Intestinal Fortitude: The Furious Saga of Nathan’s July 4th Hot Dog Eating Contest

nathan's anniversaryThe 4th of July means one thing to hot dog patriots: the Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest on Coney Island, New York.

This year happens to be the 100th anniversary of Nathan’s, the same year (legend has it) that four immigrants argued outside Nathan Handwerker's hot dog stand on the Fourth of July, 1916, about who was more patriotic – and they settled it the only way a civilized American would – by seeing how many dogs each could stuff down their gullet.

Hard to imagine immigrants these days battling each other about how patriotic they are, not when immigrants have their own holidays where they raise flags of their home country instead of the Stars and Stripes – but that’s cool. That’s what America is for. Wretched refuse of your teeming shore and all that. Welcome! Have a hot dog!

The Nathan’s contest was formalized in 1971 when Jason Schecter ate a very civilized 14 hot dogs and buns. His pace was almost leisurely, they say, as he dabbed at mustard at the corners of his mouth after each dog was consumed with a silken handkerchief.

Compare that with the way it’s done now. If you get a chance, check it out on ESPN. In 2013, Joey Chestnut set a world record by eating 69 hot dogs in ten minutes. He went full bore, his neck muscles straining to get the unadorned and unappetizing dogs down. It’s like watching a nature show, when a snake unhinges its jaws and makes quick motions to get down a live guinea pig or something. It’s sickening and fascinating:

Nathan’s is a New York joint, you say? Why does Chicago care at all about this? Well, it’s a matter of cold fact that Al Capone always stopped by to visit Nathan Handwerker when he was in Brooklyn “on business” and had a few dogs. Capone himself was from Brooklyn. But now, he’s Chicago’s icon the world over, like it or not, the same way that other gangster Donald Trump is the icon of New York.

During the July 4th weekend alone (which is the biggest hot-dog holiday of the year, according to Fact Monster), 155 million will be downed. Every year, Americans eat an average of 60 hot dogs each. Are you keeping pace? The year is half over – get cracking.

Mario's -- Chicago's best dollar dog.I had a couple of Nathan’s dogs for a dollar each in Vegas once at The Mermaid. They were great – and made me appreciate (if only for a moment) the goodness that a single dollar can buy – so much better than dumping it into a slot machine to get nothing back. In Chicago, the best dollar dog is at Mario’s Red Hots, 3801 N. Harlem Avenue.

If you’re staying in Chicago this weekend, be safe. Last year 10 people were killed and 55 wounded by gun violence. The year before that, 14 people were killed and 82 were shot. It’s difficult to think that right now, many people are alive who won’t be come this Monday night.

Even if we have the intestinal fortitude to down many hot dogs, I can’t imagine how we’re all not sick to our stomachs about the lives being taken every day in this city for no good reason at all.


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