A plaque remaining from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem.

Above, a 1934 plaque from the Big Apple Night Club at West 135th Street and Seventh Avenue in Harlem. Discarded as trash in 2006.

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Entry from May 11, 2005
Competitive Eating Contests
Eating contests have been held in New York City since at least the 19th century. A pie-eating match was held in Brooklyn in in August 1886.

Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest is held at Coney Island every July 4th. Nathan's sometimes claims that the contest began in 1916, but it officially began in 1972 as a publicity stunt.


Nathan's Hot Dog Eating Contest
JULY 4TH - CONEY ISLAND, NEW YORK

22 August 1886, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, pg. 2:
PIE EATING contests are not so popular as the ingenious gentleman who started them hoped they would be. I attended the first pie eating match of importance held in New York, on Third avenue, a few years ago. It was called a tournament, and a fair sized crowd had collected to see it. Six men and two half grown boys sat in a row on a small stage with their hands behind them and expressions of more or less embarrassment on their faces. A negro was among them. He smiled with a futile effort to appear at ease and the revelation in the way of mouth that accompanied the maneuver, made him a prime favorite in the pools at once. The others were asked to smile by the spectators but they did not respond. The conditions were simple; a long board table with eight divisions made by nailing as many sticks across the table at regular intervals was placed in front of the contestants with four apple pies before each man. The one who ate his pies first was to receive the munificent prize of three dollars.

The others were allowed to keep their pie. When the word was given, the men ducked their heads forward and ravenously attacked the pie. It was not a refined spectacle nor was the match close, for the negro won in a canter. Before the others had got themselves into working shape he had finished and was
waiting for more. It took the heart out of the others, and they stopped incontinently and looked on with lowering faces while the champion received his reward.

I was reminded of all this by meeting the negro in the office of a high railroad official a few days ago. He is stenographer and private secretary to the railroad manager, receiving the very comfortable salary of $30 a week. His master says he's as quick, accurate and industrious as any man in the company, and invariably good natured and polite. The circumstances of the man have changed, but his smile has not. It is as vast and cheerful as ever. He hasn't been spelled by success either, for I was anxious to see whether I was not right in identifying him with the pie eater, and I leaned over his desk on my way out and asked him if he had ever been on the stage. "Once," he said, revealing the smile suddenly in all its bewildering ramifications, "and once only. It wasn't a cake walk, but a pie eating match, and (proudly) I won it."

3 February 1883, Washington (DC) Post, pg. 2:
In view of the quail-eating contest in progress in New York, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch challenges the world to produce a man who can read a brace of editorials from the St. Louis Republican every day for thirty days, the articles to be read in a firm tone and in the presence of witnesses.

22 July 1883, Washington Post, "The American Pie," pg. 7:
From the New York Morning Journal.
(...)
Pie-eaters have become famous. Not long since in one of the walking matches one of the pedestrians boldly proclaimed himself as the pie-eater. He was partial to custard pies. Pie-eating contests are frequently reported, and not merely in the New England towns but throughout the country. The pie devourers think nothing of eating at one sitting a dozen or eighteen pies. Custard pies are generally eaten at these contests, as it has no top crust but we should think that the sodden bottom crust would be a more serious objection.

27 February 1884, Chester (PA) Times, pg. 3?, col. 5:
Pie Eaters on the Stage.
Another grand entertainment will be given in National Hall this evening by the Kickapoo Indians. The features of the evening will be a grand pie eating match which everybody should see. The admission will be the same as usual, ten cents, and those who want good seats had better come early.

22 October 1885, Waukesha (WI) Freeman, pg. 5?, col. 4:
Pie-eating Contest - Paul View, 1st; Charlie Lewis, 2nd; Ernest Sweet, 3rd.

12 June 1886, Trenton (NJ) Times, pg.1, col. 2:
A summer night festival and pie-eating match are to be held in the Opera House this evening, by Dayton Camp, No. 5.

20 November 1887, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, pg. 16:
Arthur Kraft won the sack race, potato race and pie eating match.

24 March 1889, Brooklyn (NY) Daily Eagle, pg. 9:
A GREAT PIE EATING CONTEST
Mentioning the railroad pie brings to mind the story of a pie eating
contest which is recounted by the hero of the affair. He is a gambler hero named Burlingame, but he is besy known by the sobriquet of Appetite Bill. Almost every sport in the country knows him, and anyone who has ever seen him at dinner knows how well he deserves his nickname. Bill prides himself upon one gastronomic feat which gave him the championship as pie biter and by which he broke
many betters, (,,,)

29 June 1900, Fort Wayne (IN) News, pg.4?, col. 5:
In addition to these events there will be a balloon ascension, afternoon and night, band concert afternoon and night, a base ball game, a tug of war, afternoon and night, and a pie-eating contest, and everything can be seen free of charge.

New York (NY) Post
The history of Nathan’s hot dog contest is baloney
By Associated Press July 1, 2016 | 1:02pm
NEW YORK — Nathan’s Famous may be in the hot dog business, but for decades they’ve been peddling a whopper.
(...)
“Our objective was to take a photograph and get it in the New York newspaper,” acknowledges Wayne Norbitz, who served as president of Nathan’s for 26 years and still sits on the board of directors.

Norbitz is careful to say that the company’s source for the 1916 story is “legend has it.” He says the first contest actually happened in 1972, and the early chowdowns were all small, sparsely attended affairs.
Posted by Barry Popik
New York CityFood/Drink • Wednesday, May 11, 2005 • Permalink