The Popular Origin Story Of The Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest Is A Myth

The legend behind the first Nathan's hot dog eating contest has a storybook ring to it. The tale goes, four immigrants from mostly unspecified countries just happened to be sitting down to enjoy a quintessential American meal (Nathan's Famous hot dogs), in an iconic locale (Coney Island), on the most patriotic day of the year (the Fourth of July). In order to see who could show their love for the United States the most, they decided to have a hot dog eating contest ... as one does. The story goes that Irish immigrant James Mullen won by downing 13 of them.

If it sounds a little too idyllic, that's because it is. The idea to have a hot dog eating contest was actually cooked up in the early 1970s by press agents Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz as a publicity stunt for Nathan's Famous. In order to give the event more credibility, Rosey and Matz spread the word to news outlets that the competition was actually an old-school tradition that originated in 1916 — the year that the hot dog stand was first founded. This was pure fabrication meant to garner attention, though the legend is still widely touted.

"In Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up," Matz told the New York Times matter-of-factly in 2010. The extra flare of the unnamed four immigrants competing to demonstrate their patriotism came even later when George and Richard Shea — who were mentored by Rosey and Matz — took over Nathan's Famous publicity in the 1990s.

Publicity stunts have long been part of Nathan's Famous history

Nathan's Famous Founder Nathan Handwerker knew from the start that public perception would be crucial for the success of his business — and he was early to adopt some tactics to increase attention. First, Handwerker changed the name of his stand from simply Nathan's to Nathan's Famous in 1918 after just two years of being in business. At the time, the stall was certainly not famous, though the branding would pay off in the long run. 

Handwerker also apparently hired university students to pretend to be doctors enjoying some Nathan's Famous franks on their lunch break from nearby Coney Island Hospital in an effort to show that his product was healthy and high-quality. 

Publicists Max Rosey and Mortimer Matz were behind another significant move that kept Nathan's Famous in conversation. Career politician Nelson Rockefeller was once quoted as saying, "No candidate for any office can hope to get elected in this country without being photographed eating a hot dog" (via Time). Somehow, the industrious press agents popularized a now widely quoted, abridged version that reads: "No one can hope to be elected in this state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan's Famous" (per The New York Times).

The Nathan's Famous hot dog eating contest lives on

There are differing accounts of who won the very first recorded Nathan's famous hot dog eating contest in 1972. Regardless, what was once a fun competition has grown into a legitimate sport. In addition to becoming Nathan's publicists, George and Richard Shea founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating (IFOCE) and Major League Eating (MLE) organizations, which led to the contest becoming a regulated event in 1997. This competition is one of many strange American Fourth of July food traditions, and it gets around 2 million viewers on ESPN and 40,000 in-person attendees at the original Coney Island stand.

The year 2001 was a pivotal moment in the sport when Japanese contestant Takeru Kobayashi blew the previous record of 25 hot dogs in 12 minutes out of the water as he ate 50 hot dogs in that one sitting.

Coming from a culture that already viewed competitive eating as a legitimate sport, Kobayashi trained as such and created a new strategy to shovel down dogs. He would separate the bun and frankfurter, split both in half, and dunk the buns in water before scarfing them down.

Kobayashi held the title for several years until the great Joey Chestnut won his first match against the reigning champ in 2007. At the time of writing, Joey Chestnut holds the record for most hot dogs eaten at a gut-wrenching 76. For women, Miki Sudo reigns with 48.5 hot dogs.