Background Info

Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, which takes place every Fourth of July on Brooklyn’s Coney Island boardwalk, has long been an Independence Day tradition in the United States. In this yearly gastronomical showdown, qualified contestants have ten minutes to eat as many Nathan’s Famous hot dogs (and buns) as they can. Five-time defending champion Joey Chestnut repeated for a sixth championship in 2012, matching the world record he set in 2009 of 68 hot dogs in ten minutes. That’s more than one whole hot dog every ten seconds.

More than just a feeding frenzy, the contest has its roots deep in United States history. Behind the mustard and sore stomachs lies nearly a century of summer fun and a classic American Dream story.

Hot dog visionary Nathan Handwerker was born in Poland on July 14, 1882 to Jewish parents. He emigrated to New York City in 1912, where he began working in the kitchen of Feltman’s restaurant in Coney Island. Ambitious for a slice of American success, Handwerker opened his own hot dog stand—which he would later title Nathan’s Famous—in 1916. The stand would grow in popularity along with Coney Island as a destination spot. When the subway line was extended to Coney Island in 1920, it was estimated that visitors bought 75,000 Nathan’s hot dogs each weekend.

The origins of the eating contest reveal yet another layer of the immigrant experience. Legend has it that the first-ever hot dog eating contest took place on July 4, 1916 between four immigrants arguing over who was the most patriotic. James Mullen, an Irish immigrant, won by eating 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes and the Fourth of July tradition was born.*

Over time, Nathan's came to be synonymous with Coney Island as a summertime destination and the contest with time-honored Fourth of July traditions. The contest’s growth over the last century into the largest competitive eating contest in the world is a reminder that with a little ingenuity, even a poor immigrant’s corner hot dog stand can grow into a national symbol. Needless to say, ketchup and mustard can't hurt! What better way could there be to celebrate the Fourth of July?

*Note: many sources have since acknowledged that this may be more legend than fact, but the Nathan’s franchise maintains that the spirit of the contest is inspired by this patriotic tale.

Fast Facts

  • Nathan Handwerker was one of more than 2.5 million Poles and 1.1 million Jews to emigrate to the United States between 1850 and 1920. The majority of these immigrants settled in large industrial cities and worked as laborers either in manufacturing or operating heavy machinery.
  • Handwerker and his wife Ida came to the United States via New York's famed Ellis Island in 1912. More than 12 million immigrants, mostly from Europe, passed through the island's gates between 1892 and 1954.
  • On July 4, 1918, at the height of World War I, immigrant leaders across the country organized a nationwide demonstration of unity and support for the American cause. Common commemorative activities included reading President Woodrow Wilson's holiday address and the Declaration of Independence.
  • 2011 was the first year that Nathans Famous held a separate men's and women's contest. The inaugural women's champion was Sonya The Black Widow Thomas, who set a womens record by eating 40 hot dogs in ten minutes. The next year, she repeated as champion and broke her own record, consuming 45 hot dogs.
  • In 2011, roughly 40,000 fans attended the contest at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues in the heart of the Coney Island boardwalk. An additional 1.95 million tuned into ESPN's live broadcast.
  • Nathan Handwerker was posthumously inducted into the Coney Island History Project's Hall of Fame in 2006 for his contributions to the boardwalk's fame and success.

For Further Exploration

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

ambitious

Adjective

eager to achieve wealth, power, status, or a specific goal.

century

Noun

100 years.

commemorate

Verb

to honor an event on a specific date.

destination

Noun

place where a person or thing is going.

emigrate

Verb

to move from one's native land to another.

gastronomical

Adjective

having to do with eating.

immigrant

Noun

person who moves to a new country or region.

inaugural

Adjective

first.

independence

Noun

state or situation of being free.

ingenuity

Noun

cleverness or resourcefulness.

Jewish

Adjective

having to do with the religion or culture of people tracing their ancestry to the ancient Middle East and the spiritual leaders Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

nation

Noun

political unit made of people who share a common territory.

Encyclopedic Entry: nation

national

Adjective

having to do with the government or people of a country.

patriotic

Adjective

supporting and celebrating a nation and its people.

subway

Noun

underground railway; a popular form of public transportation in large urban areas.

Woodrow Wilson

Noun

(1856-1924) 28th president of the United States.

World War I

Noun

(1914-1918) armed conflict between the Allies (led by the United States, the United Kingdom, and France) and the Central Powers (led by Germany and Austria-Hungary). Also called the Great War.

Credits

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Writer

Ryan Schleeter

Editor

Jessica Shea
Sean P. O'Connor, National Geographic Society

Sources

New York Times

Dictionary of American History

Nathan's Famous

International Federation of Competitive Eating

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