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Ten Minutes to Glory: The Story Behind Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest

Picture of Elizabeth Nicholas
Updated: 4 August 2017
Once just a humble beachfront hot dog stand on Coney Island, Nathan’s Famous is now a beloved global hot dog juggernaut, with locations around the United States and in Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jamaica, Russia, and the Cayman Islands. But as justifiably renowned as Nathan’s is for its all-American cuisine, Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July hot dog eating contest may eclipse the food in fame.

The rules of the contest are simple: whoever can eat the most Nathan’s Famous hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes will win. Thousands of spectators pack the boardwalk on Coney Island to watch, and ESPN streams the contest live. This year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, a competitive eater, took home the trophy for downing 70 hot dogs and buns, setting a world record in the process.

The winner of this year’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest Joey Chestnut
The winner of this year’s Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest Joey Chestnut | Courtesy of Nathan's Famous

The contest’s staging on the Fourth of July is in homage to its supposed origins: in 1916, four European immigrants were arguing at the Nathan’s Famous stand on Coney Island over who was the most patriotic, and they chose to settle the matter by seeing who could eat the most hot dogs. (The Irishman James Mullen apparently won, as he scarfed down 13 dogs in 12 minutes.)

The contest’s subsequent decades are somewhat light on fact and heavy on legend. In 2010, the then-86-year-old uber-publicist Mortimer Matz told The New York Times that he and a friend invented the contest’s origin story. Nathan’s didn’t dispute this, telling the paper there was no evidence of the competition before the 1970s. (Nathan’s website, however, includes the 1916 contest on its timeline of seminal dates throughout its history, and The Times has cited the 1916 date in other articles.)

The first scrupulously reported years of the contest yielded varied results. In 1967, a 400-pound truck driver named Walter Paul ate an incredible 127 hot dogs in the span of an hour. In 1972, the champion was Melody Andorfer, a 105-pound 18-year-old community activist from Queens who won by eating 12 hot dogs in five minutes. In 1978, it was a 10-year-old 75-pound student named Kevin Sinclair. In 1981, Mr. Thomas DeBerry “downed 11 hot dogs in five minutes and then rushed off with his family to attend a barbecue.” And in 1984, a 17-year-old member of the West German women’s judo team took home the crown, despite never having eaten a hot dog before that day.

Hot dogs before the hot dog eating storm
Hot dogs before the hot dog eating storm | Courtesy of Nathan's Famous

In the 1990s, the contest veered away from its Americana origins and became dominated by contestants from Japan, where competitive eating was taking hold as a sport. In 2001, the 23-year-old, 131-pound Japanese competitive eating champion Takeru Kobayashi blew past the previous world record of 25.5 hot dogs to eat 50 in 10 minutes at the contest, setting a new standard to compete against.

Kobayashi won the contest for six consecutive years, until 2007 when the American Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set a new world record by eating 66 hot dogs. Since then, Chestnut has won every competition, except in 2015 when Matt “Megatoad” Stonie won with 62 hot dogs to Chestnut’s 60.

You may have to wait until the next Fourth of July to see if Joey Chestnut will beat his own record or if a newcomer will oust him from the top slot. However, that should leave you plenty of time to pay a trip or two to Nathan’s to see just how many hot dogs you can eat in 10 minutes.