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Nathan's Famous Hotdogs
Trying a Nathan's Famous hotdog for the first time
Nathan's Famous is a hotdog brand with the tagline "The Flavor of New York." I'm not sure you could accurately capture the flavor of New York, but if you could I certainly wouldn't want to taste it.
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If “the flavor of New York” is what I smell while walking down the sidewalk every day, it would probably taste like:
Excrement (mostly dog, but sometimes human)
Dead fish in the trash pile outside a Greek restaurant
Assorted mystery smells (mostly bad)
According to Wikipedia, Nathan's Famous began back in 1916 (back when the flavor of New York was horse manure, soot, and chamber pot splashings) by a Jewish-Polish immigrant named Nathan Handwerker and His Wife, Ida, in Coney Island. Nathan sold his hotdogs for a nickel each and took pride in the fact that his hotdogs "were not made from pork or horsemeat." Nathan even erected a sign in his store which read “No horsemeat!”
Eventually Nathan's son, Murray Handwerker, took over the business. It quickly became clear that Murray had a knack for marketing and ambitions of global expansion, but by 1972 Murray was facing mounting pressure to differentiate the Nathan's Famous brand and stand out from the competition. After all, being horsemeat-free wasn't as impressive as it was back in the early 20th century. After a good bit of soul searching and brainstorming (I imagine), Murray cooked up the idea for Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest. I surmise that the concept was announced like this:
Murray: "Step right up, folks, and watch strangers shove Nathan's Famous hotdogs down their throats for money!"
The Rest of the World: "What? Why?"
Nathan: "Son, what are you doing?"
Murray: "That's right, come to Coney Island and watch contestants guzzle my dad's meat Jello until they feel sick!"
Nathan must have said something to the effect of "over my dead body," because he died two years later in 1974.
To everyone's surprise, Murray's idea worked. The contest was a hit, and this rich tradition continues today each summer on the Fourth of July in Coney Island, as hordes of spectators (mostly foreign tourists and people from Long Island) congregate to witness the event and cheer on their favorite eaters. The competition is also allegedly televised (though I have never watched it), so viewers around the world can look on in horror as contestants gorge themselves with upwards of 70 slick hotdogs in ten minutes while Nathan rolls in his grave like a hotdog at a 7-Eleven.
The competition catapulted Nathan's Famous to international fame, and you can now find Nathan's Famous franchises in several airports around the globe, including exotic locales like Panama and Afghanistan.
You may be wondering why I began researching Nathan's Famous hotdogs in the first place. It all started when I was walking to work the other day and noticed a new food cart outside my office that wasn't normally there. I wondered where it had come from and what secrets it held. It was a Nathan's Famous hotdog cart.
After beginning my research and writing this story, I felt guilty for writing about these hotdogs without ever having tried one. How could I tell the full story (much less consider myself a real New Yorker) if I hadn't even consumed a Nathan's Famous hotdog? A sense of duty, along with morbid curiosity, compelled me to buy one of these hotdogs for lunch. I walked out of my office, glanced over my shoulder to ensure no coworkers were around, then nervously made my approach. I quickly bought a hotdog and took a bite.
As you can see the hotdog I got had ketchup and mustard. I had asked the hotdog man for whatever accoutrements real New Yorkers get. Also note the weird tails at both ends. The thing at the top end looks like a whale’s tail I once saw on a whale-watching cruise in San Diego.
I thought the hotdog was... pretty good? It was like any other hotdog, though I'll admit I don't have the most refined hotdog palate because I am an adult and don't eat hotdogs often. I ate about 80% of it because the tail was freaking me out. I tried to rip it off but could not, so I tossed that part.
So now you know the full story of Nathan's Famous hotdogs. I hope that you'll appreciate that each and every Nathan's Famous hotdog is steeped in tradition. They're mainly steeped in preservatives, of course, but also in tradition. Whether you pass by on a dirty Manhattan sidewalk, in some godforsaken airport, or while enjoying a carefree Coney Island summer, know that a Nathan's Famous hotdog is a fine lunch option that is horsemeat-free.
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