It doesn’t get much more American than a hot dog. For many, the thought of this culinary delight conjures up images of baseball games, lazy summer afternoons, fairs and festivals.
We celebrate the hot dog with contests and even give it its own day. There’s the annual Fourth of July Nathan’s Famous International Hot Dog Eating Contest, which according to the BizBash team had just over one million viewers in 2017. And National Hot Dog Day is on July 18, reports Days of the Year.
But how did the hot dog get to where it’s at today? How did it earn its rightful place as an undeniable staple in American cuisine?
To find out, let’s dive into hot dog history and chart the path of this American favorite.
Where it Originated
There’s some debate as to precisely where the sausage originated. Alexia Wuff explains in Culture Trip that it was mentioned as early as 700 BC in Homer’s Odyssey.
But she also points out that some historians place it more around the first century AD when Nero’s cook Gaius discovered that the empty intestines of a roasted pig could be used as casings for ground meat and spices.
Of course this was still a long way from the modern hot dog that we know and love today.
Stephanie Butler at History.com writes that the modern hot dog can be traced back to 1484 — just a few years before Columbus embarked on his travels to the New World. She says that both Vienna, Austria and Frankfurt, Germany claim to be the birthplace of the hot dog.
While the early history is open to interpretation, most historians agree that the American hot dog as we know it was first sold by German immigrants in New York City from pushcarts in the 1860s.
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council team concurs saying hot dogs were initially sold along with milk rolls and sauerkraut. They add that in 1871, a German baker named Charles Feltman opened up the first official hot dog stand in Coney Island.
So this is about the time that the hog dog started working its way into the hearts of Americans.
The Columbian Exposition: Birthplace of the Bun
The Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 saw millions of people from all over the world descend upon America. Patrick T. Reardon at the Chicago Tribune says that over the 179 day event, total attendance figures were in excess of 27.5 million, at about 150,000 people a day. Of course everyone needed to be fed, ideally with food that was quick to prepare, convenient and inexpensive.
The National Hot Dog and Sausage Council references hot dog historian Bruce Kraig, Ph.D., who states that this is likely when we first saw vendors serving dachshund sausages (as they were called then) with bread, which is what we now know as a hot dog in a bun.
And this makes sense. Hordes of people could grab a hot dog and eat while on the go.
The Hot Dog Goes Mainstream
Nathan’s Famous Hot Dogs all began with Polish immigrant, Nathan Handwerker, who immigrated to the United States in 1912, writes Jeff Wells at Mental Floss. After working at Feltman’s restaurant at Coney Island for a few years, Handwerker started his own hot dog stand and proceeded to undercut his former employer by selling his hot dogs for just five cents — half of what Feltman sold them for.
On top of that, Handwerker used a special recipe from the old country, which incorporated a secret blend of spices passed down from his wife’s grandmother. The combination of a cheaper product and delicious taste translated into a major success. By 1920, Nathan’s Famous sold 75,000 hot dogs each weekend.
This is around the time that hot dogs really started to became mainstream. By the time the Great Depression rolled around, they were known all over the US. After that, the popularity only continued to surge with Nathan’s Famous stating that President Roosevelt served Nathan’s hot dogs to the King and Queen of England in 1939.
Baseball and Hot Dogs
Hot dogs and baseball with forever be linked to one another. But how did this come to be?
The What’s Cooking America team explains that there are a few potential scenarios. One of which is that the bar owner and owner of the St. Louis Browns (now the Baltimore Orioles), Chris Von der Ahe introduced sausages to go with his popular beer in 1893.
Another story is that a concessionaire named Harry Stevens who normally sold ice cream decided to switch products on a chilly April day during a New York Giants (now the San Francisco Giants) game and opted for dachshund sausages. He exclaimed that “They’re red hot!” as a way to entice customers, which could partially account for how the hot dog got one of its names.
Susannah Chen at First We Feast references hot dog enthusiast and author of The Joy of Ballpark Food: From Hot Dogs to Haute Cuisine, Bennett Jacobstein who says, “Harry Stevens was the Babe Ruth of ballpark vending. He was the first one to come up with the business model. Before him, in the 19th century, there weren’t any organized concessions; it was probably someone in the neighborhood who just happened to go into the game and sell.”
While no one is entirely sure of the origin of hot dogs in ballparks, one thing is for sure — people love them.
In fact, baseball fans devoured nearly 19 million hot dogs in major league ballparks in 2017, Oscar Rousseau at Global Meat News writes. And if you’re looking for the best ballpark hot dogs, Kiri Tannenbaum and Hannah Doolin at Delish created a list, with some of the more notables including:
- The Arizona Diamondbacks Chicken Enchilada Dog with queso blanco, enchilada sauce, pico de gallo, black olives, sour cream and tortilla strips.
- The Detroit Tigers Coney Dog with coney sauce (beanless chili spiced with cumin) and sweet, chopped onions.
- The Chicago Cubs Wrigley Dog with tomato, onion, pickles, neon relish, sports peppers, celery salt and yellow mustard.
The ubiquity of hot dogs and ballparks has definitely been a key factor in their popularization as a whole.
Fairs, Circuses and Other Sporting Events
Besides baseball, hot dogs became staple concessions at a host of other events including fairs, circuses, horse races and football games just to name a few.
Ed Komenda writes about this trend in the Las Vegas Sun saying that although it’s humble, the hot dog is the ultimate comfort food for many gamblers and sports nuts. There’s a mad rush to secure a dog before sporting events as well as at halftime. And this is something that’s unlikely to change any time soon.
The Sports Management Degrees team even created an infographic outlining some statistics that show just how popular hot dogs are. According to their research, the hot dog is the number one food at sporting events with 63 percent of people saying that they can’t live without it.
Furthermore, 80 percent of sports fans have eaten a hot dog at a sporting event within the past year or will eat one at a sporting event this year.
Still an Iconic Food
Food trends come and go, and there’s always something new and sexy that’s sweeping the country. But seldom does anything have the lasting appeal of the good old fashioned hot dog.
So just what is it about meat in its tubular form that has remained iconic in America for nearly 150 years?
Sara Roncero-Menendez at The Huffington Post says a hot dog is the ultimate multi-tasking food, perfect for eating on the go without spilling all over your clothes. Hot dogs can also be integrated with a myriad of other foods and cuisines, adding everything from BBQ and bacon to jalapenos and coleslaw. It’s the perfect platform, the team at CBS News writes, for experimenting with regional variations. They go so far as to call it a symbol of America.
Besides being delicious, a big part of the hot dog’s appeal is its condiment customizability. Whether it’s piled high with the works or simply topped with a bit of mustard, you can tailor it exactly to your liking.
There’s also the nostalgia factor. The Marketplace Weekend Staff reports that Americans eat around 20 billion hot dogs during the course of a year, with 150 million being consumed on the Fourth of the July alone. So it should come as no surprise that many adults have fond memories of eating them as a child. Sinking your teeth into one today can still capture just a little bit of that childhood magic.