49. Making Nathan’s Famous

Nathan’s Famous turned the hot dog into a symbol of July 4th. But the story of how that happened says a lot more about America than just its love of a good BBQ. It’s immigrants striving for the American dream, hucksters spinning tall tales, underdogs fighting against the odds. The good, the bad, and the ugly of the US stuffed through a meat grinder, bigger and better than Nathan’s ever dreamed.

Reported and produced by Julia Press, with Charlie Herman and Sarah Wyman.

Transcript

NOTE: This transcript may contain errors.

CH: It’s July, 4, 2019. The sun is beating down on the corner of Surf and Stillwell Avenues. We’re in Coney Island, New York: that legendary playground with its beach and boardwalk and, my favorite, the Cyclone, this huge wooden roller coaster. Thousands of people are packed together, eyes locked on a bright blue stage.

2019 Contest ESPN: From five, four, three, two one. Begin! [horn] We are off with the 103rd iteration of the Nathan’s Famous hot dog eating contest, Joey Chestnut the man to beat

CH: If you follow the world of competitive eating — or at least the annual hot dog eating contest – you probably know the name “Joey Chestnut” —

2019 Contest ESPN: Unbelievable athlete.

CH: The man’s a legend. He’s dominated the scene for more than ten years. Just take it from the reporters at ESPN.

2019 Contest ESPN: Chestnut has changed the game because of his dedication physically.

2019 Contest ESPN: Yesterday we spoke to Joey Chestnut, he told us he’s taken up yoga this year in an effort to help himself breathe better in uncomfortable positions so something to keep an eye on with him, he said his flow is much more smooth.

CH: This is what Chestnut does for a living. He trains for this. He’s made hundreds of thousands of dollars stuffing his face with food: chicken wings, shrimp cocktail, glazed donuts. And this year, it looks like it’s paying off.

2019 Contest ESPN: Joey Chestnut with 70 seconds left and 65 hot dogs and buns.
No one’s touching Joey right now, he’s the goat, he’s so goat that people are starting to call other greats the Joey, like Michael Jordan is the Joey of basketball, Brady is the Joey of football…

CH: After 10 minutes of intense, gut-busting competition, it’s no surprise who wins.

2019 Contest ESPN: It’s a dirty dozen for Chestnut! Number 12 at Nathan’s!

CH: For the 12th time, Chestnut will take home the grand prize from Nathan’s Famous Hot Dog Eating Contest, the Mustard Belt. And on the 4th of July, what could be more all-American than the hot dog?

From Business Insider, this is Brought to you by… Brands you know, stories you don’t. I’m Charlie Herman.

As people fire up their grills for a classic summer barbecue, we take a look inside that most mysterious of meats: the hot dog.

What’s inside it is the stuff of legend, but when it comes to one in particular, the one sold at Nathan’s Famous, it’s got a lot to do with America.

Underdogs and hucksters, international rivalries, and good ole fashioned American dreams. The good, the bad and the ugly of this country—stuffed through a meat grinder, organs and all.

Today, producer Julia Press checks out the hot dog stand and the country that shaped it.

Stay with us.

ACT I

CH: Each fourth of July, as fireworks light up the night sky and red, white and blue flags fly overhead, Americans scarf down hot dogs. 150 million of them, to be exact. At least, that’s if you take the National Hot Dog and Sausage Council at its word. But like most American traditions, in fact, like America itself, the hot dog is what it is because of immigrants — and it really made its name thanks to one man in particular. Here’s producer Julia Press.

JP: Nathan’s Famous hot dogs was started by one guy: Nathan Handwerker. He’s not alive anymore, so I spoke to his grandson.

LLOYD HANDWERKER: My grandfather had no schooling whatsoever. He didn’t spend one day in his life in a school

JP: Lloyd Handwerker has made a documentary and written a book about Nathan’s Famous, and the story of the guy who started it.

LH: Nathan Handwerker was a extremely poor immigrant from Poland who lived the American dream. He was one of 13 kids. They were extremely poor…he didn’t even know how to add when he was growing up in Poland, he didn’t know how to add two plus two.

JP: Nathan’s story is about as classic as they come. As a kid back in Poland, he’d worked in a bakery for a couple of years, and he’d learned that food service jobs were a pretty smart move if you didn’t want to go hungry. So when he arrived in New York in 1912 as this bright-eyed 19 year old, he got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant in the city called Max’s Busy Bee.

LH: He learned English in Max’s by repeating what the customer said, basically just hearing what they said and just trying to repeat it without even knowing what it meant.

JP: Soon, he started working weekends as a roll slicer at a place called Feltman’s, this enormous restaurant on the Coney Island boardwalk. Even back then, Coney Island was this sort of urban escape. For the cost of just a subway ride, immigrants could get away from the tenements of the industrializing city and find themselves at a beach and an amusement park. Many of them set up small businesses there, hoping to make it big.

BRUCE KRAIG: The hot dog is an immigrant food. Right? Invented by immigrants, sold by immigrants. 

JP: Bruce Kraig is an emeritus professor at Roosevelt University who specializes in food history—in particular, the history of the hot dog.

BK: The earliest written evidence we have for it is from New York, Coney Island.

JP: Now sausages are nothing new. Eastern Europeans have been eating them for centuries, but the sausage on a bun—that’s an American invention from the late 1800s. As the story goes, the first place to sell them was Feltman’s, where Nathan Handwerker was working.

BK: Americans are among the historic leaders of walking around food: sandwiches, food you just eat on the run, particularly bread and meat, which is why hot dogs became popular to begin with.

JP: Hot dogs were just one tiny part of Feltman’s business—he was operating what would become the world’s largest restaurant, think white tablecloths, waiters dressed in bow ties. And after Nathan spent a few years slicing rolls there, he had an idea. He decided to open up his own place just down the boardwalk. In 1916, he leased a counter: 5 feet wide, 8 feet deep. And that’s where he set up shop.

BK: Nathan’s was a hot dog stand… you walked up, got your food, walked away. The most American kind of food there is.

JP: It’s the stand that won over Bruce Kraig’s heart and his stomach. It’s where he tried his first ever hot dog, and he still remembers it like this treasured childhood memory.

BK: They have a counter and I could barely see up and I could smell the place now, the griddling hot dogs smelled great. And it was a warm summer day, sea air washing over everything. It was just an amazing, transformative experience…So I loved hot dogs.

JP: According to Lloyd Handwerker, his grandfather’s stand had none of the glitz and glam of Feltman’s.

LH: No refrigeration, no electricity, the ground was sand, (laughs) he devised his own refrigerator using a barrel with ice, layers of ice and layers of meat.

JP: But Nathan’s was still competition, and he was undercutting his old boss’ prices, selling his frankfurters for only a nickel while Feltman’s cost (gasp) a whole dime. The competition tried to keep business away from Nathan’s by spreading rumors that the low price was a sign of low quality meat. But Nathan was ready to fire back.

LH: He figured out this idea where he hired hospital workers from the local hospital to dress as doctors with stethoscopes with a sign that said if doctors eat here, it has to be good.

JP: That was far from the last publicity stunt Nathan’s would pull to draw in customers. They’d put onions on the griddle so the smell would hit people as soon as they stepped off the subway.

LH: Sometimes they would start fights out in front of the counter just to bring crowds over…they sung songs…they made up all kinds of riddles about the food.

JP: The day Prohibition ended, they gave out 100 barrels of free beer, served in mugs proudly stamped with the Nathan’s logo. On the fourth of July, the busiest day of the year, they’d serve extra large frankfurters to impress their customers. And perhaps the best stunt of all? Its name: Nathan’s Famous.

LH: It might have been just something that was kind of a promotional device just to say it was famous but it, it wasn’t when he when he put the name up there.

JP: But soon, it would be famous because that five cent difference between Nathan’s and Feltman’s hot dogs paid off.

LH: When it really started to take off was around the time of the Depression because a family could you know, come there, basically have a meal for their whole entire family and spend, let’s say 40 cents.

JP: And once Nathan’s was established as the Coney Island frankfurter spot of choice, it started blowing up because Coney Island was more than just an amusement park by day. It was a Saturday night hot spot.

LH: And Nathan’s was the place that people would go on the weekend nights. They would go to a movie and then they’d go to Nathan’s at 2am.

JP: The biggest celebrities of the day had all eaten there: performers like Cary Grant, Eddie Cantor, Jimmy Durante. Al Capone was a regular, and Nathan himself was buddy buddy with the local political bosses and the police.

LH: People double and triple parked because the cops were on the take. As a matter of fact he got a fire hydrant moved in front of the store.

JP: Whoa.

LH: And he got a bus stop moved in front from in front of the store

JP: There are all kinds of stories about Nathan’s. Like the time Nelson Rockefeller, who became governor of New York, supposedly said, “No one can hope to be elected in this state without being photographed eating a hot dog at Nathan’s Famous.” (I haven’t been able to verify that, but as a native New Yorker I’d believe it) Legend has it FDR served Nathan’s hot dogs to the king and queen of England at a picnic on the eve of World War II (Lloyd says, that one’s not true). But despite all the mythology swirling around Nathan’s hot dog stand, one thing’s for sure: his business was booming.

LH: By the 1950s that store was grossing three million dollars a year. And that’s selling a frankfurter for a nickel and drinks for a nickel. So to, to gross that much money you just think about the crowds that you had to have year-round.

JP: Nathan was far from the only guy selling hot dogs. It’s just that he was selling them to huge names. Here’s Bruce Kraig, the hot dog historian, again.

BK: Nathan’s made it famous, respectable, paradigmatic. He became the market leader as it were.

JP: In cities across the country, immigrants were setting up their own hot dog stands. And in each place, they put their own spin on it, through the spices, the toppings.

BK: So I’ve often said that a hot dog is a platform for culture. So if you look at the Chicago dog, it has on it east European, Italian, Greek, ingredients. The stand owners were all in the same area and loaded up the hot dog.

JP: The hot dog was also becoming linked to a greater national identity, because it was a grab-and-go food, perfect for public events. Think strolling along the Coney Island boardwalk, or sitting at a baseball game.

BK: So you’re drinking beer, eating hot dogs, and the fellow next to you don’t know who he is, may not be from your neighborhood, maybe speaks a different language, right? But you’re baseball fans, because baseball was THE game [baseball FX]…and so there’s a social bonding there in which hot dogs are the lubricant

JP: Classic American tradition, meet your meat of choice. By the middle of the century, the Nathan’s slogan said it best: “From a Hot Dog to a National Habit.” And over the next few decades, Nathan’s would launch another national habit—one that would be broadcast to the country on ESPN.

CH: That’s after the break.

ACT II

CH: We’re back. Nathan Handwerker lived the stereotypical American dream: An immigrant with nothing but hope and a good work ethic, building his business from nothing to become a name that’s known across the country.

Over a million immigrants come to the U.S. each year and for many of them, stories like Nathan’s are what inspire them … that hope for success in the land of the free and the home of the brave.

But for many reasons, that American dream doesn’t come true for everyone. That doesn’t mean, however, that people stop believing in it. Because that’s the thing about America — this idea that if you strongly believe enough in something, you can make it come true. Here’s Julia again.

JP: When it comes to Nathan’s hot dogs, there’s one guy who preaches that idea, that if you talk a big enough game, you can make anything real. His name is George Shea.

GEORGE SHEA: In my world, if you say it, it is true and that is nothing more clear than with competitive eating.

JP: George is the PR guy who decided that a hot dog eating contest would become a symbol of July 4th, just by talking it up enough.

GS: The contests, according to my archives, date all the way back to 1916. But cynics might say that it started in 1972.

JP: By cynics, George means truth tellers. The annual Nathan’s hot dog eating contest was actually dreamt up as a publicity stunt in the ’70s. Even one of the guys who created it admitted that they made up the 1916 date, and the mythical origin story that came with it.

GS: Jim Mullen was an Irish immigrant and he held the event the first time, to determine on the 4th of July, who was the most American among these immigrants.

JP: I have to admit, it’s a good story. And George has managed to convince everyone from New York Times reporters to the mayor of New York’s press office to report it as fact.

CBS LOCAL: A fourth of July tradition in Brooklyn since 1916 is the Nathan’s hot dog eating contest in Coney Island.

JP: But you have to take everything George says with a grain of salt. He’s a master of spin, and he’s managed to talk himself and his sport into the big leagues.

JASON FAGONE: So eating contests have been around in America for hundreds of years, right? And until relatively recently they were just for fun.

JP: Jason Fagone is a reporter and the author of Horsemen of the Esophagus: Competitive Eating and the Big Fat American Dream.

JF: You can see these in newspaper accounts going back as far as you want. Blueberry pie eating contests on the fourth of July in hundreds of small towns. Political leagues in New York would have beefsteak eating contests to raise money. This was a very kind of neighborhood, local event.

JP: And for its first two decades in the ’70s and ’80s, the Nathan’s contest fit that bill.

JF: You know a local guy from Queens was absolutely the typical competitor in those years. I think a lot of them found out for the first time about the contest that day when they happened to go to Coney Island, right? They weren’t planning their year around it. They weren’t training for it, they weren’t looking forward to it.

JP: These were people who did not take themselves too seriously. It was all in good fun when it came to watching your friends and neighbors stuff their faces with hot dogs or blueberry pie for that matter.

JF: Competitive eating was kind of a joke, it was done for laughs, and everybody who was participating in it, they were in on the joke, right? They’d show up to a contest in a silly costume. They had ridiculous nicknames. A guy who was a competitor in those days called himself Frank “Large” della Rosa.

JP: When George first started doing PR for Nathan’s in 1988, just two years out of college, that’s the contest he found.

GS: So it was a tiny, tiny little alley, very tight. So when you held an event there it was sort of like an illegal dog fight. But it was very, very simple. There were three folding tables and you’d grab people off of the street, the boardwalk to do the contest and you might have 10 or 15, 20 bystanders sort of watching this event. But I remember it to this day, Jay Green, an out of work taxi cab driver, uh, won with 13 hot dogs.

JP: Three years later, George was put in charge of the contest. And he thought it might be fun to kick things up a notch or two, and just embrace the ridiculousness of it all.

GS: When I took over, I had zero plans. I’ve always been great at having zero plans…and I just did things that I thought were funny.

JP: That started with going full carnival barker—I’m talking straw hat, fancy speeches to hype up the competitors and the audience. George was an English major in college, and in each contestant, he saw a great story waiting to be told: the underdog, the champion fighting against the odds, even an international rivalry.

GS: A cynic would say that we, my buddy Kevin created a championship belt that was a symbol of the rivalry between Japan and the US that had been lost for decades in Japan.

JP: No one had ever heard of this “mustard belt” before. But it didn’t really matter if George’s story about it was real or not, because the rivalry between the two countries was. Throughout the 1980s, Japanese companies had purchased icon after American icon: Columbia Pictures, Rockefeller Center, Radio City Music Hall. So when a Japanese eater lost to the reigning American champion and the mustard belt mysteriously appeared in George’s office, well, only a cynic would say George’s buddy Kevin created it. George went on a press circuit, talking about a victory that had reclaimed America’s honor in the sport of competitive eating, and that story stuck.

GS: It went worldwide, the story. And as a result, the Japanese said, ‘Holy cow, we lost the belt. We got to get the belt back.’

JP: In 1996, a 144 pound Japanese man flew to New York to reclaim the belt that no one in Japan had ever actually owned. He beat the 320 pound American champ, Ed “the animal” Krachie. This wasn’t a loss for George, it was another opportunity.

He wrote up what he calls a scholarly journal article proposing a “belt of fat” theory—the idea that having more stomach fat can prevent expansion, making it harder to eat more. He submitted it to the New England Journal of Medicine.

GS: And the letter of rejection came and it was like Christmas, right? Like, Oh my God, they’ve, they’ve rejected our study. And of course, bang, out to the media

JP: In 1997, George and his brother created the International Federation of Competitive Eating, or the IFOCE, an organizing body that governed all stomach-centric sports. He made a website and a Latin inscription: “In Voro Veritas,” or “In gorging, there is truth.” And reporters started listening.

GS: And I’d say, ‘I’m calling from the International Federation of Competitive Eating. We have a major event.’ And they go, ‘Whoa, Whoa, Whoa.’ You’re not saying, I’m calling from Shea communications. You’re not saying I’m calling from Nathan’s. I’m not, you’re, you’re calling from the IFOCE. You got the story.

JP: He wasn’t exactly lying when he said his federation organized all the eating contests at the time. The fact was, Nathan’s was pretty much the only real game in town. But as George hyped up this silly, made-up league, it started turning into something real.

GS: The International Federation of Competitive Eating, you know, organizing competitions all over the globe and providing guidance and rules, et cetera, et cetera. And everyone’s going, yeah, I love it. Right? And then that’s exactly what we did, right? That’s exactly what we do. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy.

JP: Soon, George was running a national circuit, recruiting competitors for the Nathan’s contest through qualifying events across the US. Mind you, there was no one registered for these events in advance, George was convincing people to sign up on the fly.

GS: You know, you’d say you sir, or you know, don’t turn your back on America. We began saying that it was a litmus test for patriotism and that these are the greatest athletes in the world. And so you have a lot of people who were bemused and it was just absurd.

JP: He talked about this unique subculture of competitive eaters across the country vying for their chance to make it to Nathan’s, and he pitched the idea to an LA Times reporter.

GS: And he wrote a story…”To The Glutton Goes The Gold” or something like that…and they just thought it was funny. It was front page LA times

JP: I looked it up. That really happened. That was in 2001. But behind all the front page stories and international rivalries and fancy Latin mottos, competitive eating hadn’t actually changed all that much since its blueberry pie days. Author Jason Fagone, again.

JF: Was there actually an international rivalry that you know that people were getting emotional about? I don’t know. Probably not. This is the art of publicity, this is the art of trying to sell something and trying to create something out of nothing.

JP: But George was in luck. Because that year, someone would step into the Nathan’s ring who was the living embodiment of the very things George had been making up. His name was Takeru Kobayashi.

JF: It really can’t be overstated how important that 2001 hot dog eating contest was to everything that came after because, before then it really was stuff like this kind of mustard belt and you know it was this invented world that was being done for a laugh. It was all a giant, fun, clever in-joke.

JP: George could talk a big game about the sport of competitive eating, but it was all just talk until Kobayashi showed up. When this eater took to the stage, it was like watching a carefully choreographed routine — he ate the hot dogs two at a time, using his empty hands to dip the buns in water and wiggling his body in what became known as the “Kobayashi shake” to help digestion.

2001 CBS2: They say it’s a marathon and not a sprint. But don’t tell that to 23 year old, 130 pound Takeru Kobayashi.

JP: Within six minutes, he’d eaten 30 hot dogs.

JP: Do you remember what was going through your head when you’re watching him halfway through the contest break the existing record?

GS: I do. I was saying this is not necessary. I don’t even get this. It’s not possible. And I remember telling his translator slash ring man, he doesn’t have to eat anymore. He can stop.

JF: Other competitors actually stopped eating just to watch him because what was happening on stage was so astounding.

2001 CBS2: The Americans just dropped their dogs in awe. The clear cut wiener: Kobayashi. Who inhaled 50 hot dogs in 12 minutes, shattering the world record.

JP: Kobayashi may seem like a dark horse, but he’d won eating contests before in Japan, which already had its own competitive eating scene. In other words, while Americans were still figuring this whole thing out, Kobayashi had been training for this.

JF: What was happening before your eyes when you watched Kobayashi eat was something that obviously took an extraordinary amount of training of some kind.  I think for the first time, you know people could seriously view it as, however you might think of it, some kind of undeniable athletic activity. And it didn’t necessarily need to stay a joke. And that was when everything changed.

JP: If Kobayashi was an athlete, his arena was the Nathan’s stage. His equipment was the humble hot dog, and his sport was competitive eating. ESPN started airing the Nathan’s contest, and sports columnists compared baseball upsets to Kobayashi’s historic sweep. By 2005, George’s federation had launched a league with 100 eating events — there was an Entenmann’s Thanksgiving pie eating contest, and a waffle eating contest sponsored by Waffle House. Brands across the country were realizing that this wasn’t just a good marketing opportunity, this had become an American pastime.

JF: This is a country that loves to be entertained, and that loves to turn spectacle into you know profitable entertainment. And I think in America a lot of us have our own sort of hangups with food, right? We have anxiety about what we eat and when we eat it and how we eat it and how much of it we eat. I think we also have this idea of ourselves as this country with a kind of insatiable appetite for whatever, for resources, for food, for power. And when you watch an eating contest, the eaters are providing this kind of performance of that appetite. And it completely throws all of the anxieties and taboos out the window…and there’s something, I don’t know, there’s something kind of compelling about that.

JP: Kobayashi and his 50 hot dogs had turned competitive eating into an American tradition. If the fourth of July needed a sport to match the mood—think fireworks exploding, chests painted in red, white and blue—this was it. But it also meant that every year, a non-American was winning an American sports contest on the Fourth of July. For George, that was another opportunity. He wanted to win the mustard belt back.

CH: That story, when we come back.

ACT III

CH: We’re back. Kobayashi was the king of competitive eating. He’d popularized a sport that was the perfect match for that all-American love of excess, food, and spectacle. But is a sport even really a sport if there’s no real competition? As Julia found out, Kobayashi needed a rival.

JP: And the audience needed an underdog. Just like we love a good rags to riches American dream story, we love to believe in the normal guy who, out of nowhere, gives the reigning champ a run for his money. And that’s just what we got when a San José State college student stepped into the ring.

JOEY CHESTNUT: I guess I first heard about competitive eating early 2000s when Kobayashi started winning.

JP: This is Joey Chestnut. You might remember him as the world renowned competitive eater from the 2019 contest. But back in 2005, he’d never competed before. And if it weren’t for Kobayashi, he probably never would have.

JC: Because, cause I, I the, I’ll be honest, I’ve always kind of battled with my weight. I love to eat and, and society always said it was something that, uh, you should be ashamed of. You should be able to, you shouldn’t eat like that. And he was the one competitive eater at the time that treated it like a sport. I couldn’t get up on stage and, and do a eating contest and have it be like the Stand By Me, uh, blueberry pie scene. I didn’t want to be made fun of, I wanted it to be looked at like a kind of serious competition.

JP: Kobayashi had done that. He’d taken it from the tongue in cheek sport of George’s dreams to a legitimate competitive event. So Chestnut decided to take the plunge. His first attempt: a lobster eating contest. (keep in mind, he’d never eaten a lobster before in his life)

JP: So how did that first contest go?

JC: Oh my God, the first contest was terrible. I remember just being like, having this deer in the headlights look. I’m naturally a really shy guy and I’d never eaten in front of people fast. And I had never eaten a lot of food in front of people. It was always in front of family members or…after a night out. And it was just like, it was weird having people yelling at you to keep going.

JP: But that was something he could get used to, because he was naturally good at this — he got third place on his first try. After that, he was hooked, and he had his eye on the granddaddy of eating events: the Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog eating contest.

JC: Competitive eating…it’s weird, it’s a fringe sport…but not on the 4th of July. On the 4th of July, it owns ESPN. That contest, there’s so many little things add up to that contest being amazing.

JP: Nathan’s was the first, the biggest, and the best. And ever since Kobayashi’s record breaking 2001 performance there, no one had even come close to beating him.

JC: The other competitive eaters, the American eaters, they told me he was unbeatable. And this is the only time in my life where people were saying, ‘Oh, you’re doing something that can’t be done.’

JP: In 2006, the Associated Press called Joey Chestnut “the great American hope at reclaiming the mustard yellow belt.” And when the 2007 contest rolled around, the stakes felt higher than ever.

JP: Did you think that that year would be different?

JC: Oh yeah…and even in 2006 I thought I had a pretty good shot at winning. And, uh, when the finals came, I don’t know what happened cause I, I got nervous whatnot, I still get nervous on 4th of July. But I was slow. I ended up doing 52 that year and I knew I was capable of 57, 58. In 2007, I qualified with 59 and a half.

JP: 59 and a half was a new world record. It was more than even Kobayashi had ever eaten, and just two weeks after that qualifier, Kobayashi started complaining of a jaw injury.

JC: I never really believed it.

JP: Did you think that he was scared of being beaten?

JC: Oh, absolutely. And that’s alright, he set himself up for that from the beginning, because he told people he had a special stomach, so what else is he supposed to do when, when he sees that he’s gonna lose? He’s still an awesome eater, he’s just beatable. He’s a human eater

JP: Meanwhile, Chestnut was committed to an intense training program: keeping a food journal, drinking a gallon and a half of water every morning.

JC: I had really started figuring out my cycle method, leading up to every, every practice I would, I would stop eating solid food for about a day, day and a half. And I’d go into every practice completely empty.

JP: The day of the contest came. It was July 4th, 2007. George’s voice boomed over the loudspeakers. Chestnut and the other competitors, dressed in white Nathan’s tees, prepared to make their entrance.

JP: Put me in your mindset, walking onto that stage…What’s going through your head?

JC: Oh, it’s a…I was excited. I was amped up. My intro song back then was Baba O’Riley teenage wasteland. It was, it was just a great, like, this is great, like buildup.

[TEENAGE WASTELAND]

2007 ESPN: Contender, Joey Chestnut! And listen to that crowd, they definitely want to see the mustard belt come back to the US.

JC: The crowd was so loud, it’s something you do not imagine like growing up, like most athletes, they knew where they’re going to be an athlete when they’re like five. And I didn’t know I was going to be a competitive eater until I was 21. And then I didn’t really know how big it could be and with rivalry that more people were watching them ever had before. And, and I just never imagined that many people yelling and cheering for a contest.

2007 ESPN: Chestnut comes back into the lead, Kobayashi falls to second…this would be the greatest moment in the history of American sports if Chestnut can bring the belt home to Coney Island, it’s been gone for 9 years…and now here’s the countdown to the championship, it’s neck and neck. 10, 9, 8….

JC: On TV it looks like it was closer, but I knew early on that I, I was, I had a three or four hot dog lead the pretty much the entire thing.

2007 ESPN: George: Ladies and gentlemen of Brooklyn and the world. In second place with 63 hot dogs and buns, Takeru Kobayashi.
ESPN: Chestnut has done it!
George: However, in first place, with 66 hot dogs and buns, Joey Chestnut!

2007 awards:
Reporter: Joey, to win this competition in your home nation, how does it make you feel to hold up that flag?
JC: Oh it feels great, it’s been held by Kobayashi for six years, it’s about time it comes back to America on the fourth of July.

JP: Did it feel like the victory was a personal victory or was it also national?

JC: For me, it was very personal. It was, it was a, it was a personal rivalry or just a goal. And…it wasn’t a US versus Japan. It was more, more just bring it back to America, that that’s what lot of people would say, bring it back to America and uh, and w which is, it’s weird that it sounds weird now but uh, back then, it didn’t sound weird at all. It was…being proud.

GS: Joey Chestnut is a national treasure. He’s a national hero.

JP: George Shea again. He draped an American flag across Joey’s shoulders while crowning him winner that day.

GS: He represents the 4th of July. And when I introduce him, it is always, he is freedom itself, you know, and he will fight and he will fight and he will fight until the very dome of heaven collapses and the black avalanche of night, pours down around us, he will fight because he is the champion of the world. Joey Chestnut!

JS: [laughs] George, George is a poet, and he’s a wordsmith…sometimes he says things and I don’t even know what they mean. They just sound good and I mean, I’m a normal guy that likes to eat. I’m not extremely fit. I’m not extremely fat. I’m just, I look like a normal, normal American guy. And, uh, I think a lot of people can see a little bit of themselves in me maybe.

JP: And whether George’s grand commentary masks that fact, it’s sort of the point. Part of what makes Chestnut popular is what makes competitive eating popular. Anybody could do it.

JC: Being able to relate with, with the athlete and the people in the field, makes it a, a different kind of appeal.//I’ve never really slam dunked a basketball, but everybody knows what it’s like to eat a lot of something. So they can see the struggle when we’re, when we’re starting to get full, when we’re eating as fast as we can. Even if it’s gross and they have a hard time watching, they can relate.

JP: And for Nathan’s, that’s what makes this relatively unappetizing activity appealing for the brand. It’s the everyman’s sport, and they’re the ones running the show.

GS: It positions Nathan’s not only along with America on the 4th of July, it positions Nathans as America on the 4th of July. Joey Chestnut as freedom, as America, right.

JF: It was an advertising ploy for Nathan’s.

JP: Jason Fagone, competitive eating author again.

JF: But it was an advertising ploy that did hook into these very iconic American things, right, you have the hot dog, you have the hot dog on the fourth of July, you have Coney Island, you have the boardwalk, you know you have New York, the initial sort of passage point of millions of immigrants who came to this country looking for a better life and often sort of transforming our own foodways in the process. So they took all of these American things that were sort of floating out there and they kind of mashed them into a ball, and they created this new american institution out of it.

JP: This fourth of July is going to look a little different. For Nathan’s, that means no Coney Island boardwalk. No screaming crowds. Because of the coronavirus, Joey Chestnut and his competitors will sit in an air-conditioned room, six feet apart, scarfing down hot dogs while cameras broadcast live to ESPN.

And George will be there too. Barking at the contestants while they down dog after dog. It may not be pretty, but then again, the contest never really was to begin with. He’s going to make it work because as long as there’s an America to celebrate, it has to be celebrated with hot dogs. Or at least, that’s what George would have you believe.

CREDITS

CH: This episode was produced by Julia “Pickle Chip” Press, with “Frankly,” Sarah Wyman and me, Charlie “Bring Your Own Buns” Herman. Special thanks to Claire “Condiment Queen” Banderas. You also heard reporting that aired on CBS2.

So, as summer gets underway, what’s your favorite all-American cookout foods—the mighty hot dog? The big juicy burger? And what are the brands that make it special? Share them with us on Facebook, Twitter or over email: btyb@insider.com.

Our editor is Micaela “Hold the Relish” Blei, and Bill “The Meat-Grinder” Moss is our sound engineer — he is literally how the sausage gets made.

Music from Audio Network. Casey Holford and John DeLore composed our theme. Dan Bobkoff is the podfather. Sarah Wyman is our showrunner.

Brought to You By is a production of Insider Audio.

JP: I have to ask you, do you think a hot dog is a sandwich?

BK: Yes, it’s a stupid question. I’m not saying you’re stupid, forgive me. No but of course it’s a sandwich, just because it has a hinge on the bottom doesn’t mean it’s not a sandwich. I don’t know what this is about!

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