The celebrated Nathan’s hot dog contest, the granddaddy of all competitive-eating spectacles, will drop from 12 minutes to just 10 this year — and traditionalists are outraged.
The sudden change in the so-called World Cup of Eating was not publicly announced, but appears in a vaguely worded, three-paragraph item on the Major League Eating Web site. The note said the change for the upcoming July 4 contest comes after the discovery of a trove of “numerous old items and ephemera” near the Nathan’s stand at the historic corner of Surf and Stillwell avenues in Coney Island.
“Some random notes and contest-related scribblings were apparently unearthed at Nathan’s,” said George Shea, chairman of Major League Eating.
Shea allowed The Brooklyn Paper an exclusive look at the notations, which were in a lady’s neat handwriting scrawled on a program from the 23rd annual convention of the Optical Society of the State of New York, which was held at the Hotel St. George in Brooklyn Heights in 1918.
“Handwerker’s frankfurter rules,” the scribbles state, a reference to Nathan Handwerker, who opened Nathan’s in Coney Island in 1916 and oversaw the celebrated first hot-dog-eating contest that year, which, according to legend was won by Jim Mullen with 13 hot dogs and buns. Last year’s winner set a record with 66 HDBs in 12 minutes.
But according to the scribbles on the Optical Society program, Handwerker’s “rules” in the early years consisted of a noon contest that lasted “10 minutes.”
That said, it is unclear whether the “rules” were scribbled on the program in 1918 or years later by someone using the program as scrap paper. One tantalizing hint, however, is a second note that lists all the newspapers that needed to be contacted with the contest’s final results: the New York Times, the New York Evening Post, and the Brooklyn Standard Union.
The Standard Union folded in the 1930s.
Shea said he didn’t know the date of the scribblings, but said the very discovery of the document led to another astounding revelation.
“We put together a team of experts to determine the validity of the scribblings and then, through the use of what I believe scholars call ‘a Google search,’ we discovered a New York Times article from 1986 that referred to the contest as taking 10 minutes.”
Major League Eating President Richard Shea — George’s brother — said the Times article, coupled with the scribblings, provided compelling evidence that the contest’s traditional length was actually 10 minutes, not the 12 minutes that have been the standard for at least two decades (see chart).
“It had David Dunlap’s byline, and he’s a credible reporter,” Richard Shea said. “Plus, it mentioned that the winner ate his hot dogs and buns, so clearly he got the details correct.”
When contacted by The Brooklyn Paper, Dunlap probed the recesses of his knife-sharp mind and declared that his 1986 article was accurate.
“Absent any credible evidence to the contrary, such as a correction in a subsequent issue of the Times, my operating assumption is that the  story is correct. We take such care in reporting such things accurately, you know.”
The decision to put the contest on a diet is already being condemned by traditionalists — even though the tradition may indeed be 10 minutes.
“Records have to mean something,” said longtime contest watcher — and former Frankster — Lawrence Gardner. “That’s always the talk around July 4: ‘Will [Takeru] Kobayashi break his record again? Can a human body really eat 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes?’ It’s always about those 12 minutes.”
Fellow fan Kurt Hirsch echoed that thought: “Perhaps Major League Baseball should start playing seven-inning games.”
Reigning world champ Joey “Jaws” Chestnut, who downed 66 hot dogs and buns in 12 minutes last July 4, said the change will have profound implications on the man-eat-dog world of gustatory gluttony.
Indeed, Chestnut, surged past six-time champ Takeru Kobayashi only in the last few minutes of the contest.
“I think it’s a ridiculous change,” the champ said, via cellphone from his home near San Jose, Calif.
But he did not think the shorter format would affect his game.
“Every eater can get to his capacity in 10 minutes, or in even less time,” he said. “I’ll just have to get to my capacity faster.”
That, perhaps, is exactly what the Shea brothers should be worried about, said one eater, who requested anonymity because he is still active on a circuit that includes contests in lobster rolls, ice cream, jalapeno peppers and pan-seared cow brains.
“The contest is ultimately about marketing Nathan’s, and there have been too many close calls lately.”
True, even the great Kobayashi has exhibited reflexes contrary to swallowing twice in his illustrious career, most recently last year, when he appeared to vomit up bits of hot dog and bun, only to re-ingest them.
Some saw it as the mark of a true champion. Others saw it as disgusting.
“That’s the last image that Nathan’s wants on TV screens all over the country — people spitting up their delicious hot dogs,” the eater said.
But George Shea said that the two-minute trim would not affect the contest in this regard.
“That’s not the issue!” he said. “The issue is history, and the preponderance of the evidence now suggests that the contest was always 10 minutes.
“It’s like the Constitution,” he added. “Are you a strict constructionist or not?”
Shea was asked whether he was.
“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s a strict constructionist — is that Scalia? I’m not sure. But on this, I am a strict constructionist.”
Shea may have to eat those words. Two earlier Times articles, one from 1972 and another from 1974, referred to three-and-a-half-minute contests that were won by eaters who downed 14 and 10 hot dogs and buns respectively.