Food For Thought

There’s Jewish History Behind America’s Favorite Summer Food and the Contest That Celebrates It

There’s Jewish History Behind America’s Favorite Summer Food and the Contest That Celebrates It

Last Fourth of July, more than 20,000 people showed up on Coney Island in Brooklyn, New York, to see Joey “Jaws” Chestnut chomp down a world-record 74 hot dogs (and buns) in just 10 minutes to win his 11th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest, while more than 1 million viewers from around the country watched on ESPN. The competition, which has become must-see holiday tradition for many Americans, has some interesting—and Jewish!—history behind it.

From Frankfurter to Hotdog

Historians say the first hot dog—150 million of which are now consumed every 4th of July alone—evolved from Germany’s frankfurter sausage. It was introduced to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, when German and Eastern European Jews began arriving in cities like New York City and Chicago. To make a living, many of these immigrants became street food vendors in the working-class neighborhoods where they resided—selling hot dogs because they were inexpensive, filling and easy to transport.

Birth of the Kosher

With many Jews observing the kashrut laws they practiced in their former countries, it didn’t take long for butchers to develop a kosher beef version from the previously non-kosher U.S. hot dog recipe. Soon after, in 1905, Russian-born Jewish butcher Theodore Krainin founded the Hebrew National Kosher Sausage Factory on New York’s Lower East Side. The factory prided itself on abiding by Jewish dietary laws and high-quality food safety standards. Hebrew National’s slogan, “We answer to a higher authority,” is also a reference to the company’s Jewish beliefs, and has been used since 1965.

Rising to the Mainstream

Kosher hot dogs quickly became a hit around the country. But it wasn’t until 1916 when hot dogs really became a cultural juggernaut thanks to the efforts of Nathan Handwerker, a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Making $5 a week and sleeping on the kitchen floor of the Coney Island hot dog stand he worked at, Handwerker managed to raise $300 to open his very own Coney Island shop, which is now known around the world as Nathan’s Famous. The hot dogs were so popular that former first lady Eleanor Roosevelt served them to England’s King George VI and his queen.

A Legendary Contest

Legend has it that on July 4, 1916, four immigrants gathered at the original Nathan’s Famous stand to take part in a hot dog eating contest to see who was most patriotic. Today, tens of thousands travel here to watch competitive food eaters devour as many hot dogs as possible in 10 minutes. Here are some facts from the annual contest:

  • Reigning champion Joey Chestnut holds the world record for most hot dogs eaten at 74. That’s equivalent to about 16 pounds!
  • Chestnut consumed more than 12,000 calories in less than 10 minutes when he set the record.
  • Many competitors prepare for the contest by stretching out their stomachs by drinking gallons of milk or water very quickly, or by downing lots of filling, fibrous foods like watermelon and oatmeal.

Watch last year’s hot dog eating contest before tuning in this year!

Combine your love for hot dogs with your love of challah. Click here for the recipe!

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