Summertime in the U.S. typically evokes the image of barbecues featuring all-American fare. But for a group of unique, dedicated elite athletes, summertime food conjures up a chance at glory.
Competitive eating was introduced in Coney Island on July 4, 1916, by Nathan’s Famous to determine who could ingest the most hot dogs within a set time. Since then, it has pulled in a number of other foods, including the “accoutrements,” with the sponsorship of Coca-Cola and Heinz Ketchup—not to mention the upset-stomach reliever Pepto-Bismol. The sport revived in the mid-1990s when brothers George and Richard Shea took the helm of Nathan’s Famous’ publicity machine and gave it an air of serious athleticism, with rules overseen by two main bodies.
The better-known Major League Eating (MLE) is run by the Shea brothers and hosts over 80 competitive eating events a year around the United States. But the crowning event remains the annually televised Nathan’s Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island. Then there’s All Pro Eating Promotions, best known for inventing “picnic-style rules” in the U.S.—competitors must eat the food as presented, without mutilating it in any way.
Competitive eaters such as Nathan’s champions Joey Chestnut and Sonya “The Black Widow” Thomas have become household names, thanks to their uncanny ability to devour awe-inspiring amounts of everything from chicken wings to tiramisu in a matter of minutes. At last year’s Coney Island competition, Chestnut ingested 69 hotdogs in the allotted 10 minutes, while Thomas made history by winning the first-ever Nathan’s Famous Female Hot Dog Eating Championship in 2011 by wolfing down 40 hot dogs. No word on whether they took advantage of Pepto-Bismol’s assistance.
View a video of the 2014 Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Champonship