July 4th 2018: A beginner's guide to Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest

As the US celebrates Independence Day 2018, one of the country’s more unusual traditions is still going strong.

Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest has been held every 4 July on Coney Island, New York City, since 1916 and is exactly what it sounds like: a competitive eating competition in which participants have 10 minutes to devour as many frankfurters and buns as they can.

The winner receives $10,000 (£7,600) in prize money and the famed “Mustard Belt” as their trophy.

Nathan’s Famous has stood as a seafront snack venue for 102 years, situated at the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues and founded by Jewish immigrant Nathan Handwerker (1892-1974), who started out selling sausages for a nickel with his wife Ida, using her Polish grandmother’s secret spice recipe.

The fast food stand is said to have hosted the first contest as a means of settling a dispute between two punters, both recent migrants, on 4 July 1916, over whom was the more patriotic, but the event quickly became a fixture.

Celebrated vaudevillian Eddie Cantor, who met Handwerker while working as a singing waiter and encouraged him to go into business on his own, is said to have competed in the 1917 contest against Jack West, father of the bawdy comedian Mae. Cantor and another singing star, Sophie Tucker, are said to have judged early contests, staged every year since - barring 1941 and 1971, when the event was suspended because of national crisis.

Nathan’s fame grew and the hot dog battle became one of the many attractions drawing people to Coney Island in the first half of the 20th century, when it was the biggest amusement park on the eastern seaboard then known as “the playground of the world”. Millions of holidaymakers and day-trippers visited every summer to bask in the sun, enjoy the Wonder Wheel, carousel and rollercoaster rides and stroll along the boardwalk.

Once known for the Elephantine Colossus statue that towered over the skyline, the resort was comprised of three rival fairgrounds: Luna Park, Dreamland and Steeplechase Park. The first, nicknamed “Electric Eden”, was destroyed by fire in 1944 but can be seen in its full glory in the Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle silent comedy Coney Island (1917).

The resort fell into disrepair and neglect after the Second World War, particularly with the closure of Steeplechase Park in 1964, when real estate magnate Fred Trump, father of Donald, hoped to knock down what remained and erect luxury apartment complexes. Although that never happened, Coney Island is not what it was and the Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest actually serves as an important tie to the beachfront's rich heritage.

Miki Sudo, centre, and Sonya Thomas, right, compete (Michael Noble Jr/AP)
Miki Sudo, centre, and Sonya Thomas, right, compete (Michael Noble Jr/AP)

Today, the contest is typically comprised of 20 contestants seated along a raised platform where they are presented with a stacked platter of dogs. It operates like football on a yellow and red card disciplinary system: yellows are awarded for messy eating, straight reds for any “reversal of fortune” (i.e. vomiting). It has been aired on TV by ESPN since 2003 and spawned several superstars.

In the men’s event, Californian Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, 34, has dominated since 2007 when he ended the reign of Japan’s Takeru “The Prince” Kobayashi, 40, AKA “The Tsunami”, who won every year between 2001 and 2006.

Mr Chestnut’s personal best came last year, when he polished off an astonishing 72 dogs and buns. He is currently ranked number one in the world by the Major League Eating organisation.

The women’s champion for the last four years has been native New Yorker Miki Sudo, who last year devoured 41.

Only Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas has eaten more, scoffing 45 in 2012.