What would Nathan Handwerker —the Polish immigrant who invested a $300 loan to open a nickel hot dog stand on Coney Island in 1916 — think of Nathan's Famous Fourth of July International Hot Dog Eating Contest in 2019?
Would he delight in the crowd of people wearing hot dog-shaped hats? Would he marvel at the gladiators of Major League Eating decimating hundreds of hot dogs (made with his wife’s secret spices)? Surely he’d shudder at the water-soaked buns. Would he puff up with pride as his name was broadcast all across the world on ESPN? Or maybe he’d just shrug it off as a carnival-like marketing stunt and the logical end point of his journey in capitalism.
At some point, simply enjoying a hot dog on the Fourth of July wasn’t enough for us, and we collectively turned to a new tradition of watching Major League Eaters battling for the biggest binge and tracking the DPM's (dogs per minute) on ESPN’s special hot dog counter. According to the Major League Eating website, ESPN’s broadcast of the contest has generated a higher rating than any Major League Baseball telecast on July 4 in the United States.
Legend has it that four immigrants, trying to prove their patriotism, competed in a hot dog-eating contest at the original Nathan’s stand in 1916. But Nathan’s first recorded hot dog contest took place in 1972. The winner, Jason Schechter, ate 14 hot dogs and buns. Last year, Joey “Jaws” Chestnut consumed 74 hot dogs and buns.
This year, as we approach the “Super Bowl” of Major League Eating, rounds of qualifying contests take place all over the country. One of the qualifiers takes place at Dutch Wonderland on June 2.
We spoke to George “The Smorgasbord” Chiger, a ski lift mechanic from Pocono Pines and the 18th ranked eater in the world, according to the Major League Eater rankings. He’s the favorite to win this year’s local qualifier. Last year, Chiger put away 25 hot dogs and buns at Coney Island;this year, he’s aiming for 50.
What do you remember about last year's event?
I think there might be like 40,000 people in the crowd. I remember (the announcer saying) “bigger than life.” I’m not a small guy. I’m (6 feet 7 inches) and 340 pounds. I'm a lot larger than most of the eaters. The crowd was insane. What an experience to be onstage with all the great eaters and try to consume all the hot dogs we could on America’s holiday.
How do you prepare for these events? I'm imagining you sitting in front of a poster of Joey Chestnut with a giant plate of hot dogs and "Eye of the Tiger" playing in the background.
I go down and I order like 35 hot dogs from Sherry’s Place in Pocono Summit. It's a little hot dog trailer down the street from my house. They rock. Me and my mentor sit there and order up our hot dogs and practice once a week. We try to increase our hot dog numbers every week for the three months leading up to the Fourth of July.
Do you think you can beat Joey Chestnut?
Today, I know I couldn’t touch him. Maybe next year. My goal is to get to 50 this year. I would happy to do that because I could be in the Top 10 people that ever consumed 50 in the competition.
Have you studied Joey’s techniques?
I've taken a lot of Joey’s techniques over the years of reading up on him in articles. And I work on technique and capacity every week. There's a lot of science behind it. We dunk the buns in the water to get the air out of them. So they take up less space in the stomach and it’s also easier to consume a soggy bun than a dry bun.
Is it gross eating those soggy buns?
It is. But isn’t it gross eating 30 hot dogs in 10 minutes?
What other techniques do you use?
I separate the hot dogs from buns. It makes it easier to dunk your bun, also. When I first started I didn’t do that, I ate the bun and hot dog together. I also try to eat two hot dogs at a time. You keep the mouth full and keep telling yourself to swallow. It’s mind over matter. Five minutes in, you could be at 20 hot dogs in and your body is like “Stop!” You've got to push yourself. It’s very mental.
Can you talk about your mentor?
Yeah, Larell “The Real Deal” Marie Mele. She’s local to Pocono Pines. She just qualified last week to go to Coney. It’s the ninth year in a row for her to go. I think that’s a record for a woman competitor. I ran into her locally and she was talking about eating hot dogs. She said she could eat more than me and I laughed. I finally went out and started training with her to help her proceed to Coney. She talked me into trying to qualify and I’ve been hooked ever since.
What other food-eating contests have you participated in?
I went to Canada for poutine (gravy, fries and cheese curds) and I ended up finishing in fifth place with 11 and a half pounds of poutine in 10 minutes. I ate 12 pounds of strawberry shortcake in Long Island last year at the Strawberry Shortcake Festival. I ate eight pounds of shrimp cocktail last year in eight minutes. We did bratwurst in Cincinnati. I ate 38 brats in eight minutes. I’ve consumed 132 wings in 12 minutes. One hundred thirty-nine Donettes — the little powdered sugar doughnuts — in eight minutes. Twenty-one cheeseburgers in 10 minutes up in Massachusetts. I ate 85 croquettes in eight minutes. Joey ate 185.
Can you still enjoy a hot dog after the contest?
With the amount of hot dogs I consume through practice and qualifiers, I really enjoy a Nathan's hot dog, but I kind of slow down on my intake during the off-season.
What happens after the contest?
I usually go out for some sweets afterwards or a couple beers. It’s just another day. I walk off the stage and drink beer and consume more food.
Are there any health concerns?
My family doctor just watches my numbers and makes sure everything is good. So I go for routine checkups. And I’ve actually, since I met my mentor and started training and practicing, I’ve lost 80 pounds in competitive eating. It speeds my metabolism up. Last year I think I ate 630-plus hot dogs in three months and lost five pounds.