A Brief History Of Competitive Eating

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Joey Chestnut competes in the 2007 International July Fourth Hot Dog Eating Contest at Coney Island, New York.

The Fourth of July is a time for family, patriotism, and, thanks to a Coney Island hot dog vendor, seeing how many frankfurters a grown man can eat in ten minutes.

Face-stuffing has been around for centuries, of course: the Edda, a collection of 13th-century Norse myths, tells of an eating contest between the god Loki and his servant (the servant won by eating the plate). But organized competitive eating — consuming as much as you can, as fast as you can, within a given period of time — is relatively new. According to Major League Eating, the sport's governing body (yes, there is one) the American version of the pastime began in 1916, the year that Nathan's Famous held its first Fourth of July hot dog-eating contest in Coney Island. According to legend, four immigrants competed to determine who was the most patriotic (the Irishman won with 13).

Eating contests weren't limited to hot dogs, however. New York Yankees outfielder Ping Bodie competed in a 1919 pasta-eating contest against an ostrich in Jacksonville, Florida. (Again, according to legend, the ostrich passed out after its 11th bowl and Bodie won by default.) In 1958, a pair of American and Soviet weightlifters fought their own version of the Cold War by eating eight lobsters and six squab in front of 250 onlookers at a New York restaurant. They didn't even touch the dozen lamb chops and 10 steaks waiting for them, and ultimately declared themselves failures. And in 1963, Eddie "Bozo" Miller ate 27 chickens at a Trader Vic's restaurant in San Francisco to win the Guinness Book of Records title of "world's greatest trencherman."

After languishing for decades in county fair pie-eating obscurity, the sport rediscovered legitimacy in the mid-1990s when two brothers, George and Richard Shea, took over Nathan's publicity. They increased the hot dog contest's attendance from the hundreds to the thousands, and other restaurants jumped on the trend. The Sheas founded the International Federation of Competitive Eating (since retitled Major League Eating) to oversee the events. They now host 80 to 100 competitions a year, featuring everything from deep fried asparagus to tiramisu. The top events are broadcast live on ESPN; last spring, Nintendo announced a competitive eating video game for the Wii, although it has yet to be released.

Like more established sports, competitive eating has its own body of myth (skinny competitors do better, supposedly because their stomachs have more room to expand), strategy (dunking food into juice or lemonade helps it dissolve) and controversy: when world champion Takeru Kobayashi was unseated last year by American Joey Chestnut, who ate 66 dogs to Kobayashi's 63, the Japanese nosher was allegedly hobbled by a jaw injury. ("I believed he was fully recovered," Chestnut said.) Top eaters train for months before a big event, and for good reason — this year, some 40,000 fans are expected to come watch Kobayashi and Chestnut face off at Coney Island again, and the winner will take home $20,000.