It was a compelling story that epitomized America’s unique themes of patriotism and a love of questionable meat products.
But none of it seems to have been true.
“With Coney Island pitching style, we made it up,” spokesman Mortimer Matz told The New York Times in 2010.
Matts and fellow public relations buff Max Rosie invented the story in the early 1970s when the Fourth of July movement really took off. Nathan’s founder Nathan Handworker was frustrated that contestants didn’t pay for the hot dogs they were eating, Mats told The Times. So he and Rosie spiced up the event by promoting it as an annual tradition that began in 1916 when Handwerker opened Coney Island’s Hot Dog Stand in New York, he said.
The Times added an editor’s note to the article A 2010 interview with Mutts specified that a Nathans spokesperson said the company “had no evidence of a contest” before Mutts and Rosie were involved. The Times and other publications, including The Washington Post, frequently cite the 1916 date, but a spokesperson told The Times it was just a “legend”.
The International Federation of Competitive Food and Beverages once said the event has been held annually with two exceptions. 1941 was canceled to protest World War II, and 1971 to protest “social unrest and the reign of free love”.
Held annually on Coney Island, the contest is an annual event where tens of thousands of fans watch live and compete to see which competitive “big eater” can eat the most hot dogs in 10 minutes. It is Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set a record by eating 76 buns with Franks in 2021.
Contestants eating hot dogs compete for a long time
The details of how the contest actually got started are unclear. Journalist Jason Fagonne, in his 2007 book The Knights of the Eatingaul: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream, notes that Mr. Matz will attract TV cameras to Nathan’s hot dog stand. He reportedly said he and Rosie dreamed about the event. But Handwerker is cheap, so Matz said his competitors didn’t want to pay for all the hot dogs he could eat in 15 minutes.
“Twelve minutes! No more!” Mr. Handwerker reportedly yelled at Mr. Matz. “And I hope they have plenty of breakfast!”
Fagone notes that the truth of the story is doomed to remain unknown. Mr Handwerker died in his 1974, and his son Murray Handwerker told Mr Fagone that he started the contest himself.
By 1978, according to Fagone, Rosie had told reporters that the contest began in 1917 and pitted actress Mae West’s father against comedian Eddie Cantor. Mullen, an Irish immigrant, has disappeared from the story.
Hot dog recipes for everyone, including hot links and carrot dogs
Either way, the event doesn’t always take place on the 4th of July. According to newspaper reports, in the early days the contest was sometimes held around Memorial Day or Labor Day. Fagone also spotted references to the contest in early April.
The competition has taken on a life of its own apart from its mythological origin story. Women’s and men’s contests are now held separately, with music and dance performances before the contest. This event raises money for New York City food banks.
However, the hoax about the 1916 competition has not completely disappeared. The International Competitive Eating Federation still cite it, prolonging the life of this stunt that Mats once called the strangest.
Former Village Voice columnist Tom Robbins told The Times of Mats in 2014, “He’s part PT Barnum and part political Karawag.” He’s got New York’s great creative talent and he can’t help but appreciate being on the receiving end of it. “
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