TOWER — His nickname may be “Jaws” — something that comes in handy when chewing a meat-stuffed fry bread Indian taco: Strong jaws.
But Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, the No. 1-ranked competitive eater in the world, came up just one Indian taco short of victory during last year’s first-ever Major League Eating-sanctioned World Indian Taco-Eating Championship at Fortune Bay Resort Casino.
Chestnut, however, is not letting the upset by No. 3-ranked world eater Geoffrey Esper get him down.
He and Esper will be among a field of 12 Major League Eaters, and a few local competitors, who will attempt to chow down the most Native American Indian tacos Saturday in the Woodlands Ballroom at Fortune Bay.
“I’m excited and nervous,” Chestnut said by phone Thursday afternoon after landing in Duluth on his way to Tower. “It’s gonna be close. It was so close last year. Esper is a great eater.”
However, “I’m going to try hard not to lose this contest again.”
Saturday’s championship, which begins at 5 p.m. (doors open at 4:30 p.m.) will be an entertaining “eight minutes of excitement,” said Fortune Bay Events and Promotions Manager Sammy Richter.
“We are excited to have everyone back here,” said Richter, who expects “a showdown between the No. 1 and No. 3 eaters in the world” and is hoping one of the contestants will set a new world record of 30 or more Indian tacos consumed in eight minutes.
At last year’s inaugural championship, Esper, of Oxford, Mass., devoured 29 Fortune Bay Indian tacos in eight minutes to set a world record in the discipline.
His nemesis, Chestnut, of San Jose, Calif., wolfed down 28 of the tacos.
A world title MLE belt was again commissioned for this second annual event to be presented to the Indian Taco-Eating Champion of the World. The winner will take home a top prize of $2,500 from the more than $5,000 purse.
Second prize is $1,200, and placing will run first though sixth, Richter said.
Saturday’s eating talent also includes No. 6-ranked Gideon Oji from Morrow, Ga.; No. 7-ranked Mike Sudo from Las Vegas; No. 18-ranked George Chiger from Pocono Pines, Pa.; No. 21-ranked Matt Hazzard from Bloomington, Ill.; and No. 38-ranked Matthew Raible from Edwards, Ill.
“We will also have two local competitors this year,” Richter said. Newly elected Bois Forte Band Tribal Council Member Pete Boney and Fortune Bay Director of IT Alex Cook will take on the MLE athletes.
Chestnut, who entered the competitive eating world in 2005 with a break-out performance in a deep-fried asparagus eating championship, said he will fly in the teeth of his usual custom of not eating anything the day before a contest.
This time he plans to practice with a few Indian tacos today at Fortune Bay “to try to get the right technique.” Last year, he said, “I tore them in two pieces.”
The top-ranked world eater has proven himself in numerous competitions, including wining his 11th title this year at the Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest with a new record of 74 hot dogs in 10 minutes. However, Chestnut said Indian tacos are chewy and simply “hard to eat fast.”
Chestnut added that, “I tried to cook some” in preparation, but “they came out about inedible. … I like them. They are just hard to practice with.” Especially if you are not a pro at cooking fry bread.
The 34-year-old has also suffered an injury that could hamper the style of a competitive eater. He recently broke a tooth and will compete Saturday with a temporary crown.
Chestnut — who has come in on top while competitively eating apple pie, burritos, chili, chicken wings, Twinkies, glazed doughnuts, hard-boiled eggs, grilled cheese sandwiches, gumbo, pastrami, tamales, among other foodstuff — said he wouldn’t be where he is now had he not grown up in a big family.
“There were four boys, and me and my little brother would compete with our older brothers.” The younger brothers always ate the most. And Chestnut beat them all.
His brother, in fact, signed Chestnut up for his first eating contest when he was 21. As he rose up in the ranks, “it made sense to do this full time.”
Chestnut said initially he could only eat 20 hot dogs in 10 minutes. Now 70 is doable. “You build up a tolerance” through the years.
But during Saturday’s championship, don’t count out newcomers like Matt Hazzard — a.k.a. “Hungry Hazzard” — who has also been rising through the ranks rather quickly.
Hazzard, who has competed against Chestnut about 10 times during the 24-year-old’s past year and a half on the professional eating scene, will be taking his first shot at competitive Indian taco eating this weekend.
The doughy fry bread requires “a lot of chewing,” Hazzard said by phone. He has therefore been “chewing a lot of gum.”
That, and munching on an abundance of vegetables “to stretch my stomach out.”
Hazzard — whose hunger has driven him to consume 11 pints of ice cream in six minutes, 15.75 pounds of Baked Bear ice cream sandwiches in six minutes and 29 donuts in eight minutes — said putting away fry bread tacos will be a greater feat.
“Ice cream is easier to eat. It’s almost liquid. It’s all about speed. The biggest challenge is ‘brain freeze,’” he said. Chomping on the tacos, on the other hand, will take “a little more endurance.”
A typical Indian taco is filled with ground beef and toppings such as lettuce, tomatoes, onion, black olives, sour cream and salsa. But Saturday’s tacos will consist of simply meat and fry bread, Richter said.
They will be smaller-scale Indian tacos — weighed out and measured to determine a winner according to official MLE guidelines.
Hazzard said he also tried making Indian tacos at home last weekend, but “I was not quite successful.” Like Chestnut, he is a much better eater than chef.
“I’m excited to see what seasoning is used in the meat” and to taste an authentic Indian taco, he added.
That is, if a person can taste much when scarfing tacos down at record speed.
Hazzard, who has qualified for the 2019 Nathan’s hot dog-eating contest with a personal best of 29.5 hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes, said his MLE career got started from his sheer “love of food.”
“A year ago I did a ‘Man v. Food’ competition at a local restaurant. … And I’m a competitive guy. It snowballed from there.”
He has competitively eaten everything from pancakes to barbecue sliders to MoonPies. But his “best performance” was a bratwurst contest in Cincinnati, where he came in third, and his favorite was the ice cream sandwich competition last spring, where he took fourth place.
Saturday’s event is free for spectators and open to all ages. More than 300 people were at the first Indian taco championship, Richter said. And the crowd really got into it, with attendees of all ages cheering on their favorite eaters.
Chestnut encourages everyone to do the same this time. “I do well when people are yelling at me,” he said.
Richter said after last year’s close pursuit, he is unsure of what will happen if there is tie. But it will be worked out.
Fortune Bay is also holding its “4-Wheel Frenzy” Saturday — and each Saturday at 7 p.m. in November — with chances to win a 2018 Alterra 500 ATV and other prizes.
“Come out and watch and have some fun,” Richter said.
“There’s a lot of great competition,” said Hazzard, adding that he has become friends with many of his rivals. “It will be an exciting weekend. I’m looking forward to the fun.”
Chestnut, who has titles for eating fish tacos, street tacos, traditional tacos, “brain” tacos in a zombie contest, and Taco Bell soft tacos, added that he seems to have trouble with Indian tacos — at least so far.
Besides last year’s Fortune Bay event, he also once competed in an Indian taco eating contest in Alabama. “I lost that one, too. I’m 0-2 for Indian tacos, but I hope to break that losing streak Saturday.”
But no matter the outcome, the No. 1-ranked world eater says he has the best job in the world.
Chestnut, who has an engineering degree, said he was not nearly as happy as he is today while working in construction management.
“I get to travel around the world and eat — and meet people. I’m a lucky guy.”