The 4th of July is a holiday that celebrates freedom and the creation of the United States. As the day of commemoration has evolved over the years, many traditions have been created. For many, the 4th is a day for parades, baseball, heading to the beach, watching fireworks or having a big barbecue complete with hot dogs and hamburgers. But hot dogs have asserted themselves in another major tradition for Independence Day – The Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest.
This hot dog eating contest is the most prominent competitive eating event. It attracts a massive audience both in Coney Island where the competition is held as well as on ESPN where the competition is broadcast across the U.S. Although this contest has begun to define competitive eating among average Americans and competitive eaters alike, it isn't the first food contest ever. Take a look at the brief history of competitive eating and how the Nathan's contest has become the massive success it is today.
It all started with mythology
The first record of a contest that involved eating faster than another person dates back to Norse mythology where Loki, a Norse god, was competing in a series of feats of strength and ability. As trivia website Today I Found Out explained, one competition that was described in 13th-century mythology is close to how food contests still work.
"Loki declares his own competition, by making the proclamation that he could eat faster than anyone," Today I Found Out explained. "Utgard takes up the challenge and sets him against Logi. Sitting at the opposite sides of the table with a wooden plate full of meat in the middle, they take off chowing. Upon meeting in the middle, Loki has eaten all of his meat, but Logi had not only eaten all the meat, but the bones and the wooden plate as well. Logi is declared the winner."
Although the myth reveals that Logi was actually the element fire and not a person or giant, which is why it won the competition, the idea of competitive eating was created.
In the real world, competitive eating was wasteful
Throughout most of history, there wasn't enough food for people to waste it through contests and competitive eating. And those who did have plentiful food didn't take part in contests like this.
Today I Found Out pointed to the late 1800s and early 1900s for the first signs of American competitive eating, which started with pies. From pies, other foods were used. However, the first well-documented competitive eating in the U.S. officially started on July 4th, 1916, with the first Nathan's hot dog eating contest, Time magazine explained.
Nathan's creates a culture
Polish immigrant Nathan Handwerker worked at the restaurant Feltman's in Coney Island before branching off and creating his own stand. He undersold Feltman's 10 cent hot dogs with his 5 cent variety that would become Nathan's Famous. Nathan's grew in popularity as the subway was expanded, National Geographic explained, and became a mainstay at the then-popular Coney Island, seeing about 75,000 people each weekend.
On July 4th, 1916, four immigrants took part in a hot dog eating contest to see who was the most patriotic. Although there's some debate to the accuracy of this story, it's the story that Nathan's uses as record for the event. The first winner was Irish immigrant James Mullen, who ate 13 hot dogs, according to National Geographic. It continued as a patriotic tradition for many years, occurring each 4th of July.
Nathan's contest today
Today I Found Out called Nathan's contest the "de facto Olympics" of competitive eating. Each year, the competition pits regional qualifiers against the defending champion and other "wild cards" to see who can eat the most hot dogs and buns in 10 minutes. In the past, time limits have been as long as 12 minutes and as short as 3 1/2.
Throughout the 1970s and '80s, the number of hot dogs the winner ate were similar to those in 1916. In 1980, for example, the winner ate only nine hot dogs. Today, however, the reigning champion, Joey Chestnut, has set the record at 68 hot dogs, and ate 61 to win in 2014. Women also now compete and dwarf men's previous winning tallies, with the record of 45 hot dogs by Sonya Thomas.
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