of the community, a number of eaters reached out to Ronnie, encouraging him to build on his natural capacity with some of the more popular training and performance techniques. The advice and mentorship paid off: Promising himself he’d never watch the event on ESPN again, Ronnie has been on that stage every year since 2018. He’s currently the 20th ranked eater in the world.
By the late 2010s, Ronnie was out of the military and had found another niche world to conquer in independent professional wrestling. He performed as both a singles and tag team wrestler for five years after moving to Buffalo to train with a fellow Army vet before an injury forced into early retirement this spring. The sudden end to the career that his competitive eating persona helped launch in the first place—his merch reads “The People’s Hot Dog”—sent him into an unexpected depression. It was touch and go whether he’d make it onto the Nathan’s stage this year, but Megabyte Ronnie kept his promise to himself and qualified last-minute. While the physical repercussions of eating and wrestling are somewhat different, he sees them as twin disciplines.
“They’re both carny, so to speak,” he says.
Fans in both arenas have responded to Ronnie in a huge way. It’s been a priority of his post-military career to show fellow veterans that they can be proud of, but not defined by, their time in the service. The personal record is important to him, but this is why he comes back even during the rough years.
“I got out of the Army and I stumbled,” he tells me. “A lot of people get out of the Army and they stumble. They see me up there and I think hopefully that inspires some soldier out there to go out and chase their dream, or become more of who they are.”
Mary beams as her friend talks about his continued passion for the contest.
“It’s not just sitting there and eating food,” she says. “I don’t think we could do this for more than ten years if it was just about the food. It’s the same hot dogs every year. There’s more of a motivation, there’s more of a drive that comes from somewhere else.”
For a long time, Mary was in the contest because it made her happy. Eating was a welcome departure from her day-to-day government job, and it was a natural fit with her bubbly social media presence and passion for handcrafted outfits. No one could have anticipated that her role within Major League Eating would shift so much in the past two years, with the league becoming an unlikely platform for discussing her personal history of being kidnapped and sold into adoption out of Korea in the 1980s.
“I feel like I’m doing great right now—it’s a lot to handle, and I admit I have not mentally or emotionally processed all of it,” she says. “We’re looking at implications of state-sponsored violence with adoption as the means of ehtnic and social cleansing.”
Mary only learned that she had been trafficked to the States by an adoption agency while trying to represent her home country in the Nathan’s Contest back in 2021. The first indication that something was wrong was on her trip to reinstate her citizenship.
“When I had that citizenship restored, I discovered that I am multiple people, and only one of them was adopted,” she says. “So by the way that the birth registrations happened and some of the issues with the adoption itself, I am legally at least two people.”
Thanks in part to Mary’s activism, the trafficking operation is currently under investigation by Korea’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission. She’s become a major advocate for 16 for 16, a campaign begun by the Australia-United States Korean Rights Group on behalf of the 16 adoptees demanding that Congress launch its own investigation into fraudulent South Korean adoptions. As of this writing, nearly 400 Korean adoptees from around the world have submitted similar claims after looking into their own adoptions.
This year, Mary is the first eater to ever represent Korea at the Nathan’s Contest. Her goal is to eat as close to 16 hot dogs as possible, to represent the other adoptees in her claim group. After all, most of them will be watching the contest from as many as 11 different countries the next day.
Mary is remarkably composed about the weight on her shoulders, saving any of her more complex emotions for July 5. Today, she reflects on how the experience changed her perspective on the last decade of her competitive life.
“How do you prove that you are American enough to belong?” she asks. “I go, ‘I’m gonna take the most American food on the most American day and prove that I belong here.’”
“Coming back now, it’s almost the opposite,” she adds. “Like, ‘Okay, now how do I prove that I’m Korean?’”
On her way to becoming a world-class eater in the mid-2010s, Mary found an early mentor in the now-retired eating legend Sonya Thomas, when the latter was the best-known women’s hot dog eater in the world.
“I think (Thomas) and I connected because she’s Korean American,” Mary says. “She would tell me stories of when she was growing up… and how much it means for her to be in the contest.”
Thomas still gets a major pop in the crowd half a decade after her retirement, a testament to her influence and how under-represented women remain within the sport. This is an issue of special concern at the Hyatt this afternoon, as the women’s contest stands to be screwed over worse in 2023 than any year in its history.
When Major League Eating first formally split the competition in 2011, the eating community was divided on how to feel. As the women’s league’s first ambassador by default, Thomas stated at the time that she hoped that this would mean that more women would enter the space and thrive.
“Thrive” might be too strong a word, since even champions on scale with Miki Sudo aren’t receiving the same press and exposure as Joey Chestnut. Indeed, this year the women’s league is set to be nudged off the TV broadcast entirely, knocked down to an ESPN app exclusive. Not only does this decision ensure that no one but Sudo would be included in the infinite scroll of ESPN highlights, but it also means Nathan’s is the only contest in all of Major League Eating where a binary structure is applied for no clear reason. The League has yet to comment on the barriers this might present to nonbinary competitors.
“You eat what you eat, so there’s no difference,” Mary says. “If there were an openly nonbinary competitor, most of the contests—with the exception of hot dogs—it doesn’t even need to be a thing.”
Ronnie agrees, citing his own experience watching the world of independent wrestling become more inclusive to all genders over the past few years.
“It doesn’t matter what your pronouns are. Once you step on that stage, you’re an eater,” he says.
But the day before the 2023 Nathan’s Contest, it seems that everyone but the men are out of luck, as usual. Mary is sympathetic to the demands of ESPN’s parent company, Disney, but she doesn’t think pushing women is the answer. If the contest is to remain split for the time being, the more equitable solution is to showcase both contests in the hour-long broadcast, perfectly feasible at 10 minutes apiece, and stream the extraneous biographical content on the app.
“They all deserve that moment on that stage, and it’s heartbreaking to see that they don’t get that,” Ronnie says.
Professional hot dog eating isn’t immune to racism any more than it is gender discrimination, an issue most prominently demonstrated by Kobayashi’s league-defining stardom throughout the 2000s—which didn’t prevent the pro eater from being presented unfavorable contracts or getting edged out of the broadcast he had such a major hand in popularizing.
When I ask if the issue has evolved in today’s competitive eating scene, Mary laughs.
“I have gone to press conferences and been asked, ‘How does being Asian give you a competitive advantage?’” she says. She also recalls multiple articles in which Asian competitors are referred to interchangeably, conflating her and Miki Sudo. “There’s no care.”
Though hot dog eating isn’t immune to any of the friction that greater American culture is—in some cases, it might even magnify it—none of this is enough to keep its passionate community out of the game. Despite their wildly different day-to-day lives, pro eaters remain close throughout the year, with the Nathan’s Contest as a cherished annual summit.
“We’re all so connected and in each other’s lives,” Ronnie tells me. “You could make us eat 40 hot dogs, drag us through mud, and we’re still gonna find a way to drink a beer together at the end of the day.”
This year, Mary is finding comfort in the familiar routine of contest preparation and promotion, finding respite from the deeply stressful mire of classically American fuckery she finds herself tangled in.
“So much of what [the adoptees] deal with is so heavy and exhausting that it feels nice to kind of have a show of solidarity together in a way that brings awareness to what we’re going through,” she says. “The hot dogs are something happy to look forward to.”
It’s now the evening of July 4, following what turned out to be an expectedly dramatic competition. The women’s contest took place on the corner of Surf and Stillwell on Coney Island, building to a thrilling neck-and-neck competition between reigning champion Miki Sudo and newcomer Mayoi Ebihara, a Japanese food influencer. Sudo came out on top, but it was the closest contest either the men’s or women’s league had seen in years.
Mary Bowers didn’t reach her goal of 16 hot dogs, but she made history anyway as the first representative of Korea. Better yet, her efforts were televised. When the men’s contest was postponed for two hours by a brutal bout of heat lightning, ESPN was left with nothing else to show.
“How is everyone doing?!” I texted Mary from the crowd, sopping wet from the storms. The answer came almost instantly.
“Is this how the women’s contest finally gets onto the broadcast?” she wrote.
It was. Only by an act of God did Disney executives permit the women’s hot dog eating contest to be shown on television—but it really happened, and for the very first time.
It’s now evening, and I have miraculously lucked myself into the eaters’ afterparty at a hole-in-the-wall bar in Hell’s Kitchen. The eaters aren’t just lively, they’re hungry, hauling takeout up to the bar and spilling out onto the pavement to discuss what they’ll do differently in minute five of next year’s contest. I think back to Ronnie’s poop question, but there hasn’t been a line for the bathroom, and these motherfuckers are still eating.
“I sucked today, man,” Ronnie tells me with a pint in hand. He took down 16 hot dogs and buns, under his average. “No excuses.” It’s what his fans love about him: He’s a goofball, but he takes this shit seriously.
Mary chows down two pieces of Korean-style pizza she picked up on the way over, hoping to catch Badlands Booker before she boards a flight to LA at 8 a.m. tomorrow morning on advocacy business.
Mary’s got bigger franks to fry than her performance this afternoon. In the days following this long night at the bar, she will continue what can often feel like the infinite work of getting justice in America. I drink what is very possibly my 1,000th PBR and wonder what you write about if it’s not hot dogs.
Ronnie appears behind me.
“Sure you don’t wanna talk about poop?”
I don’t have time to think of a reply before he answers.
“It takes two days.”
Well, there you go.