Before the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest could begin, Brooklyn district attorney Eric Gonzalez needed to administer an oath.
“I—state your name—do solemnly swear to uphold the ethical standards of Major League Eating as set forth in section 7.2A through 16.7C of the rules and bylaws of the International Federation of Competitive Eating," Gonzalez told 29 judges before Thursday's contest, instructing them to repeat after him. "So help me God.”
The oath, taken in front of thousands of fans in Coney Island, was especially important after last year's judging controversy. Joey Chestnut was said to have eaten 64 hot dogs, but he was adamant his judges had undercounted. He was right: An official review indicated he had eaten 74 hot dogs, good for a new world record.
“It was like a big scandal," James Roberts, who judged his 12th Nathan's hot dog competition on Thursday, said of the 2018 dispute. "Fortunately, I was not involved in that.”
The contest said it would consider implementing a digital counting system, but this year the judges—two to three for each competitor—remained. For the marquee competitors in the both the men’s and women’s events, there are two sets of eyes focused on counting the dogs, while a third judge flips the counter panels.
After some training, rookie judges—many of whom have a connection to Nathan's—are usually assigned to edge-of-stage competitors, who are unlikely to win the Mustard Belt. “They tell us what to look for—make sure they finish the hot dog, things of that nature," said first-year judge Richard Rojowski. Said Noah Platt, in his fifth year of judging: "It's a lot of counting. There's five [hot dogs] to a plate, so there's a lot of counting plates and making sure there's no leftovers or anything like that."
But first-time judge Marek Fuchs, the writing chair at Sarah Lawrence College, took a more idealistic approach. He said he aimed to adjudicate "with equality" and "institute the law."
"I like to think of myself as the RBG of hot dogs," Fuchs said.
This year's event was controversy-free, with Chestnut winning his 12th men's belt after putting down 71 hot dogs and Miki Sudo eating 31 franks to earn her sixth straight women's title. Darron Breeden, who once ate a record 70 two-ounce market street tamales in 10 minutes, finished second beind Chestnut after scarfing 50 hot dogs.
Among the judges assigned to Breeden was New York Mets infielder Jeff McNeil, recently named to his first National League All-Star team. “I walked in and I really had no idea what I was doing," McNeil said. "I’m like, ‘I’m flipping the numbers, I’m not responsible for counting.'”
But after the contest, in which Chestnut downed 45 dogs by the halfway point, McNeil’s nerves had calmed.
“It was really exciting,” he said. “Kinda gross at the same time, just shoving them down.”
Meanwhile, Bob Weiner—perhaps the most aptly-named judge in the sport’s history—was taking part in his fourth contest. After coming to the contest as a fan for several years, he asked a family friend who works for Nathan’s if she could get him in as a judge. “She said it might be kind of difficult,” Weiner said. “Two weeks later, she sent me an email saying, ‘Okay, you’re in.’ And it was just that easy.”
He would love to one day count for Chestnut. “That would be a dream," Weiner said. "That’s also a lot of pressure—I don’t want to be that guy to miscount a record-breaking attempt.”