It’s that time again, when the whole family gathers around the picnic table to honor the deity Joey Chestnut by snarfing down as many hot dogs as they can. Okay, maybe your family doesn’t do this exactly, but it would be quite the way to celebrate the annual Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, happening this (and every!) Fourth of July at Coney Island. And if you haven’t checked out this competitive eating spectacle before, now’s the time.
The rules for the contest are simple: contestants go against each other to see how many hot dogs in buns they can eat in 10 minutes. Condiments are allowed but not usually added. If you throw up, you’re disqualified. Whoever eats the most hot dogs wins. It’s America in a nutshell.
For a while rumor had it that the very first hot dog eating contest took place in Coney Island the same year that Nathan himself opened his wiener stand. It was a way for a group of recent immigrants to see who was the most patriotic. Turns out that was just a publicity stunt invented by Mortimer Matz, a longtime public relations expert who spent his later years at Durst Organization (run by the brother of Robert Durst, gulp).
“Nathan Handwerker, the founder, was upset that the contestants weren’t paying for the hot dogs and would only let the contest last 12 minutes,” Matz told the New York Times in a 2010 interview. “We said this was an annual tradition since 1916. In Coney Island pitchman style, we made it up.”
Matz seemed to have spoken it into existence, because it did become an annual tradition, officially dating back to 1967. The first winner was Walter Paul, who ate 127 hot dogs in one hour. In 1973, the contest was canceled because it coincided with the meat boycott when consumers stopped buying all meat to protest the hike in prices.
The contest as we know it today truly began in 1979, solidifying that it would take place every year on Independence Day. Then in 1997 it was officially sanctioned by the International Federation of Competitive Eating and Major League Eating. The current record holder is the aforementioned Joey Chestnut, who broke his own record in 2020 by eatig 76 hot dogs in 10 minutes.
Unfortunately, you can’t just show up to Coney Island and join in on the action. There are a few qualifiers before the big event, which typically features about 20 contestants. The defending champions are always invited back—this year that’s Mr. Chestnut and Miki Sudo. Then there are the folks who qualified at regional contests. And you can always hold out hope for a special invite from Major League Eating itself—in fact, regularly checking their website will get you most of the info you need.
If you’d rather just watch, you can check out the event in person down at Coney Island. Admission is free and it kicks off around 10 a.m. with loads of other activities—if you want to be in the splash zone for the contest, you’ll want to get there very early.
ESPN will be airing all the action starting at 10:45 a.m. EST (the network has struck a deal to do so through at least 2024) with SportsCenter Anchor John Anderson providing play-by-play commentary.
And you can always just join in on the action from home. Simply cook up 77 hot dogs and film your attempts to down them all, just in case you truly are the next Joey Chestnut.