The Wisconsin State Fair World Cheese Curd Eating Championship
I can’t remember the last time, outside of Nathan’s Famous on the Fourth of July, that I saw such a large crowd gather to watch an eating contest. Fire marshals walked the aisles to clear the path of stragglers. Families were sitting on each other’s laps to get in close, to fit more people on a third-row bench (the first rows being taken up by die-hard Hanson fans who were claiming seats well in advance of the night’s upcoming concert.) And the crowd continually gained mass outward into the fair. But, as everyone started chanting “Joey, Joey, Joey,” it became clear that the crowd wasn’t really there to watch the Wisconsin State Fair World Cheese Curd Eating Championship. The crowd was there to watch Joey Chestnut eat.
Joey Chestnut is, among other things, the hot dog eating champion of the world. Scratch that: he’s the eleven-time hot dog eating champion of the world. He’s won the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest, the most well-known eating contest on the planet, the Super Bowl of competitive eating, eleven times. His wins at that contest have been broadcast across the country eleven times on ESPN. He is a household name and, to many, an American hero.
Never in my many years of being a competitive eating super fan turned horrible competitive eater, have I seen Joey Chestnut eat outside of the big world-known ESPN-televised events: Nathan’s and the now-defunct Krystal Square Off. (That’s not completely true, I did see him eat once in a wonton eating contest in Bangkok but that was a whole different story). So it wasn’t until being there, in West Allis, Wisconsin, on August 11, at the Wisconsin State Fair, among a huge crowd chanting, “Joey, Joey, Joey,” seeing people walking around in Joey Chestnut t-shirts and waiting in a long, winding, line to shake his hand, that I realized just what a name he has.
But I wasn’t in West Allis to see Joey Chestnut eat. I was in West Allis to watch the Wisconsin State Fair World Cheese Curd Eating Championship. And I was actually rooting, on that day, for my friend Amanda.
Amanda and I had been randomly talking about taking a road trip to the Wisconsin State Fair. It would be a quick weekend getaway and sounded like a fun time. Plus, you know, I would never turn down a chance to eat fried food on a stick.
We looked up the schedule and saw that there was a TLC/En Vogue concert on the last Friday of the fair and so we pretty much had to go then. And then we saw that there was a cheese curd eating contest the next day and decided that we definitely couldn’t miss it. Because if there are two three things I love most in life they are road trips, 1990s girl groups, and competitive eating.
Amanda and I would sometimes joke about what our ideal food to eat in an eating contest would be. I always say mashed potatoes (nothing to chew plus, hello, the greatest food on earth) and she, having grown up with them while living near the Wisconsin border, would usually decide on cheese curds. So, on a whim, with her ideal food eating contest dream in site, she signed up to enter the contest. She was immediately wait listed. But, a couple of weeks before the big day, she received a new confirmation: she was in.
So I wasn’t rooting for number one ranked eater in the world Joey Chestnut or the sixth ranked eater Gideon Oji or even the eighth ranked Darron Breeden: I was rooting for the non-ranked, never-eaten-in-a-contest-before, table-ender Amanda.
Now, every food item in competitive eating has a different technique. With hot dogs and hamburgers eaters often dunk the buns in liquid to soften the buns. With chicken wings they twist and push to get the meat cleaned from the bones. With cheese, though, I don’t know what technique you would use. Cheese won’t break down in water. Cheese has no internal structure to break from. Cheese is just cheese. Solid and squeaky. So, I guess, the only options for eating cheese in competition are to chew and swallow or, I suppose, to just swallow.
And every eater has their specialties, their strengths, their weaknesses. So, really, as Sam Barclay, the contest’s emcee, counted down from ten to one to start the six-minute cheese curd eating contest, it was anybody’s game to win. It could have been Joey Chestnut’s day but it also could have been Gideon Oji’s or Darron Breeden’s or even Amanda’s.
And as the six minutes went by and the eaters ate cheese curds with rigor and the crowd chanted, “Joey, Joey, Joey,” and my friend and I screamed, “Go Amanda!” and the emcee gave a play-by-play and counted the time and unofficial empty cones of curds, it was still anyone’s contest to win or lose.
When the clock ran down no one knew who stood where.
In the end Joey Chestnut, the world champion hot dog eater, the one everyone in the crowd had their eye on, took home third place, having eaten nine and half trays of 8 oz. servings of cheese curds. Gideon Oji took second with 9.75. And Darron Breeden, the eighth ranked competitive eater, out-ate everyone and won the Wisconsin State Fair World Cheese Curd Eating Championship with 10.25 trays: 5 pounds and 2 ounces of cheese.
And Amanda? Well, she didn’t win. But she ate one and 3/4 trays: a respectable three fourths of a pound of cheese (and then topped it off with a famous Wisconsin State Fair Original Cream Puff).
Photos from the Wisconsin State Fair World Cheese Curd Eating Championship: