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If you head over to the website for Major League Eating (MLE) – the professional eating competition organization that, since 1997, has sanctioned the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest, you'll find 17 competitions currently on the 2022 schedule and official records for well over 200 foods from pumpkin pie to Pizza Hut P'zones.
And yet, in the pantheon of pro eating events, the annual Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest – held every year on the Fourth of July in Coney Island – reigns supreme. If you know the name Joey Chestnut, it's probably because he's won six-consecutive and 14 of the last 15 Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contests and not because of his dozens of other records including pierogies, gumbo, and shrimp cocktail.
For some reason, these ten-minutes of hot dog gorging madness have captured our attention. But why? We asked four of the world's top eaters – and Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest participants – what makes this event so special… and a couple other hot dog-related questions, too.
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Why do you think the Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is the best known professional eating event?
Joey Chestnut (ranked #1 in MLE; reigning men's hot dog champion; and the all-time record holder, eating 76 hot dogs in last year's contest): "Everyone has eaten a hot dog before, which is part of the reason why the contest is so fun to watch. People can conceptualize how much food 76 hot dogs and buns really is."
Miki Sudo (ranked #3 in MLE overall, #1 MLE female, seven-time women's hot dog champion): "It's televised, and on ESPN at that. We're able to invite the world to experience the rush of the Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest. People can cheer for their favorite competitors while celebrating Independence Day, even from thousands of miles away. I wish more events were that readily accessible on TV or online."
Nick Wehry (ranked #4 in MLE, finished third in the 2021 contest with 44 hot dogs): "We're competing with a food that most people; especially on that given day, can relate to. It would be amazing if we could have televised turkey eating on Thanksgiving or maybe corned beef on St. Patrick's Day."
Michelle Lesco (ranked #9 in MLE, #2 MLE female, reigning women's hot dog champion): "The partnership with ESPN has had a huge impact. It brought George Shea [the event's master of ceremonies] into everyone's living room and local bar. When you see that man and his huge energy, you have no choice but to hang on to every word he says until the final scores are shown."
Chestnut: "Nathan's Famous Hot Dog Eating contest has been iconic for generations, and it gets better every year. Jim Mullen won the first contest in 1916 with 13 hot dogs and buns – I've worked to get through that same amount in a fraction of the time."
Is there something special about hot dogs that makes them conducive to a better event?
Sudo: "I wouldn't say that any food is 'better' or 'worse' for competitive eating; different foods just require different strategies. For us, it always helps when a food is delicious, and for the crowd, it helps when a food is relatable and easily quantifiable."
Lesco: "Hot dogs are just one of those foods that resonate with people to their core… But as far as eating contests go, it's definitely one of the harder foods to figure out. They have a lot going on between the natural casing dogs that snap and the soft bread. There are constant textural and technique changes between meat and bun. It really comes down to a science and an art, which is why you see Joey just dominate in this contest. In other contests, there are usually a few people right there with him, even beating him. But he has been able to really figure out the Nathan's dogs in a way that no one else has been able to. I heard a rumor it's because he worked in the factory one summer and got to see how the sausage was made."
Chestnut: "I start training for the contest months in advance with jaw exercises and practice rounds. I'm competing against myself as well as fellow Major League Eaters, trying to top my world record year-after-year."
Wehry: "We're fortunate to compete with high quality Nathan's hot dogs which definitely helps, but as competitors, we'll compete with whatever we sign up for. Different foods allow for different eaters to showcase their ability and strengths. I think the variety makes the circuit more fun. Wings, ribs, pork roll, shortcake and more! All amazing. Not to mention the places we get to visit and experience during these contests. It's an unforgettable ride."
Are you able to enjoy eating hot dogs recreationally? If so, how do you take them?
Chestnut: "I enjoy hot dogs year-round with some mustard to go with my 14 championship 'Mustard Belts.' Actually, I have my own line of condiments that make a perfect pair with Nathan's Famous Hot Dogs."
Sudo: "I like to enjoy mine with white onions, sauerkraut, and brown mustard. And no, I don't normally dunk the buns in warm strawberry-orange-banana water."
Whery: "I take a little time post-contest to relax, but guaranteed you can find me over the course of the year with a chili cheese dog or just simple dijon or spicy mustard. With that said, Miki and I did a food challenge at Dobbs Dawghouse in Dobbs Ferry, New York – toppings from pickled ginger and wasabi all the way to jelly and Cap'n Crunch. A lot of fun and definitely a taste experience!
Lesco: "If I'm at a friend's BBQ in Arizona, and someone offers me a hot dog, no way. But it's because I've been spoiled now! Store brand hot dogs are gross, and I have absolutely no interest in a skinless, mixed meat dog. But if someone offered me a Nathan's natural casing hot dog, literally any day of the year, I would absolutely take it. They're legitimately delicious. And if you have the seasoned, grilled onions and brown mustard – absolute heaven."