Nathan Handwerker’s story began like many tales about the American dream. Working in a restaurant owned by Coney Island’s Charles Feltman, often credited as the inventor of the hot dog, he dreamed of a better life. To save money, Handwerker slept on the restaurant’s kitchen floor and ate free hot dogs. After a year, he quit working for Feltman and opened his own hot dog stand on Surf and Stillwell Avenues in Coney Island, mere blocks away from his former employer’s own hot dog establishment. With his wife Ida's secret spice recipe, Handwerker sold his dogs for five cents, half the price of Feltman’s. But business still struggled. So, he did what any good entrepreneur would do—he pulled off a publicity stunt.
It was Independence Day 1916, and Handwerker was working at his hot dog stand when he overheard a conversation nearby. “The story that I have heard forever is that there were four immigrants arguing over who was the most American on the Fourth of July,” says Richard Shea, the President of Major League Eating. So, Handwerker challenged the four men to a contest.
“Nathan said, ‘I’ll tell ya, whoever can eat the most of my hot dogs is the most American,” explains Shea. The men took Handwerker up on the offer. Irish immigrant James Mullen won the race by downing 13 hot dogs in 12 minutes, thus proving his patriotism. The Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest was born.
Ninety-nine years later, the Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest may be the largest publicity stunt in the world, with over 35,000 people flocking to Coney Island and millions watching at home on ESPN every July 4. “I consider it the most compelling ten minutes in sports,” says Shea.
Shea and his brother George run Major League Eating, the body that oversees and governs "all stomach-centric sport worldwide." While the Hot Dog Eating contest is their Super Bowl, the MLE sanctions approximately 80 other eating events worldwide, involving the consumption of everything from oysters to Twinkies. The Shea brothers also run a public relations firm, Shea Communications, providing consulting to Nathan’s and other clients—blurring the line between publicity stunt and skillful competition that has been there since 1916.
While Shea doesn't hide the fact that the competition is great advertising for Nathan’s Famous, he insists everything that goes on stage is real. “It’s genuine. The reason I think this competition resonates with people is that we don’t fiddle with the results or force the narrative … The eaters, for the most part, are everyday gals and guys … most of these guys have day jobs.”
Miki Sudo is the defending women’s Hot Dog Eating Champion, but by day she works in marketing. Last year, as a rookie competitor, she rocked the competitive eating world by upsetting three-time women’s champ Sonya Thomas. When Smithsonian.com asked if she expected herself to win last year, Sudo responded with an emphatic yes: “I was the underdog, the rookie … but I knew I was going to win. I practiced and was really prepared.” For her win, Sudo recieved the Nathan's Mustard Belt and $10,000 in prize money.
It was only a few years ago that Sudo realized just how good she was at consuming large quantities of food. Friends of hers had attempted, and failed, a challenge at a local Vietnamese restaurant that involved eating a 12-pound bowl of pho. “I figured why not me, and I gave it a shot. Without any preparation or practice, I finished it all,” she says.
Next, she entered a rib-eating contest. She won that too. Sudo quickly rose through the ranks of competitive eating, joining MLE in April 2013, and is now ranked the number-four eater in the world. Born in Manhattan, Sudo's origin story is quintessentially American, and her persona is that of a humble showman. Her website’s tagline reads: “Because Everybody’s Good at Something.”
And while there are certainly health risks involved with consuming dozens of hot dogs in a short period of time, the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island—once nicknamed “America’s Favorite Playground”—isn’t going away anytime soon. After all, there is something distinctly American about the whole story. Says Sudo, “There’s nothing more American than fireworks, Fourth of July and hot dogs.”