The legend of how the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest began went largely unchallenged for decades.
On July 4, 1916, the story goes, four European immigrants decided to settle a debate about which of them was the most American by seeing who could eat the most hot dogs in 12 minutes. Irish immigrant James Mullen triumphed, with 13 franks, and an annual tradition was born.
It was a compelling tale, encapsulating the distinctly American themes of patriotism and love of questionable meat products.
But none of it, it seems, was true.
“In Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up,” press agent Mortimer Matz told the New York Times in 2010.
Matz and fellow public-relations buff Max Rosey invented the story in the early 1970s, when the Fourth of July contest truly began. Nathan Handwerker, founder of Nathan’s, was irritated that contestants weren’t paying for the hot dogs they were eating, Matz told the Times. So, he said, he and Rosey hyped up the event by touting it as an annual tradition that began in 1916, the year Handwerker opened his Coney Island hot dog stand in New York.
The Times appended an editor’s note to its 2010 interview with Matz, specifying that a spokesman for Nathan’s said the company “had no evidence of the contest” before Matz and Rosey became involved. The Times and other publications, including The Washington Post, had often cited the 1916 date, which the spokesman told the Times was simply “legend.”
The International Federation of Competitive Eating used to say the event had been held every year with two exceptions: 1941, when it was canceled to protest World War II, and 1971, to protest “civil unrest and the reign of free love.”
The annual contest in Coney Island has become an institution, with tens of thousands of fans watching live to see which competitive “gurgitator” can chow down on the most hot dogs in 12 minutes. Joey “Jaws” Chestnut set the record in 2021, with 76 franks and buns.
The details of how the competition actually began are hazy. In his 2007 book, “Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream,” journalist Jason Fagone reported that Matz had told him he and Rosey dreamed up the event to lure TV cameras to the Nathan’s hot dog stand. But Handwerker was cheap, Matz said, and didn’t want to pay for all the hot dogs the competitors could eat in 15 minutes.
“Twelve minutes! No more!” Handwerker reportedly yelled at Matz. “And I hope they had a big breakfast!”
Fagone notes that whether this story is true is destined to remain unclear. Handwerker died in 1974, and his son Murray Handwerker told Fagone that he had initiated the contest himself.
By 1978, Fagone writes, Rosey was claiming to reporters that the contest started in 1917 and featured the father of actress Mae West going head-to-head with comedian Eddie Cantor. Mullen, the Irish immigrant, had disappeared from the story.
In any case, the event wasn’t always held on July 4. Newspaper reports indicate the contest was sometimes held near Memorial Day or Labor Day in its early years. Fagone also found a reference to a contest in early April.
The competition has taken on a life of its own, separate from its mythical origin story. There are now separate women’s and men’s competitions, with pre-contest musical and dance performances. The event raises money for the Food Bank for New York City.
But the made-up tale of the 1916 competition has never fully died out. The International Federation of Competitive Eating still cites it, extending the life of the stunt that Matz once called his most bizarre.
“He’s part P.T. Barnum, part political scalawag,” Tom Robbins, a former columnist for the Village Voice, told the Times of Matz in 2014, “but it’s not really political, it’s just part scalawag. He has this great New York creative streak that you can’t help but be grateful to be on the receiving end of.”