How Nathan's Famous 4th Of July Hot Dog Eating Contest Began

Eating contests are as American as apple pie. HowTheyPlay writes that pie-eating contests have been a fixture of county fairs since the early 20th century. However, the site notes that other informal competitions — like a Londoner who wagered he could eat 12 oysters and 12 glasses of champagne at the stroke of 12 in 1863 — are woven in culinary history.

Coney Island's Nathan's Famous July 4th hot dog eating contest is credited with launching the sport of competitive eating. And it is indeed considered a sport. ESPN carries the annual competition, with The Athletic reporting that 2021's match drew 1.5 million viewers. The dog fight even spawned Major League Eating, the governing body of the sport that oversees 70 eating events annually, its most famous being Nathan's.

Legend has it that the Coney Island hot-dog-stand-turned-national-icon hosted its first eating contest back in 1916 when four immigrants downed as many dogs as possible to see who was most patriotic, per Nathan's Famous. The brand says it revived the competition in 1972.

Nathan's Famous 4th of July hot dog eating contest

However, according to The New York Times, the event was conjured by a pair of press agents — Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz — hired by the hot dog company. The outlet says the bit of fiction was further embellished by publicists George and Richard Shea. The press devoured the false narrative, which has since become part of the competitive eating canon.

Indeed, the Shea brothers, who went on to found Major League Eating, are credited with turning a local oddity on the Coney Island boardwalk into an annual national obsession, according to The New York Times. When the cheeky pair took over Nathan's Famous publicity in 1991, there were few specters and even fewer television cameras to cover the competition. Now branded a sport, the media reports it as such while the competitive eaters train like athletes, with regimens that include water training as well as exercise to stay lean since too much body fat can impede stomach expansion. 

Nathan's Famous has become so prominent that gamblers can wager on the outcome, via Covers, and scientists have studied how many hot dogs a human can conceivably ingest in the contest's 10-minute time frame, per Sports Illustrated. Nathan's Famous repeat winner Joey Chestnut is a bonafide celebrity. Whether the company's lore is fact or fiction, Americans have an insatiable appetite for Nathan's Famous 4th of July hot dog eating contest.