NEW YORK — Nathan’s Famous may be in the hot dog business, but for decades they’ve been peddling a whopper.
Showmen behind Nathan’s annual Fourth of July hot dog eating contest have long claimed the tradition began in 1916 as a showdown between patriotic immigrants on the Coney Island boardwalk.
That would make this Monday’s contest a centennial, except for an inconvenient truth: The contest and its backstory were invented in the 1970s by PR men trying to get more attention for Nathan’s, which had just become a publicly traded company.
“Our objective was to take a photograph and get it in the New York newspaper,” acknowledges Wayne Norbitz, who served as president of Nathan’s for 26 years and still sits on the board of directors.
Norbitz is careful to say that the company’s source for the 1916 story is “legend has it.” He says the first contest actually happened in 1972, and the early chowdowns were all small, sparsely attended affairs.
“We’d honestly wait for a couple of fat guys to walk by and ask them if they wanted to be in a hot dog contest,” he says.
The legend of the hot dog contest conveniently dates to 1916, the same year Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker opened his Coney Island hot dog stand using a $300 loan from two friends.
As the story goes, an Irish immigrant named James Mullen had been walking in Coney Island when he challenged a group of recent immigrants to prove who was the most American. Of course, they decided to settle it by eating hot dogs.
Mortimer Matz, one of the contest’s hype men, unapologetically admitted to The New York Times in 2010 that “in Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up.”
The winner of that first contest in 1972 was able to shove 14 hot dogs and buns down in 12 minutes.
It remained on a small scale until the 1980s, when competitive eaters from Japan began joining the contest, growing it quickly into a full-fledged competition with weigh-ins and elaborate introductions similar to those of a heavyweight championship fight.
Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set the world record in 2013 when he polished off 69 dogs in 10 minutes. His run of eight straight victories ended last year when he lost the Mustard Yellow International Belt in an upset.
He’ll be vying to regain the title this year before a huge crowd. Millions more will watch on ESPN.
“It’s so popular that in certain parts of the U.S. and certain parts of the world, people know Nathan’s because of the contest,” Norbitz says. “The first thing they’ll say many times is ‘Nathan’s, that’s the hot dog eating contest.’”
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